If only Aragorn was a principal…
J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings ranger really understands leadership. Aragorn rejects the use of coercive power although he has an inherent right to run the show. Instead, he works collaboratively with a team of others, inspiring them to serve in an exemplary way, overcome their personal weaknesses, and despite the chaos surrounding them, stay focused on a goal that will benefit all of Middle Earth. He is willing to learn from experience and wise advisors and doesn’t give up on companions who fail along the way, but encourages and believes in their ability to succeed and learn from their mistakes. He doesn’t allow seemingly impossible odds to stop him from doing all he can.
Long ago I learned in spelling class that the principal is supposed to be your “pal.” Okay, but I like this better: Puposeful, Positive, Articulate Advocate, Leader for Learning (The PPAALL). The principal is your P²A²L². Okay, that sounds kind of ridiculous, but hear me out.
In my 35 years of teaching (20+ at the same school,) I’ve had 10 plus principals, and that plus doesn’t mean they were always awesome. I’ve learned a lot over the years about what makes a strong leader, and at times, I hope for an Aragorn. Each of the principals who has had stewardship over me, my colleagues, and my precious school, has had wonderful qualities, but like every other human being, he or she has had weaknesses too.
The best principals (and teachers too) humbly acknowledge shortcomings and work diligently to overcome them by pursuing greater understanding through practice, study and learning, by delegating some tasks to skilled associates, and effectively collaborating in teams. The most critical strength for a school leader is humility, an empowering belief that he or she can be even better at their job, coupled with a willingness to do something about it. No excuses. No blaming.
Principals must have a clear idea of where they want to take their school. Obviously, that ought to be somewhere wonderful, where their students are doing remarkable and amazing things and achieving excellent results (like destroying the one ring of impossibly evil power.) When test scores for the whole district average below 40% passing, making sure all kids learn to solve math problems effectively may seem like an impossible task, but it’s a great goal.
No matter how great a principal’s vision, they need the cooperation and help of staff and students (a “fellowship,” if you will.) Leaders’ positive belief in others’ abilities, and ongoing support to help them achieve to their utmost, is empowering and motivational. The school environment must be a safe and encouraging place for learning. An overemphasis on test scores, without attendant support and without clear expectations for achievement of incremental growth, creates a climate of fear. Most people don’t learn well when they feel pressured, especially if the learning is an area in which they lack confidence. School leaders help inspire confidence by pointing out where effort is making a difference.
It is a leader’s responsibility to advocate for his or her staff and students. No one else has that authority. Failing to support and speak for those in his charge or failing to help them find collective success, is to fail at one’s mission. Effective leaders know they need others and that others will only trust them if they are trustworthy. A strong principal works with others to cultivate talent and strengthen abilities so the team is successful, accomplishing great things as effective colleagues. This leader takes the time to empower others and speaks up when something needs correction or efforts need to be redoubled. When others are struggling, this leader doesn’t abandon them. Like Aragorn, they make the difficult journey to rescue and build capacity in those who have become lost along the way.
These leaders are present at the important events of a school. They are found in classrooms, on the playground, in the lunchroom, at sporting and other after school events, at parent meetings, and at district functions where their school is being represented. They interact and are involved.
Leader for Learning
Aragorn knew his stuff. A strong educational leader knows what good instruction is and works to enable others to be their best, to achieve results. Usually this involves a lot of paper work, analyzing data correctly and collecting it effectively. Often it involves working with challenging schedules, conflicting expectations and complicated educational processes. Sometimes it involves working with difficult people; traumatized, entitled, and/or angry students, obstinate or weary staff members, misinformed or single focused parents and guardians, or possibly punitive administrators who are poor listeners. All this must be skillfully managed in a way that that empowers, never disempowers.
A great example of this kind of principal is Linda Cliatt-Wayman, whose Ted Talk about transforming schools has reached millions. Her three slogans? “If you are going to lead, lead.” When looking at data and obstacles, she asks her staff to consider and discuss, “So what, now what?” She tells her students every day, “If nobody told you they loved you today, you remember that I do, and I always will.”
Turns out the research backs me up on P²A²L². What the research says about the importance of school leadership is that principals have the ultimate power to create exceptional and effective educational environments.
Five key functions are identified by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) and the Wallace Foundation. These key functions were further developed into professional standards by the National Board.
The functions of a principal are:
1. Shaping a vision of academic success for all students based on high standards. (Purposeful)
2. Creating a climate hospitable to education in order that safety, a cooperative spirit and other foundations of fruitful interaction prevail. (Positive)
3. Cultivating leadership in others so that teachers and other adults assume their part in realizing the school vision. (Articulate Advocate)
4. Improving instruction to enable teachers to teach at their best and students to learn at their utmost (Leader for Learning)
5. Managing people, data and processes to foster school improvement. (L² too)
Among my past principals, not one could possibly have had every characteristic of my fictional leader; absolute wisdom, vast networks of support, and infinite patience and motivational power, but some have come pretty darn close. They brought out the best in those they led. I’m a better teacher for having been in their school.
School administrators are vital for good schools. Strong, positive leadership creates a place for powerful learning. Weak, authoritarian, or demeaning leadership can quickly destroy a school or a school system. Each principal, like Aragorn, should inspire and call on others, (with the possible exception of the legions of the dead) to work together to achieve greatness.
Have you ever had a P²A²L² kind of principal? Tell me about your experience.