Do We Really Need Principals? A Follow Up

A little while back I published a blog post questioning if we need principals in schools. In the days and weeks that followed I received a great deal of feedback on twitter, comments on the post and subsequent follow up blog posts others wrote in response. I have reflected at great length and still stand by my original question with a slight change…Do we need principals/administrators in the way we use them today?
Based on the feedback and my own reflection I do think we still need a leader in a building or at least a network of leaders in various roles. I think it could play out in a few ways but here are some initial thoughts on how we might change the current role of administrator to better suit the needs of schools and students. Yet, all of this is built upon the premise that a principal/administrator needs to be an instructional leader within their building.
·         Get them into a classroom – I am not referring to the fly-by drop in observations or the token waves from the hallway. I am talking about them actually teaching in a classroom…with kids. This could be done in a few different ways depending on level. If they are in a departmentalized environment, they could pick up one class to teach each term. In a primary level they could co-teach or pick up a section of a special. One of the biggest complaints I hear about administrators is their complete lack of connection with the classroom. Some have been out too long or have never really been “in” a classroom because they jumped up the ranks so fast. Teachers grumble at their decisions because they feel like they don’t know what they are talking about.
·         Term limits on administrators – This is a pretty simple concept but ties in nicely with the first point. Yes, there are some administrators that have been in the “front office” for many years and are still connected and in tune with the students and teachers. However, I think it is safe to say that is not the norm. Rather, the longer they are out, the more out of touch and distant they become as a natural consequence. I am not sure what the magic number is, but I would think having a five year limit and then being required to teach for two years before coming back might be a good place to start. Lyn Hilt also outlined a similar concept in a comment she left on a recent post by Jeff Delp.  Personally, I think this would elevate the instructional leadership potential within a building and have dramatic results.
·         Hire a manager – Much of what pulls an administrator away from being a true instructional leader in their building is the managerial items they get bogged down in. Why not hire an administrator who is simply in charge of the management piece? They do all the paperwork, scheduling, meetings, etc. Then dedicate one administrator to being a true instructional leader. As I mentioned in my previous post, I still think these two jobs could be done by a small group of teacher leaders as well. However, if we are going to work within the current system, then let’s shift some responsibilities around to best use our administrators.
It may be way to simplistic but if we want our administrators to be instructional leaders, which I think we do, then they can’t sit idly by in an office. I don’t see any better way of doing this than getting the metaphorical chalk back in hand and doing it in a classroom. As in my initial post, I still am not seeing a compelling argument for a need for administrators in their current roles. Yes, lots of people commented about them being a buffer and an advocate, but is that what we need administrators to be? If that’s the case then let’s call them managers and let the teachers do the instructional leading…
In closing, let’s be clear about one thing, I am not calling out all administrators and saying we need to get rid of them. However, I am calling out the way in which we as school districts use them within our schools. They have the potential to be so much more than paper chasers and disciplinarians. If you look at the great administrators you will rarely find them at a desk when the kids are in the building. Yet, they are burdened all night with paperwork and management items. In addition, if these are the individuals evaluating teacher effectiveness, how do we ensure they know that when they see it? How can we restructure this to allow all administrators that chance of being a true instructional leader? 

14 thoughts on “Do We Really Need Principals? A Follow Up”

  1. Interesting thoughts Josh. I can tell you that my daughter attended a school that did not have a principal and I pulled her out half way through the year. The teacher had no support and a great deal of instructional time was lost as she dealt with things a principal would have been able to help her with if there was one present. In addition to the lost instruction time there also seemed to be a lack of focus and vision, poor to non-existent communication, and a lot of frustrated teachers. It sounds nice in concept but in reality, from my experience, a principal is needed.

  2. Josh – Thanks for following up with this second post. Everytime I read a post discussing what a great principal is…. I'm reminded of how overwhelming the responsibilities of the job are. I feel like I can be doing 20 things soundly, but right around the corner there's something waiting to swallow me up. Of course, this varies by the week and the day. In my 5th year, I've taken more time for reflection. It's so important for principals to take the necessary time to reflect on each day, each meeting, each lesson they experience. If we forget to reflect and continue running around (we call it drinking water from a fire hose), we won't be able to role model the careful thought and reflection necessary to plan for the needs of students, staff & parents. Thanks for making me think at the end of the school year.

  3. You make good points here. I especially like your term limit idea, but the first thing that pops in my head in this scenario is, "How does the pay work?" Maybe we solve that by having all teachers and admin on the same pays scale? I think most would agree that nobody working in a school for the right reason is there for the money, but I do think admin get stuck in the office because of that… it's hard to take a pay cut to go back to the classroom.

    I was one of those "buffer and advocate" folks from your first post 😉 In that vein, hiring a non-education manager doesn't seem like it would work for me. I don't think someone who hasn't taught can understand what I need from my buffer and advocate.

    Thanks for the post and keeping us all thinking.

  4. I think this is great. If we really want schools to change, we need to be thinking about the class structure as well as the leadership in the schools. I think having a principal in place is important, but how could the role be shifted to focus more on instruction rather than all the other fluff.

    I worked in a school where the principal taught an elective writing course (english teacher for 15 years before admin) and he held lunches with students, mainly seniors, every Friday throughout the year to garner feedback and suggestions for the following year. One of the best men I've ever worked with.

  5. Do it for a few years and then reflect and post a new blog. You might have the same view but I would bet not. Interesting how perspective is so valuable.

  6. Good posts Josh, but there a couple of things you need to consider. The first is that many schools are not big enough to have both a business manager and an educational leader, so you have to find a person to do both jobs and you are back at square one again. The second issue is supply and demand. If the pay is the same and the responsibilities go up, there is little motivation to do the job, and the number and quality of candidates will suffer. Even with the pay bumps we do have it is very hard to recruit and retain educational leaders in many jurisdictions, and with the workload and expectations piling up, it isn't getting easier. Adding mandatory teaching stints won't help with this, though I agree with staying in touch with the classroom and keeping current. In my school, both the vp and I teach and this does lend credibility to our learning conversations during our PLC time. My opinion is that great teacher leaders can really move a staff, but without an official leader behind them, most attempts seem to sputter out. Good work though! You sure got people talking.

  7. The power to change education, for better or worse, is and always has been in the hands of teachers. Therefore, principals as instructional leaders, must separate the managerial side of the principalship with that of improving teacher effectiveness. No longer is it acceptable to sit in an office, work on state reports, complete teacher evaluations, or engage in any other activity that can be completed outside the school day. An effective principal designates school hours for students and teachers every day.

    Personally, I believe it is essential that principals return to the classroom either as a teacher or co-teacher. Principals should be proficient with instructional technology. Principals should provide ongoing conversations related to instruction and take responsibility for teacher success. A balanced leadership between the best teachers and the principal. It can be done.

    What cannot continue is exactly what you described. Principals must do more. They must change or become obsolete. Leaders of learning is the new expectation and anything else is unacceptable. That's only my opinion and I have enjoyed reading other perspectives. Thanks Josh for the conversation. Shawn

  8. I've enjoyed this strand of conversation, Stump — and agree with your suggestion that principals could do a better job if they actually taught on a regular basis.

    I'm finishing my 19th year of teaching this year. I've probably had close to 10 different principals during that time.

    I've only ever seen one teach — and it was one lesson to one class on one day.

    And it was a disaster.

    Principals and their advocates like to lay claim to the title of "instructional leader," but they've often never proven their abilities as instructors. That's bunk.

    Now, I get that there are a TON of administrative tasks that make it difficult to get into classrooms on a regular basis — and think your building manager role could actually make regular teaching by school leaders possible — but if principals aren't going to teach, they've got to be MORE than a little aware that their credibility suffers the longer that it's been since they actually did the work of the people they are supervising.

    Anyway…thanks for making me think this morning.


  9. I have also thought a principal, especially as an instructional leader, should still be in the classroom. Teaching one class a term is not an outrageous idea. It would also really highlight the instructional prowess possessed by an administrator, which I would assume is something we look for in our administrators, but I wonder sometimes. Especially when one can teach for maybe three years and then move into an administrative position. Can you really "prove" your instructional effectiveness in three years. I am moving into my tenth year and still feel like I can learn and grow in so many areas.

    I also agree with the idea of a business manager, or, better yet, having teachers take on some of the administrative tasks. One school I worked at had to institute such a plan because of a health issue one of our administrators had to deal with. Those of us who agreed to do this administrative work were paid extra for these duties and it gave us some insight into how the administrative side of things worked.

    It's all doable, it just needs to be discussed more and acted upon. Great post!

  10. I loved your point about principals needing to be in touch with what is going on in the classroom. There is nothing more frustrating than having someone who has not taught your subject or grade level telling you how to do your job. We need mentors in schools and principals can not be this as they are too busy being held back by hours of board meetings etc. Very few principals I have worked for set foot in my classroom. Change is necessary.

  11. Your suggestions are interesting but I still believe that being a principal is a differentiated process. What works in one building may not work in another. Leadership takes on different forms and comes from different personalities, yet can still be effective.

    I do find it ironic that it is suggested principals should spend time in the classroom so they don't lose touch with what it is like being a teacher coming from a post from the point of view of someone who has never been a principal.

    As Drew said, "…perspective is so valuable."

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