Why Needing to Be Popular is Bad for Principals
Blog, Leadership Skills and Implementation

PD for Principals: Why the Need to be Popular is a Red Flag

By Terry Wilhelm
Why Needing to Be Popular is Bad for Principals

In many respects, effective leadership can be described as a balancing act. Leaders must be able to provide both support and accountability, be directive or nondirective as the situation warrants, and have a strong, internal compass grounded in ideals and beliefs regarding what is best for students which define his or her nonnegotiables.

For principals, this includes the willingness and courage to put student needs ahead of staff preferences, always in an environment of collegiality and respect.

Signs that your principal is struggling to balance his or her leadership responsibilities

As a district leader, how do you discern when a principal is struggling to hold staff members accountable and move the school ahead in improved student outcomes? The most obvious indicator is a multiyear pattern of flattened or declining performance, not simply in test scores, but in other markers, including:

  • Attendance
  • Office discipline referrals
  • Suspensions and expulsions
  • Numbers of students taking high-rigor courses
  • Student grades

Another important indicator of a school’s progress: instructional practices

Another indicator of trouble is a notable lack of progress in keeping classroom instructional practices up-to-date. When you walk through classrooms at the school, does everything look pretty much as it did two to five years ago?

Shouldn’t things be changing, given the knowledge of more robust research and programmatic advances? Was the school once high performing? As the years have passed, has staff and leadership complacency — perhaps coupled with a lack of responsiveness to changing student needs and demographics — contributed to an overall decline?

Why needing to be popular is dangerous for principals

A leader I’ll call Lucy had been promoted to the principalship at the school where she had been Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA). In the TOSA role, the staff adored her for her tireless support. Under a positive and strong principal, she worked very hard on behalf of students while doing everything she could to make teachers’ lives easier. She was exceptionally knowledgeable about student literacy and was a truly valuable resource for the school.

Leaders who are uncomfortable in their roles can cause school decline

Lucy’s transition to the principalship, however, proved difficult; she seemed unable to put herself into the role of supervisor. Faced with the demands of assuming responsibility for the school’s achievement, her popularity quickly waned as she experienced push-back and resentment from the same teachers who had loved her as the TOSA. She would quickly back off when this occurred, and the school began to decline on all fronts.

Her communication became more and more inconsistent, and when one of the teachers filed a grievance over a minor contractual issue, she was upset to the point of calling in sick. After two years, she returned to the classroom.

What could have helped a gifted teacher become a principal who excelled at collaborative leadership?

What could have empowered this gifted educator to successfully bridge the gap from colleague to superior? She was a natural collaborator; how could she have grown from a collaborative peer into a principal with a democratic, collaborative style?

Red-flag statements district leaders missed

Here are a few statements Lucy frequently made that her district supervisors seem to have missed or did not see as significant:

  • “I just can’t ask the teachers to do one more thing right now”
  • “Everyone is so stressed and overloaded. It’s almost [parent conferences, Thanksgiving break, winter break]”
  • “I don’t want to make them [meet in teams, develop common outcomes and assessments, share classroom performance data]”
  • “I can see if anyone is interested [in being coached in new instructional practices, in attending professional learning opportunities]”

In my next post on this topic, I’ll suggest some coaching interventions that might have helped Lucy’s leadership mature quickly, so that instead of a two-year setback, her school could have continued its previous upward trajectory for students.

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