By Paul Bonner
Not too long ago, I walked up to a register in a grocery store. The clerk noticed that I had a school district ID and asked, “Are you a teacher?” I replied, “I’m a principal.” She looked at me, smiled, and said sincerely, “I never knew what my principal did.”
The school principal represents a cog in a wheel that is often anonymous. The spokes for a school, students, staff, district, state, and parents, can present divergent agendas. A principal confronts a series of competing expectations from the school community, such as loyalty vs. initiative, people skills vs. authority, compliance vs. risk-taking, and servant vs. taskmaster. Ironically, a principal can be seen as the face of a particular school by the parents, community, and district. A principal has to be part politician, mediator, conciliator, and instructional savant.
A successful school has a positive culture that is led by a principal who is visible and approachable. If agendas around discipline, district policy, or operations become the priority for specific entities and the principal is seen as aloof or impersonal, opportunities for solutions, no matter the endeavor, decrease. Few principals can navigate the challenges in school leadership without trusting support from a district and school community that focuses on a collective vision toward student learning.
Perhaps the most profound challenge to a principal is the conflict between the current application of performance data and intuitive experience. Testing mandates that de-emphasize environmental factors such as family dynamics, personal struggles of students, or poverty can mean that the principal has to convince parents and students that mandated global instructional remedies work for everyone. This can challenge the personal integrity of the principal while he or she addresses the school community with justifications for strategies that often do not work in a specific school’s context. The principal’s directives to the school in this regard can sow distrust, while results can have career implications.
The contemporary conditions for the public school principal have profound implications for schooling. According to the Learning Policy Institute, “The national average tenure of principals in their schools was four years as of 2016–17. This number masks considerable variation, with 35 percent of principals being at their school for less than two years…” The Learning Policy Institute goes on to say that “…The root of the problem… may be the school characteristics—such as low levels of resources, less competitive salaries, and problematic working conditions—that are often concurrent with student disadvantage.” The time a principal serves can impact institutional continuity that hinders teacher effectiveness and community confidence.
Giving principals the autonomy to implement practices that address challenges presented in the schoolhouse while providing resources required for success is critical to reverse the trends in principal attrition. The crisis in the principalship comes from a failure of the educational establishment to address the factors of professional isolation often creates an institutional climate of distrust that wears a principal down. Principals have to be supported to exhibit confident leadership that is necessary for a schoolhouse to thrive.
Paul Bonner is a former principal with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina and the Huntsville City Schools in Alabama.