All Articles Education Principalship: The alligators might be the same, but the swamp is different

Principalship: The alligators might be the same, but the swamp is different

6 min read


“The objective of all dedicated employees is to thoroughly analyze all situations, anticipate all problems prior to their occurrence, have answers for these problems, and move swiftly to solve these problems when called upon. However, when you are up to your ass in alligators, it is difficult to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp.” — Unknown

Leadership has changed from days of the past. Although some principals were involved in guiding teacher instruction, most dealt only with discipline, communicating with parents and maintaining order in the school. The reality is that there weren’t the number of mandates or increased accountability that principals presently undergo.

The kind of educational leadership that used to take place in schools is, and should be, a thing of the past. The stakes are too high not to be deeply involved in every aspect of students’ and teachers’ educational growth. In addition, principals also have to make sure they work with teachers in collaboration rather than alone from an office, with the only time they see staff at bus arrival and dismissal.

I have been a principal only six years, but I feel as though changes of the past few years have made those six short years feel a lot longer. After three years of mandates and accountability, I’m trying to find ways to fight bad decisions we don’t control and find ways to improve morale, which is something we can influence.

Even though there are massive changes in education, principalship is still exciting. Working with staff, parents and students has changed tremendously because of 21st-century tools. It’s inspiring to walk into classrooms every day and be part of the educational conversation, instead of being the person in the office behind a closed door. It’s satisfying when we can be the person students want to go to for good reasons, instead of the person all kids fear.

When I meet parents, they often point at me and tell their kids that they never want them to have to see me. I stop the conversation to say that the role has changed. The truth is that most of us want kids to come see us. It is our job to support kids who are having a difficult time as well as safeguard students so they feel safe. Principals can work to have strong relationships with students and staff.

Mandates and APPR

“Schools are straining under the weight of initiative fatigue,” Douglas B. Reeves writes in “The Daily Disciplines of Leadership.”

There is concern that mandates and accountability will put a wedge in positive relationships that many principals have with staff. Knowing that possibility is the first step to making sure it doesn’t happen. If principals have done proper work to build relationships during the past few years, they are ahead of leaders who never had a positive relationship with staff. In addition to principals speaking up, they should encourage staff to speak up against changes that are happening. This is the most important time to show that we are on the same team.

It is a struggle to weed through mandates and bad decisions to find positive aspects of education, but it is our job to do so. It is times such as this that I reflect back to the reason I got into education. It was never to increase test scores. It was always to build social and emotional growth of students and to build on their educational growth. Although it might be getting harder to do that, we still have to meet those goals with students.

There has never been a more important time to work in collaboration with teachers, especially where annual professional performance review is concerned. Teacher observations are vitally important to their growth. Discussions that take place before and after a review are as important to teachers as the lesson that the principal observes. Looking for evidence of learning is the job of the principal, but things can be missed during an observation. Teachers need to be prepared, and feel comfortable, to discuss things that the principal might have missed during an observation.

I have had experiences in which what ended up on my final observation are words that I wrote in my post-observation reflection. I have worked for principals whom I never would have felt comfortable telling what they missed. I want something different for my teachers. During this time of immense change, they deserve more than a principal who believes only in top-down observation.

Innovative practices

“This is how learning is meant to be — active, passionate, and personal. What you read should be the grist for your own mill; you should make it yours,” Warren Bennis writes in “On Becoming a Leader.”

Every year, most of us talk about how we will change for the upcoming year. All staff and principals need to progress, not because of high-stakes testing but because students need something different. As a principal, I send out research-based articles, and we challenge one another to change something about our practices. We don’t only read great articles but also try to absorb them.

This year, I asked some fifth-grade teachers to try the flipped-classroom approach. Kids need different learning experiences, and the flipped model is a great way to meet their needs. However, I have been challenged to try the flipped-faculty-meeting approach to better meet the needs of my staff. We cannot let changes define us. We need to work within those parameters and continue to try something new.

Education has changed, and it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Some changes seem harmful to the educational process (e.g. testing, point scales, etc.), but there are changes that are inspiring. An hour on Twitter with a personal learning network can change the way we look at instruction and leadership. That is the most important thing we should focus on while students are with us because they deserve more than what accountability is asking.

Peter DeWitt (@PeterMDeWitt) 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