The School Leadership Conundrum: Can Principals Lead Schools Without Alienating Teachers?

Teachers and supervisors have approach/avoidance conflicts.

How do you support and encourage teachers and at the same time evaluate their performance without creating animosity and conflict?

It’s a delicate balance.

“My principal drops into every classroom every day, she does five minute observations every other week and wants to give feedback that day … it never ends.”

“Does she know what she’s talking about?”

“Yes, but I wish she’d leave me alone, I know what I’m doing.”

How do you create a school culture in which principals can work with teachers to improve practice without creating a culture of opposition?

I was the teacher representative on a School Review Team, the union representative said the principal was a great guy, a good relationship with the chapter; I should do what I can to keep him from being removed.

He may have been a nice guy, he was a terrible principal. He spent all his time as the super dean chasing kids around the building, he had nothing to do with instruction. I asked him what he was doing to get the 250 long term absentees back into the building, “Why?” he asked, “They’ll only create chaos.”

I understand why teachers liked him and why teachers probably agreed with him.

Is being a “nice guy” who works well with the teachers the criteria for being a “good principal?

I think not.

Saul Bruckner, the late principal of Edward Murrow High School walked the halls every day, strolled into classrooms, taught a class every morning, and engaged kids and teachers in a never ending dialogue. He knew who to leave alone, who needed a nudge and who needed a push.

It takes time and experience to become an effective school leader. Not a subject that can be absorbed from reading leadership texts or role plays or games.

Principals tell me that they’re a good, effective school leader, does their rating officer, the superintendent, the network dude agree? Do the teachers they supervise agree?

Isn’t the measurement of principal effectiveness the sum total of teacher effectiveness?

The Department of Education in New York City, and school districts around the country decided rather that fighting with teachers assessing the “teaching” side, they’d assess the “learning” side based on outcomes – some iteration of standardized test scores based on growth.

In the push and pull we settled on multiple measures, Danielson or Kim Marshal on the “teaching” side and a “value-added” score based on expected growth on the “learning” side.

Both imperfect measures.

I’ve sat in classrooms for 10-15 minutes with colleagues and then discussed the lesson. Occasionally we’ll see an outstanding teacher, or, disappointingly a weak teacher, usually teachers fall in the middle.

I used to watch the behaviors of the teacher: how did they motivate the lesson? What questions did they ask? Their “timing,” their responses to students. Now I spend at least as much time watching the students: are they engaged? Are they interacting with other students? What’s the quality of the interaction? Where is the discussion on the Bloom Taxonomy or the Depth of Knowledge scale?

You meet with the teacher afterwards,

“How do you think the lesson went?”

“What worked? Why did it work? What would you do differently next time?”

“Do you think the kids ‘got it’? How do you know?”

Sometimes the disconnect between the teacher’s view of the lesson and the observer’s view is disturbing. Other times the discussion is fruitful with an exchange of ideas with suggestions for future lessons.

The skills necessary to be a leader are complex and difficult to predict. Effective leaders may or may not be liked, they are respected. To lead means leading the entire school: teachers, students and parents, the entire school community.

Sometimes the measurement of an effective principal is measured not only by the scores on the standardized tests but the number of teachers attending the barbeque at the principal’s house at the end of June.


4 responses to “The School Leadership Conundrum: Can Principals Lead Schools Without Alienating Teachers?

  1. Eric Nadelstern

    I’ve always felt that teachers learn more observing their colleagues than by being obeserved themselves, and remain disappointed that so few schools give their teachers that invaluable opportunity.


  2. Paul Feingold

    In addition to encouraging underperforming teachers to leave Murrow, Saul Bruckner also strongly pushed out underperforming students. There was minimal intervention or parental notice. Bruckner did a great job with the students and staff he had. But don’t ignore shortcomings.


  3. Retired- no longer public enemy number one.

    Saul Bruckner knew above all the value of treating teachers honestly, professionally, and always with great respect and fairness. He never, ever said “no” to any teacher who wanted to attempt anything that would be to the benefit the students. The school was certainly noted for its “free-wheeling ways,” and indeed was not the right place for every student, or for every teacher.

    Plenty of assistance, “intervention,” and “notice” was given to both the teachers and to the students who could not handle the responsibilities that, of necessity, come with freedoms. Responsibility is, after all, the yoke of the truly free individual.

    Sadly, few administrators nowadays can think about about anything beyond “the statistics.” As such, there will be no end to the bashing and demonizing of teachers, a process society seems to admire and even richly reward as the banksters open their private “academies,” which certainly do “cherry pick” their students.

    As the writer of the column has stated more than once, “the beatings will continue until morale improves!”


  4. Foil Jacqueline

    Sol Siegel, principal of PS 135K liked the camaraderie of working with teachers. At the chapter chairman’s and staff’s request he joined us at special lunch meetings where we could talk about self improvement in our teaching. Even when we talked about things we were having difficulty with, he never judged us, he helped us work through the problem. Even choosing to model a lesson in our classroom, if that would help. That was a great teaching and learning experience for all of us and we grew in expertise. That was 1960 – 1975. I taught until 1991 in several other schools, never found another principal like that. He was a principal who was on a list, he was not a political appointee like the ones that followed!!


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