Like a lot of things in today’s pubic schools, the principal is a position that harks back to factory models of schooling. The building principal is a middle-level manager, a waypoint between the rank and file teacher and central management. In highly centralized and hierarchical school systems, perhaps in many urban school districts with highly recognized Superintendents, Mayors, or Chancellors (or all three), the building principal wields very little power within the system itself.

Oftentimes, as a result of implied but no real, explicit power, that disappointment in the realities of the position is visited upon teachers, the only objects of their very limited authority. And as long as the flow of power continues in only one direction, from the top down, centralized management is not interested in the deleterious effects of an over-reaching middle-level manager.

Many teachers, myself included, fancy themselves principals one day because, in some form or another, we’d like to implement regimes that are opposite to what so many of us have experienced. Even the term “regime” wouldn’t be appropriate to the teacher-oriented, open, honest, and democratic styles of leadership we promise that we’d implement. Notwithstanding the truthful realities of exercising power while we have it, these same teachers might be reluctant to divert their careers out of the classroom for the sake of administration. Administration often requires additional coursework and certification, and very rarely do you see administrators going back to the classroom.

But the classroom is where the real important work of schooling is done, and it is in my experience that the work of teachers is the first thing forgotten by building principals in their pursuit of leadership opportunities. They no longer think like teachers and instead adopt the full ideology and interests of management. How quickly one turns away from whence they came.

To adapt to more flexible and innovative models of schooling, I would propose that, like Department Chairs at the University level, building principals should be teachers who are elected to four-year terms. Spread the wealth and power. Encourage leadership to come from within rather than an outsider bearing down on teachers who’ve dedicated their time and expertise in that school for many years. Would this not encourage all teachers to develop their leadership skills and work with central administration?

There would likely be flaws in this system. I’d have to think about this a bit longer to point them out. But for now, this feels like a good thing, a less expensive innovation perhaps. Offer teachers a stipend beyond their conventional salary, get them out of the classroom for a few years to develop additional skills. Perhaps they keep getting elected, perhaps not. At the very least, this may turn the principal from a position of aspiration to one more dedicated to the rank and file, and ultimately the students.

From the NEPC at the University of Colorado, Boulder: BOULDER, CO  October 16, 2012 – “Local control” has been a bedrock principle of public schooling in America since its earliest days, but a new report concludes the concept “has all but disappeared” in discussions of education policy. The report, Democracy Left Behind: How Recent Education Reforms […]

I’m teaching a totally free class called Democracy and Education Reform, open to ALL comers, at the Baltimore Free School: The education reform conversation in the United States is dominated by a largely conservative ethos, a movement that bemoans the consistent failure of the public school system to keep America competitive in the global marketplace. […]