What it’s like in school to have principal after principal

September 13, 2013
principal

In the great push by school reformers to improve the quality of teachers, principals and school leadership have been ignored — and that’s an unhealthy oversight. There is research suggesting that school leadership is every bit as important as quality teaching. Yet principal turnover is high and increasing, with important consequences for schools. A 2012 RAND Corp. report said, for example, that about 20 percent of principals new to a school in urban districts leave that posting within one or two years, and the result can negatively impact achievement by individual students as well as the overall school.  Writing about the issue is Jane O’Halloren, a six-year veteran teacher who has had an unusually large number of principals in her career.  She plans to continue graduate work at the University of Minnesota or return to teaching next year.

By Jane O’Halloren

Recently on NPR, I heard a segment about principal turnover and its correlation to student achievement. The program referenced Penn State University Associate Professor Ed Fuller, director of the Cener for Evaluation and Education Policy Analysis,and his research on the impact of school leadership on student achievement and teacher quality. I became somewhat familiar with this topic through my work as a graduate student at DePaul University in Chicago. But NPR’s four-minute report and Fuller’s research strikes a chord with me for another reason: I lived it.

I spent six years teaching in charter schools in Chicago—five years at CICS Northtown Academy and one year at Rauner College Prep, a Noble Network school. In those six years, I had six principals. If I had stayed in Chicago to teach for a seventh year teaching instead of moving out of state, I would have had a seventh principal.

Why is it so difficult for some schools—especially urban schools—to retain principals? And, arguably more importantly, why is the national conversation and policy surrounding educational reform focused on teachers, teachers’ unions, charter schools, standardized testing…anything but school leadership and school climate? These two questions need a much closer look.

In my short time as a teacher, I’ve seen a spectrum of principals, their leadership styles, and, often, why they ultimately leave school leadership positions.

My first principal hired me in 2006, got pregnant, and ultimately decided to take a department chair position in Highland Park. During her maternity leave, I had a substitute principal. It gets a little blurry from there. I think the same substitute principal from my first year teaching came back for the rest of my second year teaching. My third principal breezed in during year three and breezed out halfway through the year. (I never found out why, but I heard through teacher gossip that she had put a post it on the assistant principal’s computer, walked out the door, and never returned.)

Then, two blissful years of consistent leadership. One year of learning the leadership style and one year of predictability. Principal No. 4 moved into a more administrative position dealing with teacher development and evaluation in the school management corporation that ran the school. In my fifth year teaching, the assistant principal was promoted to principal No. 5.

I was tired of learning each new principal’s way of management—each one had a different vision (or no vision at all), a different way of communicating with staff, a different level of professionalism. Each new principal introduced—and usually abandoned—new initiatives. Because of these changes in leadership, time and energy I should have spent on my students was instead spent trying to figure out each new leadership discourse and the unwritten rules and values of that discourse.

In the NPR interview I heard, Ed Fuller said that

part of the reasoning behind that finding [high principal turnover causes higher teacher turnover and smaller gains] is that you need a principal there who knows the families, who knows the communities, who knows the students and has time to build a strong, positive culture focused on learning.

When principals stay less than a year, or at most two years, at a school, how can they possibly build a rapport with the families at the school or even learn the students’ names? When teachers are subjected to constant shifts in leadership, how can a positive learning community founded in trust develop? Frankly, the leadership instability at CICS Northtown induced more stress in me than my students, grading, planning, or classroom management put together.

Tired of the volatility each new principal brings, I took a job at Rauner College Prep for my sixth year teaching. When asked in my interview why I wanted to leave my school, I said I wanted stability in leadership.

Principal No. 6 was, hands down, the best principal I had had. She always had a minute to chat about students, my plans for the next class, or graduate work. When a pipe burst the first day of second semester at Rauner and flooded my classroom, she could not have been more accommodating or professional.

Just into second semester, though, she pulled me aside and stated that she, too, was going to pursue other opportunities instead of retaining the reins of the school the following year.

After I heard her news, I was angry. But I couldn’t blame her for going.

Being a principal sounds like a totally thankless job. In my observations, a principal has an enormous amount of responsibilities: budgets, teaching evaluations (which become more pressing in this age where “accountability” is the golden buzz word), day-to-day running of the school, parent relationships, teacher professional development, student scheduling, student discipline…the list is endless. Although principals share many of the following responsibilities with assistant principals and deans, an effective principal remains close to each responsibility.

I’ve observed that principals have to develop good relationships with teachers, who are demanding and a little self-righteous and who often fear the uncertainty that changes in leadership bring. Teachers are a hard audience, and new principals have an uphill battle in creating positive working environments with teachers who’ve developed cynical attitudes and low morale based on previous experiences. I’ve observed that principals have to develop relationships with students, who are demanding and selfish and who need stability in their lives—which they don’t get when principals’ tenure averages a year or less. I’ve observed that principals have to develop relationships with parents, who are demanding and only want the best for their children. Although I haven’t observed this directly, principals must justify their management, financial, and curriculum and instructional decisions to the board or management company, which is pressured to produce higher test scores every year.

And principals are expected to cope with these competing principles and values with grace and poise. They need to be intelligent, charismatic, and trustworthy—an effective principal must constantly create an ethos of credibility through words and actions.

It’s no wonder that so many of my principals left school leadership to “pursue other opportunities.”

Yet I’m still have several questions as to the real reasons my principals left: did they feel inadequately prepared for the job? Did they struggle to balance school needs and personal and family life? Were they tired, and what were they most tired of? Why did the least effective principals even get hired in the first place? Why did I trust—and subsequently, feel more committed to—one principal over another? And how can we, as a society, replicate that positive and productive relationship?

The national conversation needs to center around developing and retaining effective school leadership and developing a positive school climate and school culture. A four-minute conversation about principal turnover on NPR isn’t enough, though it’s a start. We need to look more closely at how effective principals run their schools, how they make decisions, and at how they develop relationships with teachers, students, parents, and school boards.

One way to shift the national discussion is to ground it in the wealth of academic research on school climate and school leadership. Researchers such as Wayne K Hoy, Ed Fuller, Jason Grisshom and Susanna Loeb, S. David Brazer and Scott Bauer, and Heather Price examine instructional leadership effectiveness. Journals such as Educational Administrator Quarterly and Educational Policy are rich resources in both quantitative studies and case studies about school leadership and climate.

But until this knowledge moves to the forefront of our national conversation about education, until we explicitly talk about effective school leadership and how to engender trust in school climate—the answer is not, by the way, coming up with a principal rating system like the one Sean C. Feeny described in this post—other teachers like myself will tire of the revolving door of school leadership. And when teachers decide to “pursue other opportunities” like the principals they’ve had, the teachers destabilize the students’ lives and academic achievement, to the detriment of us all.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | September 12, 2013