Our Expectations Are (and Should Be) High
I am a principal. I knew I wanted to become a principal soon after I began my teaching career almost 20 years ago, and I count myself as among the fortunate few who can honestly say they are making a living doing what they always dreamed of doing. Seven years ago, when I began this phase of my career, a colleague, herself a retired principal, asked me if I understood the difference between being the principal of the school and every other position in the building. I am sure that I gave her some academic response, to which she simply stated, "Always remember, the lives of every student in the building are in your hands." While I imagine she was including the literal safety of my kids in her comment, I am certain that what she really meant was that my success or failure as a leader would have life-changing implications for the quality of the futures my students would live.
To be successful, a principal must have a clearly defined vision. Mine includes the belief that when children enter the schoolhouse, they deserve adults who believe that all things are truly possible. I have an ethical and moral responsibility to create an environment in which staff has the will, skill, knowledge, and capacity to make the seemingly impossible a reality. I often refer to my teachers as magicians, because when they do what they do well, it is a truly magical thing. But when we fail systemically to create that magic for significant portions of our school's population, we don't just hurt those students, we fail our community. It is for this reason that we must explicitly and overtly seek to understand and address issues facing our most marginalized students, most notably as they relate to existing racial, cultural, and economic achievement disparities. In doing so, we must promote implementation of teaching that is responsive to students' academic and social-emotional needs.
To be successful, principals must also be unwavering in their commitment to equity. In 1949 W.E.B. DuBois said, "Of all the civil rights the world has struggled and fought for over the last 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental." The context in which this fundamental right can most effectively be met must include an intentional focus on students as individuals rather than as the sum of their standardized assessment scores. In a country historically preoccupied by a collective obsession with sorting our young people into silos far too difficult for most to climb out from, this is no easy task. For too long, the United States has struggled to find excuses for variances in achievement between and among student groups rather than conducting an honest root-cause analysis and taking a hard look at institutional policies and practices that may be involved. As a principal, I have been given a solemn and critically important charge: to eliminate the racial and economic predictability of student performance. If I do not show the courage to face this charge head on, or if I fail in my mission to motivate my staff and community around this charge, then I will have failed a generation of young people whose futures have been placed in my hands.
I view public education as a beacon of hope for a future of dreams currently deferred. By swinging open the doors to highly rigorous coursework, by creating academic and social environments in which all students (regardless of arbitrary sorting mechanisms such as race and economics) can achieve at high levels, by crafting learning opportunities that are responsive to changing 21st century needs, principals can be part of engineering a new Great Society. In his 1960 Democratic National Convention nomination acceptance speech, John F. Kennedy said,
"[W]e stand today on the edge of a New Frontier ... a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats. ... Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus."
I present to you that today we are again standing at the edge of our own New Frontier. Public education has always been one of the leading sources of creativity and innovation. By providing the world class education that we know we are capable of, we can again construct a future filled with endless possibilities for all of our children.
Marc Cohen is a high school principal in Montgomery County, Md. Since becoming a principal in 2006, he has led an aggressive campaign designed to raise academic standards and narrow the achievement gap for all students attending his school. A recipient of ASCD's Outstanding Young Educator Award in 2009, he is an advocate for educational causes internationally and in the United States. Cohen also is an education consultant and a keynote and professional development presenter. Connect with Cohen on his website, blog, and on Twitter @marcjcohen.