By Lily Eskelsen García and Gail Connelly, Executive Director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals
Every child deserves to be in a school where educators are ready to reach and inspire students, regardless of ZIP code, where everyone is engaged and eager to contribute. In many of the most dynamic schools we’ve visited, leadership is distributed so that each educator plays a part in creating a safe, nurturing, and encouraging environment. The principal is a key figure in developing such a school, so it’s important to talk about what it takes to ensure a successful school principal.
For teachers, support professionals, and principals, the ability to meet the expectations and demands of their roles depends largely on whether they have had the right preparation and experiences for the job.
As a society, we often try to find shortcuts to solve problems – especially in education. Despite all of the research, educator perspectives, and just plain common sense, the corporate model of education reform has sometimes resulted in placing individuals in front of classrooms and at the helm of schools and districts who aren’t ready for their positions. They may not have the knowledge, resources, or tools that are integral to a positive school culture – a key factor in engaging parents and improving student learning.
We are once again entering a time of educator shortages and higher rates of turnover among teachers, education support professionals, and principals. We have an opportunity to do what we know works and we must avoid the impulse to reduce requirements and make it easier to enter our professions. Now more than ever, we must hold to our principles surrounding educator preparation and ensure we have profession-ready educators. Principals must be able to facilitate the respectful, collaborative environments where students succeed.
Our students deserve the very best we can offer them, with educators who understand teaching and learning as well as how to lead school communities in culturally responsive ways. The only way to have a long-term impact on improving the educator profession is to think about the entire system of education, and that means making sure we have educator leaders who are caring, qualified, and committed, capable of inspiring our students’ natural curiosity and desire to learn.
As states and districts work to put together plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), there are several ways in which the preparation of all educators, including principals, can be addressed using as a guide the evidence of what works. Specifically for principals:
- Best practices tell us that principals benefit from participating in pre-service residency programs that immerse candidates in a school culture with a mentor as they study the pedagogy of their work. Mentoring and induction are critical during the first three years, and we know ongoing professional support is key to keeping quality educators in the profession.
- We know that principals have certain competencies they should be able to demonstrate at the completion of their preparation. We should hold them accountable for meeting these standards before they become directly responsible for students’ learning in classrooms and schools.
- And, we know that principals who have a demonstrated record of success as classroom teachers do a better job when they become principals of leading other educators. Having had a successful teaching experience, therefore, is critical. Without this, schools will find it difficult to meet the learning needs of the school community and achieve their vision of excellence.
With changing demographics in schools nationwide, we must do a better job of preparing and retaining quality teachers, education support professionals, and principals so that every student is ready to meet the demands of society and the global economy. The only way to do this is by ensuring profession-ready educators who truly understand what’s involved in teaching and learning, and who will work together to create great schools.