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Response: Challenges Principals Face & How to Respond to Them

(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new "question-of-the-week" is:

What are the biggest challenges faced by principals and what are the best ways to respond to them?


Principals face many challenges—I know the principal at our school does!

This series will explore what some of them might be, and what could be effective ways to respond to them.

You might also be interested in past posts appearing here on Administrator Leadership.

Today, Dr. Sanée Bell, Jen Schwanke, Mike Janatovich, Joseph F. Johnson, Jr., Cynthia L. Uline, and Lynne G. Perez contribute their thoughts on the topic. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Sanée, Jen and Mike on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. 

 

Response From Dr. Sanée Bell

Sanée Bell, Ed.D. is a middle school principal and adjunct professor who resides in Houston. She has experience as an elementary principal,  middle and high school teacher, and basketball coach. Dr. Bell recognizes her impact as a leader and uses her role to inspire, motivate, and empower others. Sanée shares her thoughts on leadership on her blog saneebell.com and via Twitter @SaneeBell:

I think the biggest challenges faced by principals today is the fight to eradicate inequity. We have been using standardized test to sort and separate children for two centuries, and we have been "reforming" public education for years by making sure we don't become a nation at risk by leaving children behinds as we race to the top to ensure that every child succeeds; however, through all these these things, the case of equity for all still remains. The battle for equity fuels my passion as a leader. There are many students whose only chance at a better life is by receiving a quality education.

External forces, such as policy mandates without funding, implicit bias and low expectations, the political climate, racial and social injustice, etc., all manifest themselves in the school house each day. Through all of the issues mentioned, leaders are responsible for ensuring that students are receiving an exceptional education in a supportive environment that promotes equity for all. As leaders, when we see inequity we must be courageous and call it out for what it is. There is no silver bullet to solving this inequity issue. The only thing that will help leaders with this cause is if we champion for all kids.

Be Courageous. The only way to change the narrative of this story is for each leader to be courageous in the settings in which they are charged with leading. When we see inequity, we must call it out for what it is. We can't remain silent. We must be a voice for the voiceless. We must advocate for those who can't or don't know how to advocate for themselves.

Be a Merchant of Hope. We have to be able to give hope to the hopeless.  Inequity is robbing students of the best experiences they will never have if we are not courageous about addressing the inequity we see in public education. Even if we have students or teachers who don't believe, we must always believe in the possibility and potential of every teacher and every student. As the leader, we have to carry the torch and find a way.

Move Beyond the Conversation. Being courageous and hopeful won't amount to anything if we don't move beyond the conversation. We must put feet to our words by developing plans that intentionally challenge, address, and eradicate inequity.

I don't have the perfect solution for how respond to this problem but what I mentioned above keeps me encouraged, uplifted and fueled to fight the good fight.  

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Response From Jen Schwanke

Jen Schwanke has been a language arts educator and school administrator for 20 years, currently serving as an elementary school principal in Dublin, Ohio. She is a graduate instructor in educational leadership and has written frequently for literacy and educational leadership publications. She is the author of the ASCD bookYou're the Principal!  Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders:

The biggest challenge I face as a principal is carrying the burdens, worries, frustrations, and challenges of so many other people.  Principals are held to a very high standard--as we should be--because we are hired to be leaders, to be in charge, to meet the expectations that our students and staff and communities bestow upon us.  We are expected to communicate frequently, clearly, and well; we are expected to handle the instructional, emotional, and social challenges of others; and we are expected to do it pleasantly and without misstep. 

Which can feel like a lot

Note that this is not a complaint.  Not by a long shot.  The principalship is a role I sought, and I understand and accept the responsibility.  In fact, I consider it an honor and privilege.  And most of the time, I even love it. 

But the burdens grow heavy sometimes.  It can feel like a very thick, strong tree--one that is painfully pockmarked from all the woodpeckers that have taken a nip throughout the days and weeks and months of a school year.

So what do I do about it?

Here are four things I do to get myself back in shape:

I get back to the basics.  When I feel the weight of too many problems and responsibilities, I literally get up, walk down the hall, and find myself some students.  I sit with them at lunch; offer to help a group working on a project; or slide into an empty seat in a classroom being taught by an inspired and inspiring teacher.  Immersing myself back into the world of students brings me joy and relief, all at once.

I phone a friend.  I have a group of colleagues on speed-dial.  On bad days, I'll pick up the phone and ask, "Can you just... listen for a moment?"  I'll vent some of my anxiety or frustrations, and they will respond in kind, and then we'll begin making fun of ourselves for some aspect of our jobs, and then we're laughing and feeling good again.  Just remembering that I'm not alone can fix me right up.

I remove myself.  Every now and then, I'll end a day feeling like I'll never dig out from under all the things I have to get done.  Ironically, the best thing I can do for myself in that moment is go home.  I'll remind myself, the work will get done, in due time.  It always does.  Then I'll take a long walk, have a meal with my family, enjoy some extra time tucking the kids into bed, and all the while I will refuse to worry about school.  It's amazing how taking some time away from the to-do list can flip the switch from "impossible" to "completely do-able."

I give myself a stern talking-to.  When I feel pouty, underappreciated, or picked on, I pull out my imaginary stern face and stop myself, just as I would do to a petulant child.  I'll take a moment to gather perspective by reminding myself of the gift I've been given in being a principal.  I get to walk into a place every day that is full of young people and the teachers who are there to help shape them.  I literally see the future being made.  No other job on earth would make me this grateful or proud.

Balance is a word we all talk about, in wistful and dreamy voices.  Principals need to really think and plan for balance, because this job does come with weighty responsibilities.  These four tricks can be used anytime to stop the cycle of feeling overwhelmed by the job--and set the "reset" button on attitude and gratitude.

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Response From Mike Janatovich

Mike Janatovich is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015. He is currently the principal of Leighton Elementary School in Aurora, Ohio. Janatovich believes that educating the whole child is critical to ensuring academic success and is an advocate for supporting middle-level learners. Connect with Janatovich on Twitter @mjanatovich:

One of the biggest challenges facing principals today is being an instructional leader in a world of standardized testing.  Many school districts, schools, and teachers are "evaluated" based on the data that the standardized test gives them.  While this is a good data point to look at, it does not paint the whole picture for our kids.  There are many instances where there are teachers that are not providing the best learning environments for kids, but hey are getting fantastic scores on a basic level state standardized test.  Way too often, these scores seem to validate the teachers work, and it becomes a challenge to get them to see a need for change.  The conversation usually shifts to, "my students are doing great, look at their testing data."  While this can be a challenging point to argue, as instructional leaders we need to work with teachers to empower them to discover that great test results does not mean that great learning in taking place.  

As building leaders, we must face this challenge by truly being the instructional leader in our building.  We need to make sure that we are present in classrooms, during PLC meetings, and having continuous conversations with our staff.  Our staff meetings must become a time for professional growth for the entire staff.  This will accomplish  two things. First, it will show that you are truly an instructional leader in the school and that you are not acting off something you recently read.  Being seen as an instructional leader and demonstrating your deep understanding of teaching and learning will give you the validity you need to have those challenging questions with teachers.  The second thing it will do is show teachers that you value their time and are willing to provide them with opportunities to learn.  This is huge for teachers in your school.  If you continue to focus on student learning, this will become the culture in your building.  Once it becomes the culture in your building, then the challenge of the struggle of teachers and standardized testing will become much smaller, and more time can be spend on kids.

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Response From Joseph F. Johnson, Jr., Cynthia L. Uline & Lynne G. Perez

Joseph F. Johnson, Jr. is the dean of the College of Education, executive director of the National Center for Urban School Transformation, and the QUALCOMM Professor of Urban Education within the department of educational leadership at San Diego State University. He has previously served as a teacher, school and district administrator, state education agency administrator in Texas and Ohio, researcher and technical assistance provider, and U.S. Department of Education official.

Cynthia L. Uline, PhD, is Professor Emeritus of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. Cynthia previously served on faculty at the Ohio State University where she was an assistant and associate professor of Educational Administration from 1995 to 2005. She currently directs SDSU's National Center for the 21st Century Schoolhouse.

Lynne G. Perez, Ph.D., leads the Midwest Office of the National Center for Urban School Transformation at San Diego State University and serves as the NCUST Deputy Director. She also serves as an executive coach in the Center's Advancing Principal Leadership in Urban Schools Program.

Joseph, Cynthia, and Lynne are co-authors of Leadership in America's Best Urban Schools and Teaching Practices from America's Best Urban Schools:

In our book, "Leadership in America's Best Urban Schools," we explained that in many schools, leaders are expected to help teachers, support staff, and others "...achieve what they have never previously achieved, for populations of students they have never served well, amidst all of the frustrations that typically confront urban schools, districts, and communities."  While this may be a daunting task, mortal principals have accomplished this in ways that yielded multiple evidences of impressive learning outcomes for all demographic groups.  These leaders have overcome four challenges that frequently frustrate the efforts and good intentions of leaders in more typical public schools.

Challenge #1: Promoting A Compelling "Why"

If school culture, curricula, and instruction do not improve, neither will learning results.  So leaders must build within their faculty, staff, parents, and students a desire to improve culture, curricula, and instruction.  Too often, leaders assume that people will be motivated by state assessments, district expectations, or their desire to please their administrator.  In contrast, we found that in high-performing schools, leaders were successful, in part, because they tapped into the motivations that led their colleagues to enter the teaching profession.  They were able to help educators see that their hard work was improving the lives of the students they served.  Similarly, leaders helped parents and students find new hope.  In the absence of hope, the quantity and quality of effort essential to promote success would not be sustained.

Challenge #2: Building Belief

Secondly, leaders must build within their faculty, staff, parents, and students a belief that desired changes in culture, curricula, and instruction can be achieved at their school.  Even if people have a compelling reason to try, people will not engage in sustained effort if they do not believe that the desired results are possible.  In high-performing schools, leaders deliberately and systematically helped stakeholders come to believe that success was attainable for the students they served, even in the face of challenges associated with race, poverty, language background, and other urban issues.

Challenge #3: Defining Critical Roles

Additionally, leaders must build within their faculty, staff, parents, and students a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities related to essential changes in culture, curricula, and instruction.  Even those who believe that success is attainable will become disenchanted if they perceive that they must do a thousand things well in order to contribute to a successful effort.  In effective schools, leaders were able to help stakeholders understand the few critical roles they needed to master in order to make a powerful difference.

Challenge #4: Building Capacity and Providing Sufficient Support

Finally, leaders must build within their faculty, staff, parents, and students a belief that they have the capacity, support, and resources necessary to implement essential changes in culture, curricula, and instruction.  Leaders modeled a growth mindset as they worked with teachers, support staff, and students.  Principals assumed that their job was to build everyone's capacity to succeed.  Teachers, parents, and students trusted that school leaders had their best interests at heart.  As a result, in high-performing schools, we found a palpable sense that success was attainable.

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Thanks to Sanée, Jen, Mike, Joseph, Cynthia, and Lynne for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder—you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first six years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don't include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q&A Posts

Classroom Management Advice

Race & Gender Challenges

Implementing The Common Core

Best Ways To Begin The School Year

Best Ways To End The School Year

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

Student Assessment

Brain-Based Learning

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Advice For New Teachers

Author Interviews

Entering The Teaching Profession

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

Relationships In Schools

Professional Development

Instructional Strategies

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Two in a few days.

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