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Teacher Prep

These Are the Principals Our Teachers Need

For teachers to develop professionally, they must be led by a master. During my first nine years in public school, I taught under seven directors in the same school. Their personalities and styles differed, but one thing remained consistent: whatever his or her educational expertise, they functioned as itinerant administrators under bureaucratic job descriptions. The last thing we educators need is another administrator. We need currently practicing master-teachers and mentors with visions aligned to the schools where we work. Transform the role of the principal and professional development will transform educators. Principals should remain educators who stand humbly behind their professional staff supporting them with their experience. A principal should be the principalis: the "main" example of what it is to educate youth. They are the servant-leaders, the “princes” of educating, the “originators” of the educational vision, the “first” among many. My leaders have either not been that person or have not had the chance to shine as that person. The best principals protect their educators from bureaucracies that distract from the call to educate; the worst institute programs (see also here and here) hoping that one of them will work. Education is not primarily a science; it is a practiced art. When we turn learning into a cause/effect experience, we bypass the human relationship. Professional development is a human experience. We need personal interaction with other teachers, especially master-teachers, to improve our art. This is the greatest obstacle we face: The human part of education is forced into the box of an objective, efficiently administered system. Master-educators know the system is incomplete. Administrational minds have developed systems to objectively prove their worth while the art, the human part of education, is forgotten. Our policies have subverted the role of exemplar, educational leadership and are left with mere administration. I think we crave more. While an administrator is simply one who is “responsible” or “one who implements” or “dispenses,” even the definition highlights the distance they have from the work of education. The true leaders schools need are far from that: They “cause to move forward” and “show the way by going in front of or beside.” Imagine what a principal, who is there because they are a master-teacher, can do for the educators in the building. There is a stark difference between what we often have and what we need. We need teacher-leaders. The office of principal is commonly seen as the only route to advancement for an educator. I suspect that this often leads the wrong people to earn the degree and position themselves to administer the policies of a school. Administrative degrees require as little as three years in the classroom for admittance. At that point a teacher is still in the elementary stages of teaching when they exit the profession to “advance.” The popular view, going back to the 1993 study by Anders Ericsson, is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill ( there are more factors involved). For a teacher, if we look at this generously considering the many skills required, at the least we should be engrossed in our classroom between 8.5 to 10 years before considering mastery and a principal’s role. Would a soldier with three years experience out of bootcamp be handed the responsibility of a general? Would an engineer who has not proven his ability at structural design for a decade be trusted with the responsibility of lead-engineer on any project? Would a doctor, fresh out of residency and just beginning to practice medicine, oversee a team of surgeons? Electricians and plumbers are apprentices for years for good reason. Then why are schools different? How does promoting and encouraging the unseasoned teacher toward administration help me develop as a professional? For professional development to be improved, our expectations of principals must change. The truth is, I believe the only route to career advancement within the education world is to stay in the classroom. In my experience, the best educators do not consider the “demotion” to administrator because it is not the job they value most. They aren’t mistaken. Perhaps it is the job that is wrong. Our foundational expectations of principals must change.
  1. Principals must continue to keep a classroom to maintain educational credibility and vision. They are first and foremost, educators not administrators. Schools should not become bureaucracies with CEO structures valuing the inexperienced hierarchy of top-down management. When the teachers have more experience in their craft than the appointed leader, we are setting schools up for mediocrity. Only in practice can a principal remain learned and lead educators.
  2. Principals need a depth of experience. They should have no fewer than ten years of practice. A great educational leader is more than an educational programmer. The average administrator who judges particular programs one by one as they execute them from their office has to rely on the phrase “research shows” to give them credibility. In contrast, the true principal leads from a deep well of insight refined through continued experience. They embody the research. They counsel and marshal other educators as they experience the story of education unfolding through the year.
  3. Principals must be worthy of trust. They have the confidence to be personal, nurturing mentors. They are not rushed; they are not just goal-oriented; they care about individuals. They do not hold the power of the job over the heads of their teachers, but have earned the privilege of trust. An educator cannot be candid with an authoritarian leader, and it takes trust between the pupil and the master-teacher. We know this as educators and the truth does not change with professionals.
  4. A true principal is a humble example of a learner. Leading those with more experience and expertise than they themselves possess takes a confident spirit of meekness. They amplify the wisdom of the educators in the building. They honor the voices of the professionals they have the privilege to lead. They lead from the background where the only applause they may receive is from the educators who need them to support their work.
When principals continue to be involved in educating rather than simply “administrating,” the right people will enter the job. Those already there may find a vision they lost somewhere in their paperwork, and I can grow as an educator. My students will learn better and school can be a place filled with the joy of learning. Let administrators rise to the level of a true principal and we all benefit.
An earlier version of this post originally appeared on Wade Sutton's blog ProspectiveEducation.
Wade Sutton, M.Ed, currently teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English in the School of Logic at Eagle Ridge Academy in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. He began teaching in 2004 in a private school then taught for eight years in a rural public school before joining the staff at a classical charter school. He was a member of the 2012 VIVA Minnesota Teachers Writing Collaborative that produced the ...

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