Principals are busy people. It is no secret that all principals are required to wear a variety of ‘hats’, assuming the role of manager, social worker, leader, fund raiser, to name just a few. In many instances it is the ability of principals to juggle these ‘hats’ that determines their professional success or failure.
In an interesting activity that I have conducted with school principals, I have asked them to list all the possible roles they play. Each principal was given a page of colored stickers and asked to rate the importance of the roles, with the most important roles marked in red, second marked in blue and third marked in green. On each of the four different occasions the activity has been run, the results have been strikingly similar. The role of leader was washed in a sea of red, easily outdistancing any other role as the primary job description of a school principal.
However, when asked to quantify the time they dedicated to each role, the story was very different. In general, principals felt that they spent precious little time actually engaging in the role of leader, and instead focused almost all their time and energy trying to manage their school buildings, staff issues and the ever-present student crisis.
A paper published by Richard Elmore, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, entitled Building a New Structure for School Leadership, finds the fault in prevalent institutional structures and the role of administrators found in those structures. Describing the current public school structure Elmore writes:
the “technical core” of education—detailed decisions about what should be taught at any given time, how it should be taught, what students should be expected to learn at any given time, how they should be grouped within classrooms for purposes of instruction, what they should be required to do to demonstrate their knowledge, and, perhaps most importantly, how their learning should be evaluated—resides in individual classrooms, not in the organizations that surround them.
Elmore feels that once administration is effectively banished from the classrooms, the only role left for the administrative superstructure of the organization —principals, board members, and administrators—is to “buffer” the weak technical core of teaching from outside inspection, interference, or disruption. Compared to the role of teachers he explains that the role of the principal consists of:
creating structures and procedures around the technical core of teaching that, at the same time, (1) protect teachers from outside intrusions in their highly uncertain and murky work, and (2) create the appearance of rational management of the technical core, so as to allay the uncertainties of the public about the actual quality or legitimacy of what is happening in the technical core…Teachers, working in isolated classrooms, under highly uncertain conditions, manage the technical core. This division of labor has been amazingly constant over the past century.
But the question that must be asked is, in effect, which came first the proverbial chicken or the egg? Were principals pushed out of the classroom or did they contribute to their banishment by forsaking their leadership role? Did teachers reject administrative leadership or simply move in to fill a leadership void? Before bemoaning the current state of school structure, principals must be able to answer the above question and be both ready and able to assume the mantle of the leadership they seek.