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Open Letter to Principals Who Stayed

Amethyst Hinton Sainz Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Professional Development, Teacher Leadership

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The following letter is written to all school and district administrators who have stayed for four years or more and worked tenaciously for school improvement.

Dear Leaders,

Thank you. Thank you for staying put for a few years and leading your schools through good and bad times with courage. Thank you for investing yourself in one community over a long haul.

We teachers have seen many principals and assistant principals come and go. We try to define our own core philosophies of education, but often every year or two we are presented with a new school leader with a new set of priorities and strategic initiatives. When this happens, we reflect upon how well the new priorities align with our own professional values and practices, and we make decisions about how much we will invest ourselves in the new ways. We know by now that compliance is not optional. But despite our more noble professional selves, we also know that we can comply for one or two years, to the extent that we must, and then wait to see who comes next. There is no need to transform, no need for real change.

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This is the cynic in me talking, because of course there is a need for transformation. Schools are in the process of reinventing themselves and, in Arizona, we are doing it without a lot of the resources that would really help. But schools will not reinvent themselves if they are on the hamster wheel of what the School Leaders Network calls “principal churn” in their 2014 report. That report highlights the chilling frequency of principal turnover, and the sad but not surprising fact that it affects high-poverty schools more often than schools in wealthier areas. It reminds us that principal churn has major effects on teacher retention and student achievement, with cumulative effects which grow the more the churn continues. I usually do not let the cynic in me out, but that battle is one that any good teacher faces, and one that good leadership can help her win.

We teachers know what it feels like to work in the grey shadows of a school: Unknown to most except a few colleagues; unheard in policy decisions; unvalidated… but also underscrutinized. Sometimes we crave more meaningful relationships with our leaders, and on other days we are just a tiny bit grateful that we have that breathing room that comes when new administrators are overwhelmed just getting everything established the way they want it. Those who are lucky have had the opportunity to work alongside great school leaders who chose to stay, to develop the relationships, vision and skill that create better schools for everyone.

If you are a principal who has at least stayed one presidential term, four years, working to make your school great, then I applaud you. I am certain that your teachers have seen you make fantastic decisions, but also grow from the flubs, just as we are expected to grow through experience and reflection. What better model for leadership? Teachers have seen you reach out to various parts of the campus community to rely on their expertise or innovations. Teachers have seen you form a professional community over time, one that supports both student achievement and a challenging yet supportive work environment for teachers. Teachers have learned that evaluations aren’t “gotchas” and that you care about where the lessons learned will lead next year. Teachers have likely grown as leaders in their own right under your guidance and with your support.

If you are a high school principal, you have stayed to see your first freshman class graduate.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand, as do most other teachers, why other principals have moved on. There is every incentive to move “up the ladder” from elementary principal to middle and then high school principal. The salaries typically move up along that ladder. I also understand that if you want the “big bucks,” as such exist in education, you either need to start a for-profit charter school or you need to start grooming yourselves for those district assistant superintendent positions. Doctoral degrees aren’t free. And you probably have kids in college by that point.  Life is expensive.

We surely understand that you made a rational choice to leave teaching in the first place. Some very special principals leave teaching based on vision and a desire to lead and create positive systemic change. For others, it was a practical choice after examining teacher salary schedules vs. principal salary schedules. I mean, if you are going to pursue a master’s degree, you might as well pursue a position that will help you pay off that degree in less than twelve years with the additional income.

Whatever your reasons for coming and staying, I hope that as you have grown alongside your campus community, rather than hopping off it like a stepping stone, you have perhaps felt greater job satisfaction and perhaps less stress than those who have moved on. Having had a new principal and evaluator every year for the past six years, I can tell you that from my perspective, all that churn has created undue stress and worry. 

I hope that before the end of my career I can once more work alongside a school leader for several years, work and grow and focus more of my energy on instruction and my students. I truly appreciate that you have provided that experience for the teachers on your watch. Perhaps you have passed up opportunities or promotion, and for that I am sorry, but you are truly needed where you are.

I hope you stick around for a few more years to come.

Sincerely, Amethyst

 

I currently teach English Language Development at Rhodes Junior High in Mesa Public Schools. I love seeing the incredible growth in my students and being an advocate for them. I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts. Before this position I taught high school English in Arizona for 20 years. My alma maters are Blue Ridge High School and the University of Arizona. My bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Philosophy led me toward the College of Education, and I soon realized that the creative challenges of teaching would fuel me throughout my career. My love of language, literature and culture led me to the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College for my masters in English Literature. I am a fellow with the Southern Arizona Writing Project, and that professional development along with, later, the National Board process, has been the most influential and transformative learning for me. I enjoy teaching students across the spectrum of academic ability, and keeping up with new possibilities for technology in education, as well as exploring more topics in STEM. In recent years, much of my professional development has focused on teacher leadership, but I feel like I am still searching for exactly what that means for me. I live in Mesa, Arizona with my family. I enjoy them, as well as my vegetable garden, our backyard chickens, our dachshund Roxy, reading, writing, cooking (but not doing dishes), hiking and camping, and travel, among other things.

Comments 9

  1. Jen Robinson

    Hi Amethyst
    Thanks for sharing this post. As an administrator I often don’t get thank you’s. Just the nature of what we do I guess. As I read your post, I reflected on the past five years and where we as a school, staff, parents and students have come. Honestly I never thought about how long I would be a principal. At first I just wanted to make it through each and every day and stay positive and hopeful. Then I started making five year plans with teachers, but that has come too quickly.
    You make great points about leadership and vision and the struggle for teachers, parents and students when administration churns and steps away from their schools. It honestly breaks my heart because how will we ever move forward and achieve greatness when administrators and teachers and staff are constantly stepping in and out of the game?

      1. Jennifer Robinson

        Thanks! I’ve thought about your post all day…I think as an administrator you have to allow yourself to be vulnerable and open to new learning. Able to make mistakes alongside kids and teachers. Keep moving forward and building each other up…stay committed to the kids.

  2. Beth Maloney

    Amethyst, this is beautiful. It made me reflect on the wonderful (and otherwise) school leaders I’ve had over the years. I will share this with the great ones! They deserve thanks and praise.

  3. Mike Vargas

    I loved this post because I don’t think people really understand how important your school front office is to making a great school. I had some really horrific principals back in the day. People that were unfit to lead people. But when you get a champion. Someone who is behind you and for you. It has an amazing effect on you as the teacher, your school, and your community. I think everyone knows who the ladder climbers are. My respect always goes to the bosses who are in it for the long haul.

  4. Christine Porter Marsh

    I already appreciate my principal (who’s been at my school for many years); however, your post makes me appreciate her even more. There’s never enough gratitude in this world, so thank you for making me feel more of it.

  5. Angelia

    All of the key players in education need some love, including administrators. It is so important that those who are passionate and visionary stay in education. Without a balance of leadership types and personalities in our schools, we can not make the progress that we hope to make. You address one of the key factors of change, commitment. Educators who stay in education are committed and their knowledge, coupled with vision, can be a key contributor to sustainable change.

  6. Mike Lee

    Great read. I have to say that, as a reformed principal (haha!), your words were kind. I have to say, though, much respect right back to you and your peers who manage to do incredible work without receiving the attention and support you deserve. Nothing marvels like a master teacher at work!

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