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Jennifer Gonzalez Asks Teachers: What Makes a Principal Great?

Guest post by Jennifer Gonzalez.

Two separate conversations are happening about education. The first I would call the "macro" conversation. I see it in places like this blog, where we debate reform, testing, and all the outside forces that impact the work teachers do. This is a crucial conversation to have and keep having.

But there's another one, the "micro" conversation, where individual teachers talk about their experiences in their specific schools. And though these teachers are discouraged and exhausted by the macro-level changes, those I talk to don't have much to say about Arne Duncan or the Gates Foundation. Most don't have time to keep up with that stuff. Way more often, they talk about their principals.

In every "micro" conversation I've had, the job satisfaction of the teacher is directly proportional to the effectiveness of their administrator. "She makes me despise my job," one teacher said about her principal. "She's a bully with everyone. She's insecure in her ability and then attacks if you question or offer advice." Another teacher says, "It's like he just can't get enough. I feel like all I ever do, at school and at home, is work. And it's never enough. My friends in other schools don't have it nearly this bad."

On the macro level, principals are rarely mentioned. I've read a few stories about brave principals who stood up for their teachers against harmful reforms, or some who have been ousted by radical parent groups, but I hear nothing about the day-to-day impact principals have on their teachers. It's as if there's a direct line that starts with reformers and government entities and ends with teachers. But along the way, in every district and every school, administrators bend that line, and the small, specific ways they bend it could be what makes all the difference.

When I suggest that principals aren't being scrutinized closely enough, the principals I know gape with indignation. "Are you kidding?" they ask. "We are the most scrutinized. Test scores, student achievement, all accountability measures ultimately fall on us."

Right. Test scores. That's just it. Test scores provide a tiny, and possibly inaccurate, snapshot of a school's strengths; they tell us nothing about the complex factors that contribute to them. If a school has good test scores, but still loses teachers every year, what good are those scores? A collective voice is rising that demands a more comprehensive route to school quality than the current test-and-punish system. And as we move closer to that path, we need to take a good, close look at how the actions of our principals impact the work of our teachers.  

To do that, we have to start talking to the people they impact most directly: the teachers.

The tools are already in place. In 2008, the Interstate School Leaders' Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) created six standards for educational leadership. Since then, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 40 states have adopted these standards for licensing and evaluating principals. If taken seriously, with teacher input, they could go a long way toward building better administrators.

For example, Standard 2A says leaders should "Nurture and sustain a culture of collaboration, trust, learning and high expectations." (Italics are mine.) This is an area many teachers point to when they talk about working conditions. Some say they don't trust their administrator, and rarely feel included in decision-making. In these schools, principals are failing on this standard. But current evaluation practices don't uncover that. If the assessment is made by a superintendent (who, in an increasing number of states, may have no teaching experience at all), or if teachers are consulted under conditions where they feel they can't be truthful, a principal could score high on this standard, even if he has a deficiency so pronounced, his teachers lose sleep over it.

Another one that needs a close look is Standard 3E: "Ensure teacher and organizational time is focused to support quality instruction and student learning." Plenty of teachers will tell you most of their time is spent performing tasks whose connection to quality instruction is questionable. But a principal could appear to be mastering this standard by arguing that more PLC meetings, more training, more data analysis is all in support of quality instruction and learning. The teachers would sing a different tune, but no one is asking them.

I will admit, I don't know exactly how principals are evaluated. Looking around online, the conclusion I reach is that inconsistency is the norm. Research in the state of Washington, for example, suggests that adoption of the ISLLC standards hasn't resulted in their consistent use in principal evaluation. In a 2011 summary of research on principal evaluation, Matthew Clifford and Steven Ross report that these evaluations are not conducted in any consistent way, and that by and large, principals see little value in them for their own professional growth.

What I do know is this: In my eight years of teaching, no one ever asked me, formally or informally, how effective any of my principals were. And when my colleagues had complaints, they handled it by venting to each other. Teachers want to keep their jobs. Most are not brave enough to approach their principals with a complaint. So nothing changes.

Most administrators are neither wholly effective nor wholly ineffective; the majority fall somewhere in between. And their job is arguably one of the most difficult in the country. I believe most principals want desperately to do a good job. But the people who have the most relevant, useful feedback - their own employees - don't have a safe vehicle for giving it to them.

I am conducting a survey on my website, Cult of Pedagogy, to learn more about the specific things effective and ineffective principals do to impact the work of their teachers. Teachers - both current and former - are encouraged to take the survey with specific administrators in mind; those who have had the most significant impact on your job satisfaction. In early 2014, I will compile the results and push this micro conversation where it should be, on the macro level.

What impact have principals had on your ability to teach well? Have you found ways to offer them feedback about their work? 

Jennifer Gonzalez is a National Board certified teacher who taught middle-school language arts for eight years and prepared teachers at the college level for four. In July of 2013, she launched Cult of Pedagogy, the website she always wished for when she was a teacher. On the site, she studies specific instructional strategies and theories of learning; reviews books, technology, and other resources; considers the connection between design and learning; and explores the social and emotional forces that influence the work of teachers. 

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