In the Shadows of Principals

Principal Shadow DebriefI admit I was nervous.

Principals are busy. It’s almost a cliché that they are unsung heroes who move mountains every day with very little praise and backbreaking hours. So, when it was time for the culminating event of ED Goes Back to School Principal Shadowing, I worried. As a principal myself, on assignment for the year to serve as a bridge between other school leaders and the US Department of Education, I thought: “What if our 45 area principals were too busy to show up?”

Even if they did come, the stakes were high. Last year’s meeting produced real results. Our Principal Ambassador Fellowship was conceived at this meeting. Now, at 4:00 p.m. on a Friday, we were asking these principals to reach inward and pull off one more success.

My worries, naturally, were misplaced. The room was packed. With organizational help from NAESP, NASSP, and New Leaders, each school leader had been shadowed by someone from the Department. Now the principals and other ED officials were seated around a table with Arne Duncan, Deb Delisle, and Jim Shelton and their shadows. All were there to listen to them, and the principals were as candid as they were thoughtful.

The leaders spoke of disconnects between policy and practice. One principal was asked how much additional time his school system’s new teacher evaluation system was taking him- was it 20 percent, 50 percent more?


Joshua Klaris, the Department’s Resident Principal, speaks during the principal debrief following ED Goes Back to School Principal Shadowing week.

“More like 200 percent,” he responded.

That came across loud and clear. Secretary Duncan responded to the conversation, “While I know change is hard and that it takes time, you guys need our help and support if we are going to where we need to be. We know that.”

The group also discussed the many hats a principal wears—teacher, coach, leader, parent. More than anything, the folks at ED who shadowed these principals walked away with a clearer understanding of the principal as the linchpin of a school community. The principals came to ED because they see themselves as essential connectors between the world of policy and the work of teaching and learning. This is their job. They take it very seriously. And they always show up.

It’s my job at ED to use the information gathered from conversations with school leaders to inform our priority to help support and improve their work. As I reflect on the experience with these principals and my ED colleagues, it reinforces the knowledge that these one-shot experiences just aren’t enough. There is an almost desperate need for enhanced connections and cohesion. The shadowing experience is a good start, there is much work to do, and I’m proud to be part of the effort to figure out the right next steps.

Joshua Klaris is the U.S. Department of Education’s Resident Principal


  1. As a retired principal and former NASSP board member, I feel for the multitudes of principals who continue do their jobs despite the tremendous responsibilities that the job requires. God bless them! I hope Arne Duncan acts in a positive manner in regards to his realization that “help and support” is needed if today’s principals are going to be able to effectively do their jobs. If past experience means anything – beware of anything that comes from the Feds!

  2. Gooday, Even though I am not presently working in the role of “Administrator”, I have had enough experience to know that the job of CEO of a school is a tremendous job. I believe that many DO NOT understand the effort, time, energy, compassion etc. needed to be “Principal”. That having been said I would like to know if among the Principals that were shadowed, was there a Principal who: runs a special education high school? The students in these specialty schools require such different services; not having one of theses Principals amongst your representative group would seem to be lacking of information for you to make decisions. A prime example would be what in New York State is known as BOCES….The Principals of these schools are unique and merit the time dedicated to other school Principals. Thank you for taking the time to read this e-mail. Sincerely, Clara AR.

  3. Hello Joshua, I met you in the interview for the next principal ambassadors in October. I was disappointed not to have been selected; however, it was wonderful to meet you and others focused on the role of the principal. I agree with your comments in this posting and if you would like more information on Blackwater Community School, please stay in touch. Have a great holiday and New Year. Jacquelyn Power

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