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Support for School Leadership: Who is Feeding the Principal?

by Barbara Stacy Rieckhoff, PhD


Neila Connors’ well-known book, If You Don’t Feed the Teachers, They Eat The Students (2000), serves as a favorite read for new and aspiring principals. It contains much sage advice for mentoring teachers and supporting their transition in the profession while offering wisdom to protect them from the ills and evils of the outside world. While the entertaining style gets the point across, the message underscores the fact that supporting teachers is a key role of a school administrator. Since the book was published, tremendous strides have been made to provide teachers, both new and veteran, resources to mentor and foster their continued development as professionals. While this process is not a finished effort, the work of supporting teachers will continue and has been forever included in the role of the school leader. Establishing professional learning communities, developing teacher leaders, and other methods for sustaining teachers are well-established in schools today. As this role along with numerous others continues to expand the work of the principal, however, it does beg the question, “Who is feeding the principal?” If Connors’ logic continues, we are led to believe principals might eat the teachers if they don’t get the proper care and attention. Clearly, accountability efforts at all schools have reached heightened levels with more and more expectations placed upon school leaders. In the current school climate, principals serve as the front line and CEO who keeps all aspects of the school running smoothly. Efforts to meet school improvement goals, improve student learning outcomes, and turn schools around at a rapid pace fall on the principal. Only recently (Wahlstrom & Seashore-Louis, 2010) has the research shifted from indirect impacts of the principal to more direct impacts on student achievement. Clearly, the principal is poised to make all of this happen; however, it is a lot to expect of one individual.

Listen to Barbara Rieckhoff, Assistant Professor in Educational Leadership, DePaul University, discuss support for school leadership.

There are many good reasons to take care of the principal. School leaders continue to leave the field in rapidly growing numbers. The National Association of Elementary School Principals reported a 42% turnover in principals that is to continue into the next decade (Doud & Keller, 1998). This current and future shortage of applicants makes retaining principals even more critical. Johnson (2005) suggested the main reasons principals leave are cultural issues, where strong faculty groups were accustomed to doing things a certain way, thus impacting the principal’s ability to make changes; workload, the many hours needed to attend school and community functions and meetings while supervising large numbers of employees; bureaucracy, including central office directives, restrictive union contracts, and frivolous lawsuits; and student discipline and irate parents. More recently, the 29th Annual Met Life Survey of the American Teacher (2013), which included interview data from 500 principals, suggested that 75% of those polled feel the job is too complex, with nearly half, 48%, under great stress. Job satisfaction has declined nine percentage points in the last four years. “These unsung heroes own the responsibility of everything that happens in the school building … at least 9 out of 10 of them do” (Berkowitz & Myers, 2013). As a result, many principals are even returning to the classroom to avoid the stress, long hours and all that is expected of today’s 24/7 leader. Such data present a strong case for ongoing principal mentoring and coaching, providing school leaders with the necessary tools and resources to effectively lead schools so they don’t leave the field. Principals are expected to turnaround, transform, remediate, support, create, and implement a vision for their schools, often within a short time frame. It is evident that school leaders have not been provided adequate support and encouragement to do all that has been asked of them. Consideration should be given to those in close proximity who can assist them with their work. In other words, “Who is responsible to make sure we don’t eat the principal?”

As the principal’s importance has grown, the need to mentor and coach the principal to be proficient has gained prominence (Daresh, 2004; Gray, Fry, Bottoms & O’Neill, 2007; Saban & Wolfe, 2009). The last decade has experienced the development of effective mentoring models throughout the country, with 32 states requiring mentoring of new principals (Spiro, 2004; Villani, 2006). While funds have been allocated to support beginning principals, often resources end after the first or second year. What becomes essential is a mechanism of professional growth and training to sustain the principal throughout an entire career. Bush & Chew (1995) emphasized the importance of developing human capital, with mentoring poised as a means for expanding these skills. Bloom et al. (2005) suggested key areas for mentoring that include self-awareness and relationship management. Clearly important, all of these skills cannot be developed fully within one year, suggesting the need for mentoring and leadership training to evolve into a career-long process.

Current models of leadership emphasize its shared nature and its relevance as a process or leadership practice. If we truly believe that leadership is a practice, similar to the medical practice and other professions, then we need to build ways to foster its development. That model requires methods to learn the practice, with opportunities to lead, reflect, gain feedback from a coach, and practice various aspects of leadership in a continuous cycle. Initiatives that include this practice element are crucial. While instructional coaching provides for one aspect of the leader’s role, a principal needs coaching in a multitude of other areas.

A number of models help the leader better manage the job and all that comes with it; some involve direct support to the principals, while others may include partnering with the whole school. Most importantly, these models provide a good solution to the reasons principals are leaving the field. The National School Administration Manager (SAM) Project, funded by the Wallace Foundation, provides direct support to the principal through a professional development process. Using a unique set of tools to change a principal’s focus from school management tasks to instructional leadership-activities, the goals connect directly to improving teaching and learning. The process gives principals time and skills to focus on instruction by delegating time-consuming activities to a building manager or other staff members. This shift of the role of the principal to focus less on management duties and more on teaching practice, student learning, and school improvement is critical for effective, lasting change to occur. While this puts principals in a unique position to transform schools, they must have more time for instruction to be effective. This model helps the principal share various non-instructional items with other members of the staff.

Leadership Academies represent another mentoring model gaining in popularity. Many offer peer support for assistant principals to ease them into the profession with help along the way. The Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) has developed a State Leadership Academy Network comprised of six leadership academies who work with the board and school districts to redesign how principals and others school leaders are tapped, trained, certified, and supported as school teams work to improve learning and student achievement. Additionally, SREB runs a University Leadership Development Network in collaboration with eleven universities and school districts to redesign how university leadership preparation programs train aspiring school leaders. Additional redesign efforts focus on changing how leaders are tapped, certified, and supported in their work. As a result, universities are designing curriculum and instruction based on more practical content that provides more challenging assignments and new performance assessments.

The Professional Development School (PDS) Model is one framework for school-university partnerships and can provide much needed support for mentoring and coaching school leaders. A PDS provides a template for urban school reform efforts, where issues of accountability, improvement of practice, and limited resources are present. New roles are thus defined as teachers become part of a collaborative inquiry process and system. PDS goals are often described in terms of impact on preservice teachers, practicing educators, and P-12 student learning (Holmes Group, 1997). Such school-university partnerships provide a logical reciprocal relationship for students at both organizations as well as a real-life training ground for students at the university; classroom-based experiences connect with the realities of the school instead of learning in isolation. In addition, outcomes for leadership support are at the early stages with the opportunity for new and veteran principals to engage in dialogue and also participate in university and network learning. New and veteran principals can engage in professional learning to keep them current, knowledgeable about best practice, and emotionally supported. Within such a structure, there is time to reflect on the fast pace of the work with opportunities for non-evaluative conversations with former school administrators serving in university positions. Mentoring within a professional development school model supports the ongoing learning that exists with other stakeholders in the school and provides support for the person who has the most responsibilities on his/her own shoulders. This multi-tiered model is one in which resources can be shared and roles are divided and overlap. A university faculty member may assist in school curricular issues while the principal participates in student teaching seminars. The opportunity to seek advice and counsel from outside of the schoolhouse and away from those who will evaluate is invaluable. The need for leaders to reflect upon their decisions and consider how they can do things differently in the future is also critical. As a result, they need a time and place to go for reflection, and a mentor can provide that support.

Support from the district level and central office staff is another less formal way principals are helped. Professional organizations, conferences, and online resources continue to grow in popularity and use. The principal’s workload leaves limited time to gather information on new initiatives or practices they are supposed to lead.

Leadership preparation programs need to consider how to follow their graduates into the field and partner with districts to offer much needed support to principals in year 1, 2, and beyond. Considerations must be given for a reflective process and reflective model. Green (2010) provided a model emphasizing the four dimensions of principal leadership: understanding of self and others, understanding the complexity of organizational life, developing relationships, and engaging in leadership best practices. This model provides a template for principals to see their strengths and areas for growth. It builds upon traditional and current 360 evaluations; the opportunity for reflection allows the time and the process for learning to occur and facilitates the practice aspect of leadership.

Leadership is a key factor in operating effective schools. Moving forward, it is necessary to create structures and processes for principal support. Instead of replacing principals in rapid fashion, or allowing them to eat the teachers, wouldn’t a much better model involve providing them support and resources at every step along the way?

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