Lesson 1: You’re Dead in the Water Without a Great Principal

You know how they say that people come to look like their dogs? A parallel truism is that any organization comes to look like its leader. For some reason, though this idea is axiomatic in corporate life—who would attribute the success of Apple to its highly effective programmers?—when you get to schools, I rarely hear it said that every school embodies the values of its principal. But it’s meaningless to talk about teacher “effectiveness” outside of the context in which he or she works. One of the biggest lessons I learned this year is that a teacher cannot, repeat, cannot be effective for long in a dysfunctional community. And whether that school community is or is not functional is entirely dependent on the leadership of the principal.

Over the last year, as I visited high school English classrooms across the socioeconomic spectrum, one of the 10 Big Lessons I learned in my year of observations was that every school resembles its principal. If a principal is highly disciplined, orderly and data-driven, that school will also quickly become disciplined, orderly and data driven and will attract teachers who are disciplined, orderly and data-driven. If a principal is warm, passionate about ideals, visionary and relationship-oriented, that school will reflect those values and draw teachers who share those values. A creative, innovative principal will attract and empower similar teachers. Any of these schools, though different, will be coherent and functional; it will be, in the words of Valerie Braimah, a healthy ecosystem in which students can learn.

During my year, I saw many different varieties of excellent principals; each created a different school culture that met the demands of very different communities. Jessica Hutcheson’s personal warmth and extraordinary commitment to each individual student suffuses the culture of her alternative charter school in Watts, the last resort for at-risk kids who’ve dropped out of local schools and enables kids to graduate who have been unable to succeed elsewhere. Jose Navarro’s passion for social justice and vision for a better world inspires his students at Cesar Chavez and creates a culture of community service and empowerment. The leadership at High Tech High, with their vision of project-based authentic learning and inquiry, creates a creative culture of learning and growth.

To teach at these schools, and other excellent schools I’ve visited, is to be part of a coherent ecosystem of meaning. And you can only be a great teacher if you are part of a larger system of meaning and beliefs about education. Jennifer Macon, one of the most inspirational teachers I’ve ever seen, works in a highly collaborative school that shares and supports her rich, intellectually demanding curriculum. Cynthia Castillo can get through her extraordinarily challenging and draining day because she believes in the vision of her principal.

But if the principal is chaotic, without vision, incompetent, weak or even—God forbid—corrupt, the school will become that way, too. And once that’s happened, all talk of being an “effective” teacher is spitting into the wind. There’s a lot of talk in this country about “bad” or “failing” schools, but that’s not really what I’ve seen. What I’ve seen instead is dysfunctional or non-functional schools. These schools lack a leader with a coherent, communicable vision. Each teacher works in isolation; each state mandate falls into a vacuum. There is no schoolwide collaboration on curriculum, no schoolwide accord on school culture, no vision of the purpose of learning in the first place.

What does it mean to be an “effective” teacher in a setting with a weak, ineffective or incompetent principal? I’ve spoken to several excellent teachers in such schools, teachers with experience who believe passionately in the work and love their students. These teachers have one thing in common: they’re quitting. Some are quitting to go to more functional schools. Others are going to graduate school. Others are leaving the profession. If you really care about the job, it’s profoundly demoralizing to be a little blip of good education when your students will leave your room and once again be confronted with a schoolwide message that they don’t matter. I talked to one teacher at a notoriously troubled district school who taught in a mobile classroom next to a giant empty lot of trash. Though he was head of the English department, none of the other English teachers would answer his emails. They weren’t terrible teachers; they were just burned out and discouraged. Why should they bother? They’d been through four administrations in the last five years. Like all the other heads of the English department, he would soon leave.

I spoke to another excellent teacher at a charter school that is continually under threat of having its charter revoked by the district for underperforming. When I asked this teacher whether he thought the charter should be revoked, he said he thought it probably should. I asked why; were the teachers bad? No, he said, they seemed dedicated and smart. The principal was nice. But she had no vision, no direction for the school. She uttered platitudes about “project based learning” but seemed to have no idea how to turn those vague ideas into action. Teachers were isolated. He himself had very little idea what was going on in other classrooms.

Any discussion I’ve heard on this topic tends to be about identifying and recruiting quality principals, often from the corporate world, where they are viewed as better. But it’s in no way as simple as that. A principal is a leader and a public servant working brutal hours often under extremely adverse, continually changing conditions and with insufficient funds. The job requires both intellectual rigor and profound humanity at maximum force, pretty much incessantly. The question is not only how we find these people.  It’s also not how we hold them accountable for test results whose implications we don’t entirely understand. It’s how we can support and retain the visionary leaders we desperately need so that they don’t burn out on the job. It’s giving them time and space to transform communities that have been oppressed for generations and giving them the resources they need to support their staff in creating a learning community.

Yesterday I had an incredibly interesting conversation with a former colleague who’d become principal of a middle school in South L.A. and now has quit to return to the classroom. I’ll tell you all about why he burned out on the job and what he thinks needs to change in my next post. For now all I’ll say is that in answer to my original question, “What is a great teacher?” one of my answers is now “someone who is empowered to do her best work by an effective principal.”

So if we really care about education, before we start holding people accountable and demanding measurable results, how can we create conditions in which great principals will flourish?




3 thoughts on “Lesson 1: You’re Dead in the Water Without a Great Principal”

  1. You nailed it. Without someone to support you as a teacher when you try to learn new skills and remind you to put your health before the testing, you’re doomed. I was lucky enough to have 1 principal like that. Unfortunately, he wasn’t my last principal- which is why I’m no longer a classroom teacher.

  2. When you have a principal who comes into a school, guns blazing, and makes demands without first understanding how the school has functioned previously and how it has succeeded, that is a recipe for disaster. Making snap judgements, constantly calling students out of class (entire grade levels) to have “come to Jesus” talks with them, allowing field trips the week before final exams…. these things make a leader seem inconsistent, flighty, and at worst, intolerable. I was hired on at a school this year with the understanding that I would be taking over the college-preparatory courses in 2015-16. Then we got a new principal a week into the year. I am now not getting those classes, and I cannot even get her to grant me permission to take a group of students on a trip in the summer of 16 (through an outside, nationally-known company) because she’s never done it before (though our school has a history with this company already). She is horrible. She is Satan incarnate. People are ready to leave in droves because of her. Firm-handedness is not always the answer, not when it comes with a constantly-changing attitude and what seems to be favoritism. She was overheard speaking in the main office by another teacher to another administrator about her “wish list” of teachers to bring on board next year, and she told me personally that she knows there will be plenty of people who leave next year, and she doesn’t care.
    I hope she realizes just how many, and how THAT looks on state reports.

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