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Administration, Education, Leadership, Reform

Redefining the Principal

Principal & ????

cc flickr photo by rickpilot_2000

As a kid (a few years ago), I can remember helping clean out the garage at my grandparents home. Normally, the prospect of cleaning out a garage was met with limited enthusiasm, but working at my grandfather’s was different.  The garage was filled with interesting, but for the most part useless novelties – a virtual treasure chest to a young boy.  We did a lot of sweeping, and “organizing”, but we were rarely allowed to throw things out…not even the keg of rusted and bent nails.  There was a level of comfort in knowing that if something was needed (no matter how improbable), it could be found in the garage.

Recently, I have been following a Twitter and blog discussion about whether school principals are still needed.  The conversation was started by Josh Stumpenhorst, with his blog post, Do We Need Principals?, and continued with a second post Do We Really Need Principals?  A Follow-Up.  A number of people have weighed in on the subject, like this piece by Justin Tarte, What Makes a Great Principal? and one by George Couros – Do We Need (Great) Principals?

Yesterday, I ran across this quote, by George, in a blog post comment and it resonated.

“I have seen a few blog posts lately that hint administrators “don’t get it” and I guess my response to that is “be the change”. Define the role by going and doing it. There is no “template” that all admin must stick by.” 

For me, this comment really strikes at the crux of the problem.  In many cases, we do act as if there is a “template” that defines our roles, and unfortunately, it is the same template that has been used for years.  We frequently lament the factory model of education, but we must recognize that in many cases, we are still using a factory model of leadership.  I am relatively new to the position of principal, but I can not tell you how many times I have had teachers tell me they could never go into school administration.  My suspicion is that this is not necessarily a compliment related to the challenges administrators face, but rather an expression of distaste for what is seen as the role of the principal: discipline, budget issues, supervision and a general disconnect from students, and what is happening in the classroom.  This is where, as George stated, we must “be the change.”  We need to step away from the safe, the familiar, the “expected” and pursue innovative leadership practices.  I think we still need principals, but how we define that role, and what we expect from these leaders, must change.  We need to be willing to clean out the proverbial garage, to get rid of the rusty keg of bent nails.

Redefining the position of principal will require a committment to dialogue and learning, and a willingness to break the mold and try new things.  Thankfully, technology and social media make this collaboration, much easier.  I have been fortunate to learn from a number of progressive administrators – Patrick Larkin, Cale Birk, Chris Wejr, Bo Adams, Lyn Hilt, George Couros, Dov EmersonJustin Tarte…to name a very few.  These administrators are helping me shape, and redefine, what I see as my role as principal.

So, in the interest of moving the conversation forward:

If the role of the school principal is going to stay relevant, what needs to change?  What “traditional roles” should be diminished or removed?  What new responsibilities should school principals be prepared to address?

About azjd

Junior high principal by day, aspiring difference maker, and Jedi in my own mind. Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly.


6 thoughts on “Redefining the Principal

  1. Jeff, great post and thank you for the mention. I have said it before and it’s worth saying again… the principal needs to be the instructional leader of the building. The principal needs to be like any great teacher; able to listen, able to respond to the needs of others, able to learn, able to see the bigger picture, and able to adapt and be flexible at the drop of a pin. Too often the “bad principals” we speak of get bogged down with the managerial side of the principalship. This is a choice they are making, and unfortunately it’s a choice that is painting all administrators with a bad brush.

    I don’t see the traditional hierarchy of educational leadership changing any time soon, so I think great principals do the managerial side of the job, but they do that side of the job after hours when others aren’t around. It’s a long day and everyone needs to prioritize what gets done, but too many principals all across America are losing touch with their students and staff.

    Every teacher was a student; every principal was a teacher; every assistant superintendent was a principal, every superintendent was an assistant superintendent (for the most part)…. As people move up the chain of command they need to remember one key principle: the best leaders are able to protect those with whom they work; they protect them for the numbing and mindless managerial side of education that plaques us all. Don’t forget that time is limited and it must be protected for real change and improvement to occur.

    Posted by Dr. Justin Tarte (@justintarte) | July 8, 2012, 9:52 am
    • Great comments Justin. I couldn’t be more in agreement. Maintaining a focus on instructional leadership and meaningful connections with staff and students requires a constant vigilance. It is so easy to fall into the trap of administrative minutia and loose entire days to things that do not matter.

      Goethe said, “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” School leaders would be wise to take this to heart, and for every action, ask themselves “does this matter?”

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and continue the discussion.

      Posted by azjd | July 8, 2012, 3:12 pm
  2. Thanks for being the change. Too often principals become glorified building managers with little time left to lead the students and staff. I know your staff appreciate all that you have done to the role of principal at WJHS.

    Posted by buistbunch | July 8, 2012, 12:09 pm
    • Thanks for taking time to comment Michael — even while you are on vacation 🙂 Appreciate the kind words. I think we are off to a good start, but just a start. I definitely feel like I am at the bottom of the learning curve, with a long way to go. The great thing about being part of a connected community is that there are so many people doing such great things, and willing to share. A lot to learn, but many to learn from.

      Enjoy the rest of your break!


      Posted by azjd | July 8, 2012, 3:01 pm
  3. After just one year, I now better understand why principal roles remain traditional… managerial tasks, “administrivia” (as one of my mentors calls it), small fires, etc that don’t have much to do with students. But with that cup-half-empty starter, I also see many possibilities to ameliorate the obstacles. @justinetarte mentioned one–handling the management duties after-hours or when others aren’t around. I agree.

    But even more important is credibility with teachers, students and parents. My work will go ten-times farther if I am viewed as educator first, principal second. After 14 years in the classroom and only 1 in the principal’s office, I know this is waning already. I’ve gone to the “other side.” I’m in classrooms a lot. After about Christmas time, teachers stopped asking if I needed something and just knew i was there to watch and interact with students. It is imperative that I know what’s going on at our school. Not just how much money is in the copy paper budget, but more importantly, what kids are learning and doing every day.

    Yes, principals are necessary. I am vital as an active member of our school community. To paraphrase @patricklarkin and @gcouros from ISTE 2012–You are the most important person on your campus (the principal)… because you can really screw things up.

    I apologize for the rambling nature here… reading, writing and thinking a lot this summer about year 1 and the many to come. There’s a lot of work to do.

    Thanks for the post. –Catina

    Posted by catinahaugen | July 9, 2012, 8:36 am
  4. Thanks for the post, Jeff. I like the Couros quote you share: “Be the change.” As a high school Principal at my school, I continue to teach one class of sophomore English. Many administrators in schools are not allowed to continue teaching, but in my experience, it keeps me connected to students, faculty, and parents, and it allows me to continue learning new ways of using technology in the classroom and to take risks with new ideas. Teaching one section has allowed me to be in the proverbial trenches while also providing me valuable perspective in my role as Principal. One way to redefine the role. – John Ashton

    Posted by mrjashton | July 17, 2012, 10:03 am

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Jeff Delp

Junior high principal by day, sports enthusiast, technology fanatic and jedi in my own mind. Striving to be a difference maker!
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