I was teaching my first grade class in a building that was still under construction. Between my classroom and the boys’ bathroom was one flight of stairs. On the landing was a hole large enough for a child to fall through. Danny (not his real name) was kind of kid who would want to check out that hole and would likely fall through it. And Danny needed to use the bathroom. He’d had bathroom accidents before, so I knew the situation was urgent.
I had my class of 26 kids working, my paraprofessional not in the class, and Danny wiggling next to me. And that hole on the landing. So I called down to the office and asked if someone could come up and escort this child to the bathroom. The secretary said she was too busy and connected me to the principal. The principal, sitting in her office, said she couldn’t come. I explained that the situation was urgent, asked whether she could find anyone to come escort this child, and reiterated that this child would likely wet himself soon. She replied, and I quote, “Call his mom and tell her to bring extra clothes.” I was furious. She asked, “Is there anything else?” I said, “No.” I hung up and lined up my 26 students to escort Danny to the bathroom.
Although she was too busy to come escort this six-year-old to the bathroom, to ensure his safety, she was apparently not too busy to write me up for insubordination. She didn’t like my tone on the phone and I’d hung up without saying goodbye, or something like that. The letter was prepared for my file before the end of the school day. I attached a letter of my own the next day, as was my right, describing the conversation and quoting the principal. Surprise, surprise, she ended up not putting the letter in my file.
I’ve often quipped that I love teaching, but can’t stand schools. Feeling like this has been largely a function of the principal (or other administrative staff) of a given school. Some principals go to work every day to support teachers and children. They read and do research on best practice and work to integrate these ideas into their schools in productive ways. They do whatever they can to facilitate the teaching and learning process.
I know this because my mother is an elementary school principal, one who was a teacher for many years, and then a teacher-director, before taking on the job of principal. She scours flea markets for used books to support units of study. I’ve seen her host new teachers at her home to help them with their planning. She spends some weekends at school-organized book fairs and street fairs to raise money for enrichment activities not covered by the shrinking public school budgets. When directives from above don’t make sense, she challenges those directives and does her best to protect her teachers. She said to me, while I was writing this piece, "Classroom teachers are essential to a good school. However, without a supportive, fearless leader, even the best teacher cannot function well."
Truth be told, many terrible principals won’t care about what I’ve written below. But someone should say it, don’t you think? And if you're a principal and none of this applies to you, you’re probably one of those great principals who make teaching a pleasure. Thank you.
Lead by example.
Quick story. My co-teacher and I were doing an activity in which groups of children had been given slips with descriptors of people stranded at sea – mother, young child, old woman, school principal, teenager. They had to decide which would be placed into a rescue boat that could only fit ten of the fifteen people in trouble. We went to see how one group was doing and noticed that a student had placed the school principal slip far away from the rescue boat - and he had drawn sharks around it! We managed to suppress our laughter for long enough to ask why the child had made this decision. The child responded, “I hate that man. Once, he said ‘good morning’ to me and I nodded instead of saying ‘good morning’ back. And he yelled at me. I don’t even know him!” That one interaction had created such animosity in this child that he would never trust or interact positively with this principal again. Imagine if the principal had simply greeted this child by name on a regular basis, if he had modeled greeting instead of berating him.
Be kind and open-minded. Be fair and thoughtful. Be respectful and caring. Lead by example to create a wonderful school community.
Weigh the impact of your words.
Be careful of how you speak to staff, students and families. Your words have impact - and you want that impact to be positive, I hope. We are usually aware that language matters when we talk to children. But what we say in front of children also matters. If you need to say something that's not for a child's ears, then wait until you are away from children to say it. Children pick up and understand (or misunderstand) much more than we think. Watch how you talk to staff in front of students as well. Be sure you are modeling kind, respectful interactions.
Don't be a bully/dictator.
You know these principals, don’t you? The ones who yell and slam their fists on their desks, who call teachers and other members of staff rude names? Those principals who take joy in writing disciplinary letters to put in teachers’ files, creating anger and frustration where they should be providing guidance, building effective communication, and showing support? They threaten disciplinary action whenever someone disagrees with them, or make that person’s life hell. Those principals suck. They create an atmosphere in which staff members are constantly walking on eggshells. Respect and fear are not the same thing. Good leaders don't need to threaten their staff members. If you are a school principal who bullies the folks who work under you, just know they are all waiting with bated breath for karma to come kick your ass.
Some principals love to talk. And talk. And talk. If you’re a principal, look up every once in a while, and take note of whether people are actually listening. Are staff members avoiding making eye contact with you? Do their expressions look bored? Disinterested? Disgusted? Angry? If so, it’s probably a sign that you do more talking than listening and that nobody cares much what you’re saying. Take the time to listen to students, parents and staff – all of them. Don't just surround yourself with a small group of people who make you feel good about yourself by stroking your ego. Make sure you are accessible when people are in need of support or clarification. Stop sending out so many e-mails and dictates and memos and have a conversation instead. You might learn something. And they might be more willing to listen to you.
Get involved. Get dirty. Get to know your school community.
One evening, when parents were coming for a school open house, I was straightening up my classroom. We had two broken computers sitting on a table and I had forgotten about that area of the room, since it wasn’t used. My assistant principal came down and wasn’t happy to see the dust that had gathered behind the table, but she could see that we were working on cleaning and running short on time. She got down on her hands and knees and cleaned behind that table herself. Why does it matter? Why do I remember that? Because that simple act let us know that she was with us, part of a team trying to accomplish something. If you’re a principal, you have to be willing to get some dirt on your hands sometimes, whether by working with children or supporting staff members. Little things like this make a big difference.
Walk around your school and be aware of what’s happening. Certain principals seem never to seem to leave their offices. Good school principals actually interact with children on a daily basis. Some do this by covering recess or lunch, welcoming children in the morning, and dismissing them in the afternoons. How can you know what’s going on if you’re locked in your office? How will children know you and trust you? How can you be effective if all you ever see is your computer screen?
Some schools are larger than others and this might be a challenge in an enormous school. But do your best to know everyone by name. Get to know the teachers, students, parents/caretakers, custodians, guards – everyone who makes up your school community. Try to know more than just their names.
Support new teachers (or don't hire them!)
I once worked in a program within a school. A group of teachers and parents made school decisions, usually through discussion and consensus. The hiring committee was also made up of teachers and parents. We did a darn good job. During those years, we had a diverse, committed group of teachers who collaborated with each other and with parents to provide an excellent, responsive education to our students. Too often, these days, principals don’t consider children first when making hiring decisions.
I notice some principals hiring new teachers as often as possible. Perhaps they’re trying to save money. Perhaps they want teachers who are easily controlled. I imagine it’s a little of both. But this doesn’t work! I mean, new teachers have to work somewhere, and it’s not that hiring young teachers is bad. It’s just that you have to be willing and able to provide the support and professional development to help those teachers grow. And that takes money and time. And no school can function well if the bulk of teachers are beginners. One principal estimated that it takes most new teachers about five years to really get a handle on management and curriculum. When new teachers enter schools in which they are not sufficiently supported, they often quit teaching before those five years are up. They've been set up to fail.
“The primary driver of the exodus of early-career teachers is a lack of administrative and professional support… Quite simply, teachers don’t think the people they work for care about them or their efforts to improve.” - Susan Headden, Beginners in the Classroom.
So if you want to hire a few new teachers, go for it, but be ready to provide the necessary supports - for their benefit and for the well being of their students.
Nix the nonsensical non-negotiables.
Principals have to be aware that directives (sometimes called non-negotiables) don’t always make sense, and (from a teacher's point of view) they might not take precedence over other work happening in classrooms. I had an assistant principal (not the same one who helped clean!) who came into my classroom one half-day, while children were still in class, and demanded that I move my Word Wall down six inches. She gave me an hour to comply. She didn’t care that kids were using the Word Wall effectively and consistently, didn’t care that I was teaching. Principals, I get that sometimes these non-negotiables are handed down by your superiors. Assuming you've taught, reflect back to how you felt and how you functioned when ridiculous demands were being piled on. Instead of harassing teachers, evaluate the value of these directives and support your teachers – either by helping them comply or by having the conviction to stand up to your own supervisors.
And protect classrooms from interruptions by other people. A well-functioning, productive classroom is a delicate balance, one that can be thrown off by the slightest interruption, wasting time and causing teachers to have to reset. Just because there are loudspeakers built in to classroom walls doesn't mean you have to use them. Just because some classrooms have phones, you don't have to call. We're busy working, teaching, assessing, supporting students. And protect classrooms from other unnecessary interruptions. Ask parents and family members to make appointments to talk to teachers during the day. Don't deliver supplies in the middle of lessons. If you choose to enter a classroom, which you should on occasion, do so in a manner that doesn't stop the work that's already happening.
Know child development.
Know your age groups and know the curriculum. Just like good teachers should know their age group, so should principals. You have to know your age groups so you can evaluate curricular materials and teaching practices and know whether they're appropriate.
Build buy-in by allowing for true collaboration.
The principal is ultimately responsible for all that goes on in a school, making decisions and choices about how the school functions. The extent to which teachers are allowed to contribute to making decisions directly influences how effective implementation of a new policy or curriculum will be. Allow teachers and members to weigh-in as often as possible, even if the final decisions lies in your hands. Don't pretend to allow input and do what you had always intended. Teachers know when you're really listening and when it's just for show.
Zero tolerance for zero-tolerance policies.
Zero-tolerance policies don't work. These policies tend to be applied unfairly, and push children out of school, effectively stopping their formal education. These punitive policies also erode trust, making it harder for children to reconnect when they return to their classrooms after periods of suspension. If you want to know more, just look here, here and here.
Colorblindness and other lies.
Everyone has biases. Be aware of your biases and work to diminish them. When a person comes to you expressing concerns about bias in your school, don't respond that you treat everyone the same. It's not true. Pay attention to whom you listen to and whom you don't. Pay attention to whether the consequences you dole out to students are relatively similar for similar infractions. Pay attention to whom you place in other administrative positions, who receives promotions, and who doesn't. (Do they all look just like you?) You are in a position that allows you to challenge inequality or to perpetuate it. I hope you'll choose to challenge it.
When you're wrong, apologize and make amends.
Nobody expects you to be perfect. You are, after all, human. When you realize that you've made a mistake, or made a bad decision, do something to acknowledge that you recognize that. It will go a long way toward maintaining the all-important rapport that allows effective communication to happen.
I've seen principals build and support wonderful schools, and I've seen principals destroy schools. I've seen principals recruit, hire and keep phenomenal educators, and I've seen schools where any good teacher who could, left as soon as they were able. I've seen principals build strong collaborative communities, and principals who operated dictatorships that they called "collaborative" for show. The job of a principal is tough. It's not a job I'd ever want. But if you take this job on, please, use your power for good.