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What Principals Can Do to Fight Misperceptions About Their Jobs

The principal role is like an iceberg—most of it is obscured from view.

Principals can’t just walk the hallways, and they can’t only be holed up in their offices, answering emails. They are the operational and instructional heads of their schools. But to their district-level supervisors, they’re middle managers who are expected to carry out the initiatives of more senior leaders.

Despite their multifaceted role—or because of it—principals are fighting a perception battle about what their job is, how involved they are in running their schools, and most importantly, how much they support their teachers. In a 2018 study conducted by the research organization RAND, nearly 98 percent of principals rated themselves highly on tasks like setting a clear vision for the school and setting expectations with their staff on meeting instructional goals. In contrast, 80 percent of teachers surveyed agreed that their principals were doing a good job on these tasks.

This clash in perception between how principals view their role and how teachers view it was recently underscored in educators’ responses to an EdWeek story about the biggest misconceptions about principals. On Facebook, the story generated strong views from educators who weighed in with their own experiences with principals.

“At the beginning of my teaching career I had the best supportive principles [sic]. They supported us and they told us they “had” our back. Then the last 10 years I had principles [sic] that they would go to our rooms and have “gotcha” moments. Very uncomfortable.”

—Debra D

“Sometimes they sit in other people’s offices, too. Other times, a long lunch. I do NOT miss being pulled out of my classroom to help admin with whatever it is they needed done, only to grade papers and eat my sandwich while they took 2-hour lunches.”

—Matt B

“In my building we are on our 6th principal in 9 years. In addition, we have had many different APs. This lack of consistency was harmful to both staff and students. There was favoritism for some staff and targeting of others. Morale was as low as it could get. We need admin to work with us. They need to be seen by students as supporting their teachers.”

—Cindy R

There isn’t clear evidence that the perception clash is getting any worse, especially as the principal role has expanded since the start of the pandemic, said Ellen Goldring, a professor of education policy and leadership at Vanderbilt University who has studied principal and teacher perceptions. But the challenge at the heart of the perception clash remains. Plus, said Goldring, the job since schools reopened has become more complicated as student and parent needs around school safety and mental health have changed and expanded.

“Teachers want principals to be strong internal leaders, and provide as much support and guidance as they can on disciplinary or curricular matters. But a principal’s role is much broader than that,” Goldring said.

Control the funnel of information

As a high school principal, Todd Dain has had to decide whether he was an umbrella or a funnel.

“We get directives from the district, and we have to make a decision. Do we pour this information into a funnel onto the teachers’ plates. Or do we want to be an umbrella to protect teachers from it,” Dain said.

Dain, a principal at Shawnee Mission South High School in Overland Park, Kansas, said his priority is to help teachers build connections with their students. Students need to trust the adults in their classrooms because it keeps them coming back, he said. This means parsing out issues that teachers can control, and things they can’t.

For instance, to tackle chronic student absenteeism, Dain said one thing teachers can control is making their classes more engaging. But there’s a whole administrative backbone behind keeping students in class that’s outside teachers’ purview.

“We have to create an overall message for the parents, work with the district on truancy, navigate individual cases with social workers and counselors and then have interventions in place. These are things that teachers don’t have control over,” Dain said.

Then there are elements to the principal role that don’t relate at all to what’s going on in classes, like dealing with construction work in schools, or working with textbook companies on orders.

These responsibilities can keep him busy all day, which makes him less “visible” to teachers, Dain said. He balances it by doing more walk-throughs with his five associate principals. Each leader gets a floor assigned to them in a week, to ensure they’re hitting up all the classrooms, and are visible to the 125 full-time teachers and 1,500 students.

“We also send hand-written notes to our staff every week. We’ll acknowledge their work on a lesson, for example,” Dain said.

The perception gap happens, he said, when principals don’t follow through on problems that teachers bring to their attention.

“You have to let them know that you’re working on a solution, even if you don’t have it straight away,” he said.

A principal’s visibility can improve a teacher’s impression of them, as one teacher shared in a comment on the social media post:

“Our AP this year doesn’t even have an office set up. She has a cart she pushes around the building all day. She’s present, she’s positive and I’m so happy to have her in our building.”

—Alicia G

Other teachers appreciate that their principals act like an “umbrella”:

“If you have a really good principal, and things are ticking along all lovely, sometimes you don’t really know what they do. This is because they are stopping all the trivia & bureaucracy & unjustified parental complaints & fussing in the office & dealing with it so that their teachers can get on with teaching!”

—Louise B

Manage up, manage down

Principals are sandwiched between district leaders and their staff. This means they must manage expectations on both ends.

As a principal, Kerensa Wing said she was pulled out of school at least one day a week for administrative work.

“I would do the morning announcements even if I had to spend the day off campus, so that it would seem I’m in the building,” she said.

She’s now a principal coach based in Gwinett County, Ga., and trains principals on dealing with leadership challenges.

Wing has been a teacher as well, and said the perception gap develops around “how” principals support teachers.

When dealing with a student disciplinary issue, for instance, Wing said every teacher will want to feel supported in a different way.

“Some teachers are open to having a [restorative] conversation. Others may want to see some consequences,” she said. “The principal has to walk the line between supporting a teacher and supporting the family. A principal has to make sure the family still feels comfortable sending their kid to school.”

Managing teacher expectations also means expanding the pool of people who take on part of the administrative load.

“Schools need visible and present leadership that’s not just principals. Department chairs can step in,” Goldring said.

Effective principals have also figured out how to not let the urgent get in the way of the important. Principals shouldn’t give up spending time with teachers or running a student club in favor of administrative tasks. This is where districts can be more helpful, Goldring added.

“Districts shouldn’t be constantly interrupting,” she said. “Can the meeting be a memo instead when things are due [at the district level]? Individual principals can learn to prioritize their core work in schools, but it’s also up to the district to create this culture across schools.”

Don’t forget to explain why

Being present, or visible, is also a numbers game. In a smaller school, with 20 teachers, connecting with every teacher individually is not a problem. That’s not the case with Michael Brown’s high school, with 100 full-time staff and 2,500 students. Brown, who leads Winters Mill High School in Westminster, Md., instead relies on clear communication about the changes he’s making in the school.

Under a new plan, Brown said the school had to move some teachers to new classrooms to make space for new hires, including counselors, full-time social workers and a Hispanic liaison officer.

“For our teachers, I broke down the whole plan with timelines for these changes over the next five years,” Brown said. “They may not agree with all the changes, but they need to understand why it’s happening.”

Without knowing the why, teachers will feel disconnected from these decisions. “It’s better than leaving it up to them to imagine why this is happening,” he said. “Everyone has made up their mind about what this [principal] job is. But that’s not what the job really is.”

The perception gap can be filled if both teachers and principals are willing to walk in each other’s shoes, as a teacher-turned-principal noted:

“This year, I decided to classroom teach full-time again after 11 years in admin and coaching positions. Knowing that everyone thinks they know everybody else’s job has made me more focused on doing my very best with the students in front of me and helps me tune out the BS. I’m very content this year and enjoying the positive interactions with my kids.”

—Christina N

Wing thinks this might be a good practice in general.

As a principal, she ran a program for eight years in her school to train teachers who wanted to be leaders. “They shadowed some assistant principals and were very surprised at how much we have to do,” Wing said. “There was much more appreciation for the role.”

Did every teacher in the program stay on the leadership track?

“No. Some went on to train at the district level,” Wing said. “But other teachers decided to stay in their role.”

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