My first year as a principal I wanted a great school, and I wanted it immediately.
I remember feeling that pit in my stomach, reminding me that every child and parent was depending on me to deliver the best educational experience possible. I remember including in the parent newsletter ways for parents to engage their children in conversation about school. I was asking my parents to have their children rate their experiences at school because I knew the children would be honest, maybe brutally honest. I was that principal who wanted to know the good, the bad, and the ugly so that we could always strive towards being the best! What I realized, after my whirlwind tour of trying to make a school great, is that the “WE” must be built within the culture of the staff—not just the principal.
I also learned that a principal’s leadership does not change a school overnight.
Creating a school culture where everyone is committed to a community of learners is not an easy task. Principals often walk into schools that they have not created from scratch and that have established cultures. Principals must figure out a way to weave into the culture the fibers that will bring together and embrace creativity, critical thinking, and strong personal relationships. Often times, because of the various skills sets that are needed by principals to shift school cultures, principals burn out quickly or become overwhelmed by the work ahead of them. This is the case, even without adding in the fact principals have to overcome these many barriers while also having their leadership examined under a microscope by district leaders, teachers, and parents.
Research states that school leadership is second only to teaching among school-related factors in its impact on student learning. With this research in mind, we must think about how we can support principals in this quest. I can personally say that if it were not for my strong mentors and for my family who allowed me the space and time to do this work with no boundaries, I could have fallen into the pit of the full-time overwhelmed status.
To support our principals in their work of building, supporting, and at times, transforming schools, they need:
- Strong mentors who can give guidance from their own learned experiences, past successes and failures;
- District leaders and supervisors who have the capacity to provide honest feedback and appropriate supports;
- Time for principals to reflect on the impact of their leadership practices on their staffs’ and students’ performance;
- Space to be innovative, particularly in environments that are stale and could benefit from new and fresh ideas;
- Opportunity to recharge when needed. Principals ARE superheroes but even superman needed to get close to the earth’s sun to recharge!
I had success largely due to the fact that I had people and resources invested in me to build my skill set. I became a better principal to my students and staff because of that support. Together, we became that great school that we ultimately wanted to be. Let’s make this story true for many more principals in the pipeline!
Dr. Monifa McKnight is a 2016 Principal Ambassador Fellow, the Director of Secondary School Leadership for Montgomery County and recently the principal of Ridgeview Middle School in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She is an adjunct instructor at Hood College and McDaniel College, teaching graduate-level courses in diverse educational philosophy, human development, and race and equity in school leadership.