Teacher, Scholar, Manager,
Those Who Hire Principals
Often Don’t Understand the
Having been part of the public education system in New York
City for 34 years, I find the question of who is leading our
schools of paramount importance. Yet, no one has defined leadership
as it applies to our schools.
Gone are the days when
the titles automatically evoked status, knowledge and power.
We no longer select superintendents of urban schools because
of what they know about education, child development, teaching
or learning. They come to us from the ranks of business,
the armed services, political power structures and the legal
profession —managers, not educators. Gone
are the days of teacher innovation and creativity. Gone are
the days when Principals were revered and respected as intellectual
leaders. Gone, too, is the nation’s pride in urban public
By in large though,
school principals still come from the ranks of educators.
The selection of a principal is usually based on subjective
criteria rather than on defined leadership skills and characteristics;
thus, we have a national crisis of school leadership in which,
too often, a school leader’s
skills do not match the requirements of the standards movement,
the needs of a particular school or school system.
School leaders are
no longer expected to simply maintain a level of learning
that’s appropriate for their school
or its special needs. Most of a principal’s time is spent
managing the school. Yet, they are judged primarily on their
students’ academic success, as demanded by the politicians,
the media and the public.
Expected to be entrepreneurial
in order to obtain necessary materials, funding and contacts
for their students’ success,
principals must forge significant partnerships with community
organizations and corporations. This requires that they have
the skills appropriate for a boardroom as well as the schoolroom.
And if managing a staff of hundreds and an ever-changing budget
of millions were not enough, they are required to manage school
leadership teams, provide encouragement and guidance to parent
associations, address student medical and health needs, cope
with transient students, students with special needs, students
and parents who speak little or no English, maintain safety
and security, implement dozens of monthly central office directives
and ensure that federal and state education laws are upheld.
Remember, the Principal is not the CEO of the school. He or
she is simply the middle manager in a system of rules, regulations
and mandates from above.
Often, we select our Principals based on the fact that they
are good teachers and classroom managers or because they have
shown evidence of being superior teacher mentors. But there
is a huge chasm between being a successful teacher and being
an innovative school leader. Essential leadership skills, attitudes
and characteristics are only considered if the applicant served
in some other supervisory capacity.
Another flaw in the
selection process is that the people doing the selecting
often do not know how to judge the competence of an applicant
for a principal’s position.
Would that we could turn back the clock and transform the
education and certification of Principals! Would that we had
created a supervisory and administrative license that tells
us that future principals can manage a not-for-profit organization
as well as understand and resolve conflict, handle sensitive
cultural needs, understand the law as it applies to their profession
and communicate with numerous constituencies as well as advocate
for children and educate them.
A Prestigious Job Once-Upon-A-Time
But the truth is, here
in New York State, education is not even considered one of
the “professions.” This
too, must change. We require a license to cut hair and provide
manicures, but not to run our schools. Peer review and continuing
education credits are also essential if we are to hone the
skills of school leaders and bring back the prestige and pride
in this profession and our urban schools.
Principal was revered in a school. It’s
not too late to return to those times.#
Jill Levy is the President of the Council of School Supervisors