A Community of Principals

New perspectives on school leadership and the challenges principals face

October 8, 2015
A Community of Principals

Unlike teachers, who have a built-in support network of peers, school principals usually work alone. In many cases, principals have no one to share — or even understand — their innumerable and vital responsibilities. Such a solitary yet fundamental position can be vulnerable to a narrowing of perspective and overwhelming stress, which can affect teacher and student growth.

HGSE Senior Lecturer Pamela Mason is trying to resolve this dilemma. Mason chairs the New and Aspiring School Leaders Institute, a four-day professional development program at HGSE that invites new principals to come together and talk about leadership styles, how to construct a positive learning environment, and how to form a community of school leaders.

The next Institute is set for November 6–9, 2016.

Usable Knowledge asked Mason — whose background includes 19 years as an elementary school principal — to talk about the challenges facing principals and the characteristics of effective leadership.

Have the responsibilities of school principals increased or changed in recent years?

The responsibilities of school principals have really changed. There’s always been the tension of being a manager of a physical building and of being the instructional leader. The added layer has been the increased microscope on student achievement. Not only are you supposed to be the instructional leader, but now everything instructionally oriented has to be measureable.

There are many things that school leaders do within a building that are affective and motivational for faculty and students which are not measurable, but one can only hope that if teachers and students feel good about where they are, then that will result in positive outcomes.

But everybody is subject to the assessments. Some of the independent charter schools and the religious schools aren’t, but there’s still that added pressure of demonstrating that their students will be competitive in college or in the work force.

What are the leading challenges principals face?

I think finding balance, any type of balance, is a challenge for school leaders. Because of all the pressures and all the constituencies that school leaders have, it can be challenging to remain clear about your values on teaching and learning.

Principals have to ask themselves: What do my values look and sound like in a classroom? What do the interactions between teachers and students, or among students, look like and sound like? It’s so important to be specific about your mission statement and then create a culture in which literally everyone is the same page.

Once you have that shared vision, then a school leader can give up — which is the hardest part — some of the authority of enforcing that vision. You can’t teach every child every day yourself. You want to empower everyone in the school to be part of that teaching and learning mission. You want to give teachers agency so that they feel good about being in the school, and they feel that their creativity, experience, and knowledge about their students is valued.

The last challenge is learning how to support and maintain. With some teachers, you give a kind word. With some others, you’re more of a coach. And with some, you offer to co-teach. You have to be flexible in your leadership style and learn who thrives with what kind of feedback, with what kind of support.

How can building a community of principals work to address those problems?

As much as teachers go into their classrooms and close their doors and teach, principals go into their schools and close the door and lead. So sometimes it’s very lonely.

Our Principals' Center institutes create an opportunity for school leaders from around the country and around the world to see a presentation on leadership and then have an opportunity to talk: to make connections in small groups between the presentation and what they thought the topic was about — to find something new, something unexpected, and check in with other people. It becomes a community of practice.

You just get such rich, nuanced interactions. What our participants find is that across all types of schools, leading a school is pretty much the same. They chuckle about, “Oh, that happened to you too? Well I figured with your kind of school that kind of thing didn’t happen.”

We still get emails from former participants who are asking their small groups for advice on tough issues. One of our participants was a school leader in Baltimore, asking, “Okay, how do I handle what’s going on in my city within five to ten year olds. How do I support my faculty? How do I help them support their students?” So it’s a long-lasting community.

You’ve spoken of the need for principals to have both adaptive and technical skills to face challenges in their work. What is the difference between adaptive and technical skills? How do they complement one another?

Adaptive skills are skills about building community, sharing a vision, setting priorities. Once you have those, you are less prone to having a kneejerk reaction to an incident. Technical skills are more about the logistics, like, “Who serves on bus duty? What’s the master schedule?”

But there’s always an interaction, I feel, between the adaptive and the technical skills. The master schedule, even though it’s a technical skill, should reflect the school’s mission. So if you are you committed to early literacy, you might want all of your primary grades to have an hour and a half of uninterrupted Language Arts block. So that’s where you belief in extended instruction — an adaptive skill and a common vision — gets reflected in the technical “how do we make that work?” Your commitment has implications: The upper-grades are going to have to do something else while the lower grades are reading. And everybody has to understand that their schedule looks this way because of this shared vision of early literacy and teaching and learning.

Additional Resources

  • Watch a video in which Pamela Mason describes her professional development work with school leaders.

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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.