Having the right principal in place is as important as retention

Maureen Downey wrote this article this week about whether we are focusing enough on principal quality. The references she makes refer to who to retain principals and how busy the job is.

From my experience in DeKalb County, it’s been less about how to keep good principals and more about what to do about the really awful ones? No one seems to fire teachers….not sure what that is about. Last year there was a great uproar over the Principal at Southwest DeKalb HS. She was simply transferred to another school (so she can torment another whole set of parents, students and staff?). Avondale Elementary School had an awful principal for almost 10 years. That principal was the reason the Museum Charter School was created. That principal finally left at the end of 2013-2014 school year. The new principal is fantastic, and I am not concerned about him staying because he is building great roots in the community.

I’m concerned about the lack of principal accountability by regional superintendents and the shuffling of principals to other schools when they probably should be fired. Why can’t we fire principals? For a non union state, sure seems like those protections are in place – that or extreme nepotism!

I know that DeKalb Schools recently received grant money to support training and accountability for regional superintendents who supervise our principals. Looks like I’ll need to check in on that and see what progress has been made.

Another issue that Maureen doesn’t bring up regarding the role of principals and turnover is the being principal is an administrator role vs an educator role. It’s more commonly accepted that principals spend time teaching before they become a principal. While that experience is truly helpful in understanding the teaching side of the school business, it does not really assist with the business side of the school. Managing staff, outside relationships, parents, all the administrative work, budgeting – the business side of the job is often more difficult for principals who haven’t had a great deal of complementary experience.

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We need trustworthy principals & teachers and they deserve autonomy & resources

We need trustworthy principals & teachers and they deserve autonomy & resources

©Depositphotos.com/Margaret Paynich

©Depositphotos.com/Margaret Paynich

I have been considering a run for school board in my community and it looks like the right set of circumstances has arisen to make it possible for me to run. The seat wont be elected until 2016 so I have some time. But once I learned that it was likely the right circumstances were going to exist (I was potentially going to be annexed into another city and would not be eligible to run in unincorporated where I live now. But it appears I won’t be annexed!) I earnestly started thinking about the role.

The hardest part in my mind is balancing the needs and roles of every single member. So seldom do all of these pieces fit well together, but we need:

Principals with the autonomy to make the right decisions for their school, including spending, staffing and programming. On the flip side we need a principal worthy of giving this autonomy to. I think it is extremely telling when we “don’t” give this autonomy, either because someone else wants to power, or we don’t trust the principal. Ok – if you don’t trust the principal, don’t just limit their power, fire the principal! I agree if principals are going to get sweeping power they must not abuse it. So there is a tremendous trust factor involved here. Teachers generally advocate against sweeping principal power because of the potential to use the power abusively.

We also need to be able to give autonomy to teachers, including how they teach their curriculum, spearhead school projects and implement new ideas. They should be respected, compensated well, have opportunities for collaboration, offered appropriate professional development, expected to work reasonable hours and recognized for their work outside the classroom as well. But IF we give teachers all of this they MUST not abuse it either. No one with 180 work days and multiple week long vacations and a couple months in the summer should be taking 20 of those 180 days off from work. They must not stonewall principals, staff, teachers and parents into doing whatever the teacher wants them to do. Autonomy should not mean a teacher fails to engage with students and passes out worksheets all day all year. They should not be gossiping about their co-workers every day at lunch. Can please stop talking about how you “only need a stick it out a few more years to get your pension?” Can you stop complaining that your health insurance premium is going up 5% a year (after your union spent all your money fighting about it for 3 years) when there are people who don’t even have jobs, and possibly not insurance at all. At this point a teacher’s job is reasonably secure compared to almost any job. Yet all I hear is complaining.

Somehow we must combine a trustworthy principal and trustworthy teachers in the same school building. How often does that actually happen? I think it usually happens one of two ways. Either there are strong teachers who walk all over the principal, or a principal that abuses power and walks all over the teachers. I know, it all happens. My goal as a school board member would be to work on ways to obtain the ideal – trustworthy principals and teachers where we can provide them the liberties they need and deserve and not worry about abuse of power on either side. Sometimes it just takes gaining perspective on each side. Either way, I’m going to have open conversations about this topic, especially if I make a run for my school board seat.