Sean Slade

Improving Schools: Principal Leadership

The role of the prinicpal is many things to many people. Maybe we need a name change?

  • Principal? This adds weight to the role of key decision maker.
  • Head teacher or headmaster? It certainly echoes the need for the "head" of the school to be an overseer of instruction.
  • CEO? Some would agree, but are our schools mini-businesses? Or rather, do we want them to be?

Add variations of these terms into the mix—principal teacher, head of school, director—and it can get confusing. Should we take Tom Hoerr's lead and redefine the position as something like relationship czar.

"[T]he debate over how student and school progress can be measured, the issue of teachers as artists, and the visible and vulnerable nature of the role of the school leader—take us to one inescapable conclusion: Leadership is about relationships."

Or, paraphrasing Rick Dufour and Mike Mattos in this month's Educational Leadership, maybe we should call it professional learning community director.

"[S]tudent learning increases when teachers participate in professional learning communities. The answer is a resounding and encouraging yes."

Also in this month's EL, Kevin Fahey's thoughts on the principalship bring to mind mentor-in-chief.

"To lead teachers toward greater success, principals need to place both student and adult learning at the center."

The role of the principal is changing—or maybe it's never been static. And while the notion of a name change may appear superficial, a name does influence thinking and assumptions. Many in the United States would recoil at being titled headmaster or headmistress, though these terms are widely used in the UK and Australia. They hark back to days when authoritarian rule was more commonplace and heads were seen as the final say on all matters. Yet many in the UK and Australia, while likely ambivalent about principal, likely would not appreciate being a CEO. Titles have meanings derived from their contexts, and it's likely that no one name would suffice for the range of roles and duties that principals currently undertake.

The upside of this breaking down of the title and discussion of what a principal is and does, though, is to illuminate the fact that these leaders vary in what they do and how they do it. While this can seem daunting to newer principals, it also allows (and maybe even dictates) that each one forge his or her own way, in the best interests of the school, depending upon the context.

It is, as blogger and principal Peter DeWitt writes, about asking yourself, "What kind of school do you want to lead?"

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