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Becoming a 21st-century elementary principal

5 min read


It seems as though being a principal has really changed. I don’t have much experience in the role compared with others — I have been an elementary principal for six years. However, day by day, it seems to be evolving into something different, which is good, because principals lead buildings that have a reputation for being caught up in the past.

For too long, school has been seen as an institution that does not change.

With increased mandates, pressure from high-stakes testing, Common Core State Standards, and teacher and administrator evaluation, the principal’s role is facing more accountability than ever before. It has always been important to get into classrooms and observe teachers and students engaged in the learning process, but we have to prove that we are truly trying to go from good to great. As much as it pains me to admit this, not all of this accountability is bad.

Accountability is an interesting issue because it has been described as a way to blame others, but we need to look at it from all sides. We need to look at the positives and negatives. I am not a fan of accountability that includes high-stakes testing. I think it forces us in the wrong direction, and none of it is good for students. We are at risk of losing a great deal of creativity that used to take place in the public-school system. Principals are getting rid of recess and spending more time focusing on academics. Without offering a break to students, that extra time is not well spent.

In addition, political campaigns and 30-second commercials showing that state governments are taking accountability by taking a “tough” stance on teachers are an improper focus. Instead of celebrating education, some states spend with a focus on bad teachers, making everyone, including parents within great districts, second-guess their children’s education. A great education is something that all students should get, but making teachers the scapegoat for larger issues (e.g. poverty, parenting, etc.) is pointing fingers in the wrong direction.

However, the positive side to all of this is how it has changed our role. Principals were once seen as the person sitting in an office waiting for the next student to discipline. Those of us in the role know that principalship is much more than that. It is about leading teachers, helping students and communicating with parents. It is about sharing a vision and negotiating the building through major changes in education. It is about creating a culture of respect in which all students, no matter their race, gender, religion or sexual orientation, are treated with fairness.

Connected principals

In addition to their other roles, principals have to take the lead on becoming 21st-century leaders who naturally incorporate technology into everything they do. They must focus on the future and use innovative educational practices, while trying to do more with less. It’s our job to maintain a positive focus.

A shift that needs to happen is our approach toward technology and 21st-century skills. We used to say how many computers we had in each classroom and proudly state whether we were using netbooks, iPads and whiteboards. Those tools are no longer seen as an extra but as something that it is embedded into teachers’ and principals’ everyday practice.

When I first began using an iPad to complete teacher observations, students who sat around me wanted to know the reason the principal was using the device. Teachers always allowed me time to show the students, then went back to the lesson. After a couple of years of using it, students no longer wonder the reason I am using an iPad; they wonder the reason I don’t bring it every time I enter the room. That shift in thinking is important because it means we are moving forward even during the most difficult of times.

In the end

Being a principal, even in an elementary school, is a tough job. We have students who come with emotional baggage, and they do not always have social-emotional coping skills to properly deal with that. We have students who bully and others who get bullied. We have parents who agree with us and many who do not. We have communities that support us, while others criticize everything we do.

However, I cannot imagine having a better job. It comes with its issues, and we have many mandates we might not agree with, but we also get to spend our days with kids. Many of those kids are experiencing things for the first time, and some of them come from tough backgrounds that we cannot imagine. If we do this right, and expose them to curriculum and provide them with tools that prepare them for the future, they will remember us fondly as they go through life.

Peter DeWitt is an elementary principal in Averill Park, N.Y. He blogs at Finding Common Ground for Education Week and is the author of “Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students,” published by Corwin. He can be found at Connect with DeWitt on Twitter @PeterMDeWitt.