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The Principal Challenge

Taking a closer look at an iconic profession — and what it takes to succeed
 The Principal Challenge

The principal’s role  — increasingly recognized as critical to a school’s vibrancy, its prospects for innovative change, and its overall success — is a pressure-filled job that is at once highly public and extremely isolating.

When Sarah Fiarman first stepped into the role, she was determined to avoid common pitfalls and to cultivate the skills she thought she’d need to raise achievement. “I went into this role with a lot of passion and a strong sense of urgency that I wanted to improve the education of all children, and in particular children who’ve historically been not well served by our school system,” she says in an interview recorded for the Harvard EdCast. Focused on accountability, Fiarman assumed that her approach would mean managing the challenges of teacher evaluation and being willing to root out subpar performance.

But she quickly learned that most teachers shared her passion to do the hard work — and that “you can’t fire your way to improved student learning.” She came to see that “the job of the leader is not to make people work harder. It’s to create a culture of learning — to support adult learning in the service of student learning.” [Read more below.]

As she recounts in a new book about how principals learn to lead, Fiarman realized that effective leadership is a long game, one that begins with a belief that the adults in the building have to be learning alongside the children. “I recognized that in order to help that first grader learn to read, I would have to figure out how to help that child’s teacher learn to be a more effective reading instructor. That meant investing in systems in the school where teachers are learning together, where teachers feel a heightened sense of accountability toward each other.”

Rather than viewing accountability as a one-way channel between teacher and principal, she began to focus on building a school “where there’s a culture of feeling accountable to our students and families collectively, where each of us is really deeply invested in each others’ professional success. That lifts the achievement of everyone.”

Listen to the EdCast to learn more about how principals grow and develop as school leaders and as leaders of educational change.

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