Do We Need Principals?

Tonight during an #edchat on Twitter, the group was discussing leadership in education. Partially joking, but with some level of honest curiosity I sent the follow tweet out:

I got some initial kick back that schools certainly need a principal and could not imagine functioning without. I poked back as a means to stretch my own thinking and not necessarily to be perceived as an anti-administration rant. With that being said, here are a few of the arguments that came out and some of my initial thoughts.

“We need principals for discipline.”
This bothers me a little bit, because I always thought of discipline as a teacher’s job. Now, there are certainly times when things escalate and you need to bring in the “big guns” or reinforcements. My own school has three administrators and a school resource officer (school police). They are called in to deescalate situations and in some cases remove students from the classroom. My question is, why does this have to be the role of the administration? Can we not create a disciplinary advisory committee of sorts that handles this? What about this committee being teachers who are trained in such situations and provide that support? This group could also be the one that makes collective decisions on actions taken in terms of consequences and next steps.

“Someone has to do the schedules and plan the meetings.”
Let’s be honest, most of the meetings we attend are a waste of our collective time and only exist for the sake of saying they exist. A fair amount of the information in our meetings could be disseminated in a brief email. In terms of the schedules, I think we could again utilize a small group of teachers who are good at that sort of thing. I work with a woman that does all of the scheduling for our team’s special days and testing days. She has a brain that works that way and does it very well. Why can we not just tap these people to do this?

“We need administrators to evaluate the teachers.”
Yet again, why does this have to be an administrator job? Yes, I understand that teachers need to be evaluated and that often impacts if people keep their jobs or in some cases their pay. However, this model does not actually promote what it should, which is improved teaching and learning. When teachers are evaluated by administrators that are not practicing teachers, it is difficult to value their insight. On the other hand, if a peer observes and provides feedback that comes from a place of credibility and in most cases more honesty. Why can we not create a culture of openness and reflection where peer feedback is part of the norm? If that were the case, would we still need administrator evaluations?

Now, I am not an administrator and don’t even play one on TV. My opinions are completely based on my own experiences with administrators and the experiences of those I have talked with about the topic. I know there are many more things that administrators do that is not mentioned in this post and I am not exactly advocating that we do away with them completely. I am just wondering if there is a better way. The best administrators I know miss the classroom and the teaching. If you talk to teachers describe the worst administrators they often talk about how out of touch they are and not connected to what is really going on in the building. Would all of these problems be solved if schools were self-governed by the teachers in the building? Could we indicate a small handful of “go-to people” in times of emergency like the early days of the Roman Republic? I anticipate I will reflect more on this, but would love to hear your thoughts…can a school function without an administrator? 


Nicole Cremeens said...

One comment I have about a group of teachers handling discipline is that having a group of teachers handle the escalating situations might not be plausible. Say that I am one of the teachers responsible for discipline and there is a situation in another class in which a student needs to be removed because of violent and/or severely disruptive behavior. Am I to leave my class full of students in order to handle a problem occurring in another room? The only times as a junior high teacher that I don't have students in my room is lunch and the occasional planning period when I don't pull students from study hall to assist me on a project or catch up on their work. Would there be a rotating schedule of teachers on their planning periods available for handling discipline problems? And if so, that would be a lot to keep track of who is available what period and so on. I think that is best left to those that don't have classrooms full of students - officers and administration. I teach in a small school that doesn't have an officer on campus.

Otherwise, I see a your point on taking some of the responsibility from administrators and placing it in the hands of capable teachers. I definitely would love to add more input to the schedule created at my school. Looking forward to hearing more of your musings on the subject.

Anonymous said...

You make some great points...we just assume we need principals, and we don't. The fact is nobody would ever be brave enough to try!

Carrie Gelson said...

I suppose our opinion on this is also influenced by our experience of and our relationship with the admin that we have. Currently I have a fabulous administrator. Why do we need her? She helps build community. While many of us are racing around meeting the needs in our classrooms, she can watch it all taking place and whether in a meeting or a memo or a comment in the hall, she pulls themes together, highlights issues and needs and gives positive feedback about the positive work we do. Our admin supports our risks and celebrates our successes and consoles us when it didn't work out quite the way we thought it might . . . We need someone with the BIG picture. I am an expert in my room and so is the teacher across the hall and down the stairs, etc. My admin has an overarching picture. She sees how it all comes together and has the general answers that I don't always have. She can connect with parents and community partners all day on a more open schedule. As a teacher, I have time at breaks, on a prep and before and after school. I can't console an upset parent at drop off time because I have children I am reponsible for. My admin can. She can open up her office and talk. And listen. And problem solve. Sometimes that's exactly what she does for hours every day. So no, we don't need an administrator if all they do is discipline, schedules and budgets. We need an administrator like I have. A champion of the important causes, a communicator, a builder of community, a holder of the big picture and someone with the job title and influence (because sometimes it is about that) to get it done. Great question: "Do we need principals?" And I am happy to be reminded of how important mine is in the little inner city school where I teach.

Carol Davison said...

I think that without a positional leader, leadership will naturally emerge in those within an organization. I appreciate very much Carrie's comments about seeing the big picture. As a principal sometimes I can get caught up in the immediate issue, crisis or "administrivia", but overall like to see my role as Carrie describes it. I was following some of the edchat after the fact and felt validated and encouraged by the ideas on desired qualities of school admin. Thanks for playing devil's advocate and helping illuminate examples of important and unimportant administrative roles.

Megan Ginther-Strohhaecker said...

To begin I'll say I'm an education student going into my fourth year and I'm the child of an assistant principal so I've seen this issue from a few perspectives. I think that if your admin team is doing their job well you probably don't notice most of what they do. A major part of my mom's job is staff management, time tableing and student discipline. She is also the go between for teachers and the outside community like social services and police. I do think there is a need for people to take care of these things so that teachers are free to focus on teaching students. That being said I know my mother wishes she could go back to the classroom because she misses the continued contact with students.

Laura Coughlin said...

I am teacher, the wife of an administrator, and employed at a school with a great principal, just to be clear about where my views are formed. The 3 reasons for needing principals listed above have a lot to do with stereotypes of what principals do. You are right that good teachers handle most of their own discipline - principals would agree! Good principals have as few meetings as possible - they respect their teachers' time. I think principals do have an important role in evaluating the performance of teachers in their building, but more from an instructional leadership pov (good principal need to have been good teachers).

Here is why I actually need a principal: A good principal in a buffer and an advocate for teachers.

There has to be someone in a school building with no teaching responsibilities who is an education expert to handle all of the unexpected things that walk through the door each day. Teachers have a job to do in their classroom and deserve not to be interrupted. Ask a principal what odd situation has taken up an entire day of work for them at school, and every one will have stories to tell you!

Teachers need advocates - to speak to parents, other teachers, district administrators, board members, and the public about teachers as a whole. Of course teachers can "stand up for themselves," but a good administrator is an education expert who can stand up for a group teachers as a whole.

-Laura Coughlin

Carl Anderson said...

Actually, there are a number of schools which operate under what is called teacher professional partnerships. These schools do not have administrators but are run by the teachers who work in the schools who share administrative duties. I would like to refer you to a piece I wrote two years ago on Scott McLeod's blog: A Denominator of Many: Teacher Professional Partnerships.

Amy Wooley said...

I have just completed my second year as principal after 17 years in the classroom. There are many tasks that classroom teachers do not have the time to tackle. In many instances, they do not want the responsibility of scheduling, problem solving, etc. It is my experience that teachers desire to give input but want the final decisions to be made by someone else. As far as evaluations, I do not see my teachers wanting to evaluate one another. When would they do this? We are trying to promote an atmosphere of cooperation and collaboration. Evaluating one another, in my opinion, would promote competitiion and negative feelings. I, as an administrator, realize that there are natural leaders in my building. We must plug them in but not overwhelm them with added responsibilities.

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of assumptions are being made about what teachers have time to do or want to do. Teachers want to be involved and are often not given the opportunity. In terms of added responsibility, think about the amount of work that is dumped on teachers because of administrator ineptitude? What about the wasted meeting time already part of a teacher's job?

As for the evaluation piece...this again is a problem in terms of the way it is currently done in most schools. Evaluations are often at the whim of an administrator that is out of touch with the classroom. If the culture of the building is good, peer evaluations would not be an issue. There would be a culture of collegiality and reflective teaching.

Meg said...

I'm most interested in the role of teachers as evaluators; we've just started to look at Teacher Coaches, who are trained to do pop-ins and then provide feedback and ask questions. One of the reasons for this is because we teachers are outpacing the administrators; we've had to train them on new strategies like inquiry and info literacy. How can they possibly give us feedback if they have no clue what we're doing?

And when I was a first year teacher (not too long ago), a VP told me that I needed to handle the discipline first, otherwise it made it seem like the VP had power and I didn't. So now, I rarely write a kid up; I'd rather have a conversation with the parent and the child than hand it off to someone else. We're the first line of defense!

Jarod said...

The same could be said of teachers. In an ideal world students would be able to self-teach using the internet and pre-created educational content. They could form groups of students who tackle certain subjects to set up units and gather resources and then re-teach that information to each other. However, that would never work because you have students who aren't self-motivated and would never learn or work at all. Unfortunately, teachers are the same way. Without someone there to hire, evaluate, and mandate things would fall apart. There would be a good percentage of teachers who would do just fine and work together and all that, but then there are always those who would get by with the bare minimum, not work well with others, and go against the grain on every matter. Even with principals you still have teachers like that, but without them those "bad" teachers could be the downfall of the entire system. Whereas, with a principal to push and prod them along they are just a pain in the butt.

Mike Curtis said...

To me it's real simple. The role of an administrator is to administrate. Take care of all the stuff that teachers don't have the time for (or that handling would take away from their ability to run a great classroom). It's not that teachers couldn't handle scheduling and discipline, but it's that how focused on wrapping up the year with my students would I be if I was already concerned about next year's scheduling?

The admin isn't necessarily necessary, but a luxury to take tasks off my plate so I can work with kids. Parental issues, legal issues like IEPs and 504s, schedules, and discipline are their responsibility so they're not mine.

The flaw in the system came when adminstrators became someone who polices the staff, rather than assists them. There are admin duties, if done by a committe of teachers (and perhaps admin too) would make for a more effective learning and working environment. I think teacher evaluations and hiring of staff both fall under that category.

Just my four cents.

Shawn Blankenship said...

Josh, I noticed yesterday in a tweet that you were planning on writing this post. I've been waiting to read it all day! As a principal, I believe you bring up some great points. Awhile ago, Lyn Hilt made the following comment on Jeff Delp's post, Staying Plugged In.

"I often wonder, would it be beneficial to have administrators serve for a term- 2,3,4 years – and then return to the classroom for a term of a few years? At this point in my admin career, especially due to the connections I’ve made through Twitter, locating blog and other resources, attending conferences, etc., I have learned so many new things about teaching, learning, classroom culture, and more- there are many days when I wish to have a classroom of my own to try out these new ideas and methodologies with a group of students."

Lyn continued, "From an instructional leader’s standpoint, how much more powerful could your conversations be if you are a principal who spent the last two years teaching, and could converse about teaching and learning with a high degree of efficacy, having just experienced what it’s like in the classroom?"

Lyn concluded by stating, "I have no idea what that system looks like, but I think it’s one that would be built on a foundation of strong teacher leaders- and every few terms, lead teachers rotate into the role of the principal in order to serve the school for those years. Crazy? Maybe. But I think it’s worth investigating. Might make the role of the principal a lot more appealing, and would perhaps bring everyone together as a cohesive team."

I think Mrs. Hilt is on to something and I would love to be a part of it. What do you think Josh? This doesn't sound too crazy to me. It sounds like the future! Great post as always Josh, Shawn

Matt Renwick said...

I think principals can keep a toe in the classroom. What works for me is reading aloud 1-2 times a day. It is totally voluntary for teachers, but the majority of my staff schedule me in their classrooms at least once every two weeks. With the read aloud, I can apply many of the instructional practices we learn out during PD, even model it for teachers when I feel comfortable enough. When we have grade level conversations, I know most of the kids' strengths and needs just being in the classroom and facilitating discussions about the book. Furthermore, the read aloud doesn't have to be a picture book or novel. At the secondary level, it can be an interesting news article tha would promote critical thinking. I could go on...maybe a blog post for me!

Janet Abercrombie said...

The question is really about managers vs. leaders.

We don't need principal managers. Teachers can schedule meetings, manage discipline, and coach one another (although principals sometimes need to run interference between teachers).

We NEED leaders - whether or not we call them principals. Someone needs to have a long-term vision for teaching and learning. Someone needs to be able to listen to all stakeholders and synthesize the information so that it can be channeled to meet the long-term goals/objectives.

I think we have far too many principal managers and not enough principal leaders.

Anonymous said...

Schools need "an environment in which teachers can teach and students can learn." The only way to achieve this is to proactively develop, promulgate (to students, parents and staff)and manage a schoolwide behavior system.

Teachers should certainly be involved in this but leadership is essential--and this means principals.

Each minute a teacher spends on discipline or wrangling with parents about fairness and consistency is a minute taken away from instruction and planning. These minutes add up to a significant amount of time over a school year and an undetermined amount of frustration on the part of teachers.

Having been a teacher, principal and behavior management consultant for years I could go on and on about this. But the simple point is that schools need a behavior management system. This requires far more than a few rules copied down from last year's handbook. But the payoff is enormous in recouping instructional time, improving quality of instruction, and establishing a genuine learning culture.

Joe Petterle

Todd Whitaker said...

There is such a difference between how effective principals lead their schools versus ineffective ones that sometimes it is confusing. The same is true for teachers. For example Josh states that effective teachers handle their own discipline. He is exactly right. So, about the others . . . now what? Could a school be better off is it had numerous outstanding teachers if they could operate without an ineffective leader? This is very different then if a school has an outstanding leader who inherited a struggling less talented staff. Everyone who has commented is correct depending on the variables. However sometimes staff members who feel they would be better off without a principal might feel differently when an irate parent is storming through the door. At times we all want more autonomy but there are other issues it may be more fun to have someone else handle. Great stuff Josh and everyone!

Ryan Bretag said...

It is disheartening to think this is how day to administration functions and the overall purpose of an administrator is viewed.

I'd encourage you to shadow your administrator for a day to get the full scope. If they are unwilling, my door is open and I'm but a short drive north of you in Nortbrook. My door is open. I'd love to have you and then discuss your thoughts after a day.


Unknown said...

Instead of leaving a comment of excessive length, i've decided to write a blog post response to your points. Thanks for pushing my own thinking.

Joy Kirr said...

Thank you... For helping me be thankful, once again, for my administrators. Yes, roles can and should change as needs change, but reading the comments posted here validates that there are administrators that have a very positive affect on our schools. The trick is to hire the right ones and have constant communication with the teachers from Day 1. Thanks for allowing these comments through moderation - sometimes they are just as valuable as the post itself!

Tracey said...

All of your comments are very thought-provoking. As a 5th year principal but 17 year administrator, I'd say it's definitely the variables that make the difference. I agree with those who are disappointed that there might be such a limited view of our jobs. I feel like my main responsibility is student achievement and to do that, I have to constantly be looking at what it is that could be preventing teachers from having what they need to support their students 100%. This could be time, money (usually equated to supplies or equipment), schedules, parents (good reasons and bad).. glitches that were not anticipated in plans such as online testing, etc. my job is to make sure they can do the work that they need to do each day. Yes, I need to attend my own professional development, which our district has finally begun to offer to us so we can keep up on our classroom skills. But why do you think I'm on Twitter? To continue learning from all of you (I'm even going to dip my toe into the very DEEP end of the pool next week and teach our administrators in the district why they should join Twitter as well!!)
Finally, I don't know about other states but in mine in order to evaluate certified staff (ie teachers) you have to have your administrator's license and then a specific class on evaluation offered during the year it takes to get your license. Our teachers are free to do peer observations or lesson studies but they couldn't evaluate one another per State Law.

Thanks for the great topic! I'm always up for handing off any job/s that will allow me more time out in classrooms so I'd love to see more conversations!!

SoCal Robert said...

My son is in a school that last year decided to not fill the administrative vacancy. Instead they appointed a teacher on special assignment to handle basic administrative duties. In support there is an Executive Director that handles grants, funding, and business of the school, as well as a program coordinator who handles after school programs and technology. Unfortunately, neither was a teacher or administrator (the coordinator was a parent volunteer who's been elevated to this position despite credentialing, experience or even a bachelor's degree).

The results thus far are rather disastrous from my position as a parent and educator. I see stressed out teachers as there is no discipline support or program school wide. Without a filter between parents and teachers, the parents are constantly swarming teachers with frustrations, ideas, suggestions, and more; these requests constantly overwhelm the teachers taking away the precious time they hold for planning and turning it into refereeing parental issues. Basic school functions are entrenched in past practice with a failure to update frequently as ideas are stuck in committees where they languish as nobody feels they hold authority to make a decision or agreement can't be reached and the ideas are tabled. As a major case in point, despite a recent murder a half block from campus during school hours there is still no lock down plan and with the Executive Director unwilling to make a phone message home as it is an administrative duty found out by watching the news why we were unable to pick up our students.

As a parent, I find I've nobody to talk with, make suggestions, or interface with except the classroom teachers. The School Site Council is willing to hear the decisions, but they lack the ability to make any change as they soley make recommendations to the ED or principal (which there is none). The teachers are exceptional, but this year they all seem incredibly overwhelmed and are not as able to focus on our children and the learning they need, rather they are dealing with administrative issues.

The most disheartening aspect is that while there is professional development going on with the teachers doing the best to share with one another, the school lacks a consistent focus to integrate new ideas, practices or theories. Any program launched is now difficult to evaluate as there is a lack of time for any of the teachers or TOSA to effectively create a report of findings. All in all, after a year and a half of living through this experiment I'm convinced that the lack of an instructional leader on campus to handle administrative issues, be the one to make final decisions and be accountable to those decisions is making an exceptional school into a average school.