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The role of the principal in a teacher-powered school

“Do you have a principal at your teacher-powered school?” I was asked this question while presenting at the Teaching and Learning conference in Washington, D.C. two years ago. The spark to know more was there, and many administrators left my session excited to learn about how to grow teacher leadership in their schools. Many were operating under the assumption that the principal is both the administrator of the school’s daily operations and the instructional leader of teachers. In this paradigm the principal is a director, not a facilitator. And this is the paradigm that teacher-powered schools seek to shift.

Some principals impose their ideas on teachers by fiat—rescinding initiatives that took teachers years to construct. Good principals will listen to teachers’ opinions and see first-hand what is working for students in that school. In most schools, the principal makes all the important decisions, not the teachers who work with students in the classrooms. This can be demoralizing and disempowering for teachers who invest considerable time and effort to understand what is best for their students. And because the principal is the “boss,” teachers have little recourse other than to acquiesce, or at worst, lose their jobs.

Watching this happen to close friends led me to co-found a teacher-powered school in 1996: Chrysalis Charter School.

What I have learned on my own journey is that even teacher powered schools need effective administration and leadership.

Many of the traditional responsibilities must still be performed, although they can be done in non-traditional ways. For example, the teachers at our school did not want to manage things like money, bus contracts, state reports, interactions with the county office of education, facility issues, etc. (i.e. the myriad items that are needed to keep a school running on a day-to-day basis). So, to keep their primary focus on teaching, they chose to hire someone who does much of this administrative work for the school.

This administrator is viewed as an equal partner on the teacher team but is hired and evaluated by the teachers, not the other way around! Our administrator is highly valued because she facilitates the teachers’ work in every way she can. She:

  • Provides a variety of resources and diverse research; 
  • Removes obstacles that hinder the teachers in meeting the needs of students;
  • Oversees all non-classroom daily operations of the school;
  • Serves as the primary ombudsman among various committees and stakeholders steering information toward where it needs to go; and 
  • Promotes the school authentically because she knows every student by name and is frequently in both classrooms and hallways.

To share decision-making effectively, there is a constant dance to balance power between teachers and the administrator; there are certain lines the administrator knows she will not cross. We maintain a chart that allows us to clearly delineate responsibilities the administrator has to make the day to day operating decisions, the ones teachers have to ensure instructional excellence and student growth, and those that are shared and are negotiated as issues arise. This chart is reviewed yearly with new topics being added on an as-needed basis. And it works! It liberates teachers to focus on the students, on collaboration, on peer mentoring, and on planning. There is no director mandating how that time is used.

In short, we are all principals: each with a stake in determining the educational program of our school and each with unique talents we bring to the table. Our administrator is an equal partner who also is very effective in her role, and that helps our empowered teachers do what they love and do best… teaching children.

Every teacher-powered school has a similar story. This is what was so exciting for the group of principals I met in Washington, D.C. What can your school do to empower teachers and administrators to shift the paradigm of a principal from the director of teachers to a facilitator of equals?

Alysia Krafel and her husband Paul founded Chrysalis Charter School, a teacher-powered school in Redding, California. It was one of the first teacher-powered schools in the country. Chrysalis Charter School is the culmination of a desire to set teachers free and to create a loving, gentle community where both children and teachers can let their light shine brighter. Alysia has recently retired and is now mentoring other teachers in mathematics both at Chrysalis and in the broader world beyond. She is a strong advocate for teacher-powered schools and an Ambassador for the Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative.

Contact Alysia Krafel at alysia@teacherpowered.org
Follow Alysia on Twitter: @akrafel

4 Comments

Rebekah Kang commented on March 1, 2017 at 5:57pm:

Principal as a bridge and shield

I work at UCLA Community School and we also have a principal. Our principal is a bridge who connects us with meaningful resources and information. She is also a shield to protect us from distractions and interruptions. In order to shift the role of principals or teachers, I realize that it takes intentional work and effort. Like Chrysalis Charter School, we established a clear decision-making process to ensure that the principal and teachers work together to make student-centered decisions. We also have a yearly principal evaluation process based on reflection and feedback. These systems remind us that we are equal partners working hard to carry out our vision and mission. 

Trisha Schultz commented on March 10, 2017 at 1:40pm:

Principal as an open-minded leader

The high school I teach in has a new principal this year. We have a unique relationship as he bought my parent's house when he moved his family to town. Our principal has been open to new ideas in his first year and I wish more of our staff would be open-minded with him as well. They need to give him a chance and allow him to get some experience under his belt. I have faith that our principal will continue to empower teachers as long as they have substantial reasons for their ideas and goals. 

Linda Merrill commented on March 18, 2017 at 9:46am:

As a parent of three children

As a parent of three children who have gone or are going to Avalon... I have a lot to say. Avalon has their pros and cons In it's early years really had it down. Could be because they had a small student body. Today it is growing and going through growing pains as a result. My one child has already graduated and my two others children go through the "I do not want to go there anymore" to "I like it again" depending on the week.   I can say that they have a wonderful staff and SPED is run better than anything I have ever seen in any other school in the Twin Cities. I have experienced my share of them.   My youngest child complains there is not enough hands on learning in there more traditional classroom. He explained that has to do with discipline issues of other kids there. He say he misses it. That he no longer like science class any more. This saddens me because this was an area he has always loved.   The projects they do can be really amazing but you need to keep in mind that the kids pick the projects so learning is only as good as the child picks. I think this is not the best for the younger students, Can be great for high school students who realize what an opportunity there is in picking or specializing your learning. Allowing for them to immerse themselves in their chosen area to see if it is the right career path for them.   This school provides many opportunities for their students and most students seem very happy there. Middle school is new for them and they have some things to work out there. Over all I would recommend this school highly and Ultius writing service.

Evette McCalla commented on March 18, 2017 at 2:51pm:

Knowing What you don't know

There are actually a lot of such new teachers who are unaware of the technical questions as the one that you have mentioned "Do you have a principal at your teacher-powered school?". However, it also becomes moment of fun in such situations. So, what do you think about Fast Bachelors Degree and the type of online universities that are providing education to thousands of students all over the world. I think they are doing a great job and we should appreciate them.

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