The role of the principal in a teacher-powered school

Teacher-Powerd Schools Round Table: TPSI Ambassador Alysia Krafel shares how the principal role shifts in teacher-powered schools.

“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

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