Teachers and Principals Should Be Allies in the Transformation of Schools

If we are going to transform the roles of teachers in schools, then the roles of school leaders must change too.  Though I often think the job of the teacher borders on impossible, the job of principal is even more so.  Do we want many of the same things?

I recently had the opportunity to talk, along with teacher leader, Jose Vilson, with a group of educators who train principals through NYC’s Aspiring Principals Program. They had been reading Teaching 2030, a book I helped to write with 12 other teachers from around the country, and we had an interesting and affirming discussion of the ideas in the book.  The idea I walked away with was that principals could really be our allies in the quest to transform our public schools and create a more teacher and student driven education system.  It seemed the educators there were energized by our ideas and were really looking for how to make them workable in the current contexts in which principals must operate.

What if those contexts, too, need to change?  Well, certainly teacher leadership can help bring that about. I also thought of this conversation, because today, the USED announced a new Principal Ambassador Fellowship!  The program is modelled after the Teacher Ambassador Fellowship, which has been around for some years now.  One reason I’m happy to see this is that I believe principals are even more isolated in their jobs than teachers are. We talk about teachers in egg cratee classrooms, closing the door and teaching in isolation. This is hardly my reality anymore. I co-teach every day and have opportunities to meet and work with other teachers daily too.  How many principals have the chance to meet with other principals, or see what’s going on in schools outside their own?  This is so rare. I’m glad USED will be bringing principals–who, like teachers, work on the ground level of our education system–into their thinking on education reform.

Shaking up the role of the principal must be a part of the transformation of our schools.  Many teacher leaders don’t want to become principals, despite the pressure many of us experience to move in the direction of administration.  If we don’t want to become principals, but we want to lead, then we need to need to be more thoughtful about the ways we bring principals into our vision of a transformed teaching profession and transformed learning environments for students.

[image credit: rlyoung.blogspot.com]





Related categories: ,
  • LaurieKelly

    Teacher Leadership Team Partners With Principal

    Hi Ariel,

    I recognize you from Twitter. You are right that principals often work in isolation, and that teachers need to approach them thoughtfully to bring on schoolwide transformation. Principals of high poverty Title I schools, especially, need to do learning walks with successful principals working with the same population. I think part of the problem is that principals and assistant principals have been trained through NCLB to manage in an autocratic way, suppressing teacher input in what they see as a failing school.

    Our first year principal is tentatively inviting teachers she selects to do classroom learning walks at our school, meet to discuss the instructional methods being used, then plan what we see as needed professional development. Some recently  worked on the strategic plan for next year. This is not an easy process for her, and I give her credit for that. I’ve suggested that next year all classroom teachers rotate in experiencing this responsibility so that natural leaders arise. The principal might be surprised by the talent and expertise we have in the building among teachers she has not selected as grade level chairs or leadership team members.

  • Gina Martin

    Teacher Leadership

    I agree with you that principals at time work in isolation.  I do believe that we as teachers should be given more authority in making changes within the school.  As teachers  we need to be given that voice or principles need to play a more active role within the classroom to fully understand our needs as well as students.

  • Vlmclain


    I agree with you! 

    I am taking a graduate course entitled, “Teacher Leadership”. In this course, we are assigned several articles centered on different ideas and concepts for being an effective leader in our schools. One particular article that was assigned was about requiring collaboration and distributing leadership. The authors of the article state that when teachers and principals share leadership in a school, both the adults and students win (Anne Kennedy, Angie Deuel, Tamara Holmlund Nelson, David Slavit , May 2011).

    If the expectation in transforming education is shifting from teachers operating in isolation, to teachers collaborating through the use of site and district level PLCs, then principals should be held to the same expectations. No one person has all the answers. Nonetheless, principals have to be willing to admit that and become, somewhat, vulnerable and defenseless in sharing the role of leadership amongst their teachers, and be open to reaching out to their peers.  

    • LaurieKelly

      Principals Collaborate With Peers and Teachers

      Yes, Victoria, when you say principals should allow themselves to be “vulnerable and defenseless in sharing the role of leadership amongst their teachers, and be open to reaching out to their peers”, I think about turnaround schools with so much school leader turnover that many have first or second year principals.  I’ve taught in five Title I schools over the years, and have seen patterns in the approach new principals took. They projected certainty over decisions they made in isolation without the benefit of veteran teacher expertise. They were defensive when teachers made suggestions. Their trainings were often limited to meetings that included other turnaround principals in the same boat. I see some of those patterns breaking though in my district as education reform takes a turn back towards including teachers in schoolwide decision-making.

  • JoseVilson

    I’ve Thought Of This

    Especially sitting with you at this meeting. I always have a few wonderings, one of which is, if teacher leaders take on some of the roles principals ought to do, shouldn’t they get paid for these additional roles? Also, you’re right: principals do seem more isolated than ever. In making principals into CEOs, systems have forced principals to feel more secretive about the ways they approach schooling, and create (unhealthy) competitions for scores and other nonsense. It’s unfortunate; we need to create teachers of teachers, and make those teachers the academic leaders of the school i.e. the principal teacher. Right?

  • marsharatzel

    School based leadership

    Dear Ariel,

    I think you’re spot about principals and teachers being the heart and soul of a school’s leadership team.

    Unfortuately I don’t have the collaboration that you speak about….I’m the only one that teaches my prep at my grade level…and rarely have vertical team time to spend with the other teachers of my subject.  All of the math, science, socail studies and explo teachers are all singletons and we have no one to plan with unless.  The thing that saves us is that our district has been working hard to establish curriculum maps…they’re all computerized and you can at least plan with other teachers via the web and then talk with them on the phone.  The principals in my district meet 2x a week with each other….and that meeting lasts pretty much all morning.  They are also partnered in feeder systems….so they meet with all the principals from the HS down to the elementary schools about every other week.

    We don’t have the things you suggested…but I feel like we still have collaborative power.  What I would love to see is time taht principals would have to really look at the data from  a bird’s eye level….then in concert with teachers decide what we need to continue to do (because we’re doing it well) and what we need to learn.  Then we’d plan the PD together.  We could also use the curriculum maps & data to plan common instructional strategies, discipline strategies, etc…..and with everyone on the same page, it would create so much spirit and results.  I don’t expect my principal to know my data as well as I do, but I know that when the principal gets the data from the overview position, they can be such assets to you.

    I know one school where I worked, we identified a weakness that every teacher felt like they had.  The faculty and principal jointly decided which other school had faculty that seemed like they were good at what we were struggling with.  Then the principals figured out how to get their faculty to teach our faculty….the next two years, that weakness resolved and we were able to help them learn what we were doing in another area.  While the payback came 2 years later, it built a strong collaborative culture within our school and also between the schools.

    We couldn’t have done it without a principal who had good working relationships with other schools.  And we couldn’t have done it without a principal who wanted to get down and dirty with data analysis and helping us drive to what we needed to do.  It was teamwork.  It was wonderful.  It was powerful.