John Thompson, historian and teacher, says that he usually doesn’t worry about principals, but this piece demonstrates that he knows the stress they are under in the current context of fire first, aim later.
Principals and assistant principals give up the best job in the world, teaching, for one of the most stressful of careers. In my experience, they do it in order to help more students. Three excellent articles describe the additional pressure that is being placed on principals in an age of reform.
Clearly, these efforts will not be sustainable if we do not start treating school leaders as valuable resources that can’t be squandered.
My principals all had to claim to believe that better instruction, data, “High Expectations!,” and leadership were enough to turn around the highest-challenge schools. The few who really believed that systemic progress could be driven by instruction within the four walls of the classroom could be annoying, but they were sincere. For instance, one of those frustrating assistant principals faced down a student with a loaded gun rather than take the safe path and allow the police to handle it.
For over a decade, the prime method of turning around schools with the highest concentrations of generational poverty and kids who have survived extreme trauma has been to use up and throw away dedicated teachers and principals. Chalkbeat NY’s Geoff Decker, in “Q&A with Automotive High’s Principal: ‘There’s Always Pressure in This Building,’” featured one of those principals, Caterina Lafergola. She has fought the good fight at New York City’s Automotive High School since 2011.
Lafergola says, “You can’t do this work unless you love it because it will chew you up and spit you out. I love the work. I love the kids.”
The principal cites two huge problems, the “compliance issues” that a school leader must handle, and students’ trauma. Lafergola says of her students, “They’re traumatized. Last year, one of our babies was murdered. Died like a dog in the street.”
Automotive is no longer a “madhouse,” where it took 20 minutes to transition between classes and where there were rampant gang affiliations and drugs. If the standard school improvement model was working, by now Automotive would be creating some stability. But, of Lafergola’s 32 teachers, 14 are brand new. On the other hand, perhaps under Chancellor Carmen Farina and Mayor Bill de Blasio and with the implementation of Restorative Practices, more improvement will be possible.
In a second instructive article, the Hechinger Report’s Peg Tyre featured New Orleans charter school principal, Krystal Hardy. Significantly, it is entitled, “Why Do More than Half of Principals Quit after Five Years?”
When Hardy first took over, Tyre reports that her office “became something of a war room. Colorful line graphs affixed to the walls showed student progress on interim standardized tests.” The young principal “planned every school day around maximizing opportunities to provide guidance to her staff. She assigned daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly goals for teachers. All were written out in crisp detail and color-coded.”
Every day, the former TFA instructional coach “gave teachers a mini-lesson on instruction,” then “checked her teachers’ lesson plans, and once a week she issued a newsletter that “singled out teachers for ‘glows’ and ‘grows,’ and set goals for the coming week.
Despite the principal’s all-consuming dedication, test scores were disappointing, evaluations further stressed out teachers, and five of the 14 teachers in the kindergarten through fifth-grade classes left. The article ends with possibly good news; Hardy’s “tenor has softened.” Tyre describes the principal’s evolution as a lesson for reformers. She concludes, “In their zeal to create new models to help vulnerable children, mission-driven education reformers across the country have created schools where the days are demanding and the goals grueling. It’s why even the most gifted principals and teachers leave so quickly.”
Third, Stanford’s Professor Emeritus Larry Cuban published an excerpt from Kristina Rizga’s Mission High. This features San Francisco principal Eric Guthertz. Guthertz almost lost his job in 2009 due to School Improvement Grant regulations, but he was fortunate that the district has been supportive of his pedagogy – one that is a challenge to the S.I.G. norm.
Guthertz says that “most of the work that helps students develop as mature and compassionate adults happens in the classrooms,” but he and his team “spend at least half of their time building a healthy and inclusive school culture outside of the classrooms.”
Mission High’s administrative team also observes classrooms regularly, studies the data, especially referrals and suspensions and the number of Fs and Ds disaggregated by ethnicity and race. The purpose, though, is to support students and teachers. One-on-one teacher coaching is provided and teachers plan units together and analyze student work collectively. Consequently, “Mission High is the only school in the district that teaches high numbers of African American, Latino, and low-income students and is no longer considered a ‘hard-to-staff school’” The district’s chief communications officer says, “Mission High is famous at the district because it is known as a learning community and good, supportive place to work.”
Teaching in the inner city has always been tough, and being a principal even harder. After NCLB ramped up the pressure, my school rarely had year when a principal or an assistant principal did not require hospitalization in the spring. Most were hit by heart-related illnesses and probably all of their conditions were complicated by the stress of the job. Of course, many veteran teachers were also felled by the conditions in the inner city. For the life of me, I can’t understand why reformers have been so cavalier about using up and throwing out educators. But, maybe articles and books like these will make a difference and, to borrow Cuban’s phrase, we will stop disposing teachers and principals like worn-out tissue paper.