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.
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.
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.