If I Knew Then What I Know Now: Today’s Principalship

Guest post by Frederick Brown, director of strategy and development for Learning Forward, and a former senior program officer for the Wallace Foundation

It has been almost 20 years since I began my principalship, and it’s incredible to me how much has changed in what we expect from our school leaders.

I was trained as a building manager, and my success was often measured by keeping operations and procedures running smoothly. Someone once told me, “Just make sure your school isn’t on the front page of the newspaper because of something negative, and you’ll be seen as a good principal.” Yes, I was expected to know instruction and support teachers, but my main work was focused on things like budgets and making sure the central office received their completed reports on time. Indeed, so much has changed!

Around the time that I was exiting my principalship, the Wallace Foundation was beginning its intense focus on leadership. In ways that no funder had done before, Wallace began asking the question: “What do effective principals do, and how do school systems and states support them?” By investing heavily in states and districts across the country while also commissioning research to uncover lessons from that work, Wallace got the field talking extensively about leadership.

Last year, the Wallace Foundation reflected on all of that work and asked itself the question, “What’s our perspective on what great principals do?” It made sense for Wallace to pose that question and offer its own assessment on what makes for a great leader. That perspective, The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning, will serve as the foundation for one of two sessions I’ll be conducting at the NASSP Ignite ’15 conference in San Diego.

Take a look at the opening statement from this Wallace Perspective: Education research shows that most school variables, considered separately, have at most small effects on learning. The real payoff comes when individual variables combine to reach critical mass. Creating the conditions under which that can occur is the job of the principal. What a powerful opening and reminder about the real work of today’s school principals. The perspective goes on to highlight what effective principals do including:

  • Shaping a vision of academic success for all students
  • Creating a climate hospitable to education
  • Cultivating leadership in others
  • Improving instruction
  • Managing people, data, and processes to foster school improvement

The perspective also answers a question rarely addressed in the literature: Why should teachers care about leadership? An interview with Linda Darling-Hammond addressed this principal-teacher connection. Lucas Held, Wallace’s director of communication, asked several key questions including the following: How do principals and teachers work together to create a collaborative focus on learning? In a manner that completely aligns with Learning Forward’s Learning Communities Standard, Darling-Hammond responds, “The principal functions as a principal teacher who is really focusing on instruction along with [and] by the side of teachers—not top-down mandates and edicts.”

She goes on to state, “When principals are trying to help create such a culture, [they] begin to open the doors and say, ‘Let’s talk about our practice. Let’s show our student work. Let’s go look at each other’s classrooms and see what we’re doing.’” In essence, Linda Darling-Hammond describes a leader exhibiting the five key practices.

Darling-Hammond’s point reminds me of what I felt was a powerful collective professional learning experience for my teachers and I during my principalship. As our district was grappling with a new set of state-level student standards, my staff and I decided it would be extremely useful to carefully map our curriculum and instructional materials to those new standards. There was no mandate or edict from me. Instead, our collective review of our student data led us to make this choice.

As I worked alongside our teachers during this process, I learned so much about our standards and their work. Later, as I observed instruction, I had a deeper understanding of what was happening in teachers’ classrooms because I had been there with them as they were mapping their instructional resources to the state standards.

When you think about it, 2014 was a banner year for leadership. During 2014, the latest Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) Standards were put out for public comment. Soon, we’ll have a first-time-ever set of standards for principal supervisors. Our leadership preparation programs will soon have an updated set of standards that can help inform their practice. In ways it has never happened before, the field is very focused on leadership!

In the midst of the national focus on leadership, school districts are realizing more and more how important it is to clearly define their own expectations for leaders and then align their pre-service work, hiring, induction, evaluation, and ongoing professional learning systems to those expectations. Central offices are recognizing more and more how important it is to support school leaders and their leadership teams and do everything to ensure they remained focused on teaching and learning. So much has changed during these 20 years.

During my Ignite ’15 session in February, we’ll unpack the Wallace Perspective and measure it against the newly released ISLLC Standards. We’ll ask the question, “Does this perspective capture what current principals do?” Our goal will be to compare what the research says to what sitting principals actually face in their buildings.

We’ll also explore a set of tools Learning Forward developed to support those who train principals. It’s an online learning guide aligned to the Wallace Perspective and is free for systems and preservice programs. These resources can be accessed on the Learning Forward website.

A special thanks to the Wallace Foundation for keeping the field focused on those who create the conditions to support effective teaching and learning: school principals. For more information about Wallace and its resources, visit the foundation’s knowledge center.

Meet Frederick Brown at Ignite ’15, where he’ll be part of two presentations: “Becoming a Learning System” and “The Principal’s Story.” Learn more and register for Ignite ‘15 here.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.