Principles for Principals

By Barbara S. Hawley, with Todd S. Hawley and Adam W. Jordan


Last month, we turned our Southern Schooling column over to Adam’s wife, Kasey, to explore the amazing work of school nurses — and to highlight areas that need improvement when it comes to caring for the health and wellbeing of all students. That column was our first attempt at expanding the concept of the school as a familial unit. 

In Southern culture, the idea of family transcends DNA and implies that people of all types and from all different dispositions must, at least at their core, stick together around a common bond. School families are no different, and we know that extends far beyond the borders of the South.

This month, as part of our effort to focus on the ecology of schooling, we turn our attention to the important work of school principals. Fortunately for us, Todd is married to a wonderful assistant principal. Despite spending his own childhood trying to stay out of the principal’s office, Todd has had a front-row seat as Barb transitioned from being a third-grade teacher into her role as an elementary school assistant principal. (Barb is also working on her doctorate in Educational Leadership.) Both her work as a principal and as a researcher is focused on the critical role of school principals. 

In particular, she is interested in how principals can be justice-oriented instructional leaders within the current educational climate of top-down, high-stakes testing. In other words, Barb is trying to stick up for her family.

We are fortunate to have Barb with us this month to discuss her thoughts on how principals can create thriving schools, where teachers are empowered and students are engaged in meaningful learning despite pressure to “teach to the test.”


The Principal as Instructional Leader

As I approach the halfway mark of my second year as an assistant principal, I can honestly say I love what I do. As a teacher, I was responsible for a class of students and had the opportunity to work closely with each of them over the course of a school year. At the end of the year, they moved on to fourth grade, and I got to know a new group of third graders.

But as a principal, I get to know students as they enter as kindergarteners and progress through fifth grade — to see them grow and learn over a series of crucial years in their young lives. 

I work with an amazing group of teachers and support staff. Our job, as we see it, is to create an atmosphere within our school where all students can be successful as they develop both academically and socially. This work is tough, but rewarding. 

I work in a school district with a wide variety of students. Some were born and raised in our community. Others are foreign students, mostly from Saudi Arabia whose parents are teaching or getting degrees at the university where Todd works. And some students are impoverished, whose parents have uncertain housing or none at all. Given these realities, I have to admit that my favorite part of the day is watching students walk into school every morning. Despite their different situations, they arrive at school excited to see me and ready for the day. I love how excited they are to talk to me. 

I get to know students personally and find out about their families and interests. I love making school a place where they feel safe and cared about, while also helping them want to learn. I go into classrooms each day and see the students learn. I often substitute in classes to give teachers time to collaborate or observe each other. All of these opportunities give me the chance to learn more about the students and become part of their learning experience. As a principal, I want the students to see me as an adult who cares about them, whom they can trust and respect, who wants to make their community a better place. 

I also love working with teachers and finding ways to support them, so they grow and can improve their teaching. As I do with students, I get to know the teachers as people and as professionals. I know from experience that treating teachers as professionals leads to higher student achievement. It also creates a better school experience for students. That experience also requires engaged, caring people who help make the school run smoothly every day. It is just as important for me to know and understand the secretaries, custodians, bus drivers, the school nurse, cafeteria staff, and the community volunteers who help us do our work. Together with the teachers, we all make academic, social, and emotional learning possible for students. 

Unfortunately, we also face struggles, many of which are a direct result of the demands of high-stakes testing and the accountability movement. Schools are judged on their report cards, and principals are held accountable for how well their schools’ students did on the standardized tests. 

It’s easy to focus solely on test scores, to “teach to the test.” But I believe principals have the responsibility to their students and teachers to be instructional leaders who see tests as only part of the job. 

Principals need to be given the opportunity to be true instructional leaders, focusing on equity for their students and helping marginalized students become successful emotionally and academically. Real instruction is so much more than teaching to a test. A principal needs to support her teachers as they work to help their students learn how to learn — to question and inquire about things. 

At the same time, principals need to give teachers chances to grow in their profession. This can be done through professional development experiences, of course, but also by giving teachers time to collaborate with their colleagues as professionals. Principals should talk with teachers to learn about their interests and strengths. Principals can then give teachers the opportunity to lead in those areas. This not only empowers teachers, but also helps build relationships among the principal and all of a school’s teachers. Too often, teachers believe principals will not hear their ideas and interests, and then support them. This is why collaboration and conversation are so important. Building relationships are a key part of shared instructional leadership, not only for the teachers’ sake, but for the students’ as well. 

As an assistant principal, I find it hard to watch report-card scores get published and see people conclude, based on those numbers alone, a school is not doing well. I work with a diverse group of students who all bring to school different knowledge and experiences. As the principal, I believe I absolutely must see them as students and not walking test scores. Every day, I see dedicated, professional teachers who work to improve their students’ lives, teachers who genuinely care about their students. These teachers use excellent teaching strategies and help their students grow academically, socially, and emotionally every day. But that fact is not is reflected on school report cards. Lost in the discussion of report-card scores is the work of dedicated teachers and principals who are doing much more than focus on how to improve their students’ performance on standardized tests. 

As instructional leaders, principals need the support of parents and community leaders, who understand that schools are critical not only for academics, but also as places where students learn to be better people. 

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If you know a great principal — or are one yourself — and would like to share some information with us, please use this link. We would love to hear from you. In future columns, we plan to highlight the work of Southern teachers, school nurses, principals, and community leaders — the people who make up the ecology of schools. In the meantime, take a few minutes to talk with your school’s principal to learn more about how you can help make your community’s school a thriving, healthy, and engaging place.