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Striking Balance: School Principals Between Following and Leading

The school principalship is the ultimate opportunity to test your mettle in middle management. On one hand, you’re responsible for carrying out the directives, legislation, and initiatives provided to you from the higher-ups; on the other, you’re obligated to inspire, direct, and generate growth within your own schoolhouse.

How can the school principal both follow and lead in authentic ways? That’s a question that wakes many a principal up in the middle of the night, dripping with sweat and craving a BLT.

Let’s examine the first part. Principals are part of a larger organization, generally. School districts, regional offices of education, state departments, and the federal government all have a significant say in how our schools are established, what our priorities are, and what expectations are provided. So, you’ve got to be a good soldier and follow orders, passing them down the line. By itself, that’s a manageable directive, except…

There’s a second part. Principals are expected to lead. You’re obligated to meet your students’ academic and social needs, as well as stewarding the public’s trust and funding, adhering to local socio-political influences, championing your community, and handling teachers and non-instructional staff. The key metrics all come down to student learning outcomes, so clearly there’s a need for local authority and decision-making, except…

For that first part. Decisions made by the universal powers-that-be don’t always meet local needs.

Before you begin panicking and raiding the fridge, there’s hope found in a couple of strategies for managing your middle-management responsibilities with savvy:

Align everything to the mision. Nope, that’s not a typo. You read it right. The mision is the amazing place where your mission (the reason the school exists in the first place) and your vision (what it looks and feels like when it’s going spectacularly well) coexist. Are you and your stakeholders, superiors, and colleagues clear on your mision? Are all your ships headed in the same direction?

  • Define the outcomes. Together, ask each other what success looks like; how the school will look in 1, 3, and 5 years; what goals will drive our work; why this work is important. Take the time to unpack comments to paint a clear and compelling picture of a desirable future. Refer to this often (in my workshops, we often draw an image and describe it–that becomes the school’s de facto “logo”).
  • Clarify your priorities. Isolate the non-negotiables, determining what’s tight (we’re going to focus on creating a safe environment and empowering our students to become problem-solvers, for instance) and what’s loose (the sorts of scenarios we present our students to solve problems can be determined by the grade-level, department, or situation). Defining parameters allows adherence to imposed initiatives AND puts local staff at ease, feeling they’ve still got some ownership and choice in how the work is done.

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Connect every single individual to the mision. Great leaders do two things really well: they identify what everyone has in common in order to link arms and march towards the goal, and they uncover what drives and inspires each person–to connect individual efforts to the collective goal.

  • Ignite individual passion. Every individual you lead got into education for a reason. What is that reason? Are you aware of it? Does the person know it? Ask questions that peel back the layers of why folks entered teaching in the first place, why they stay, and what determines their success and personal happiness. By naming and defining the source of our people’s passion, we are more apt to connect them to the mision directly.
  • Embed everything. Set goals and action plans that support each other like Russian dolls–each doll fits within the greater structure. When individual student goals help the class meet its goals, that enables the team to be successful. It moves the school closer to its goals, helping the district and state achieve success as well. Then budget time, resources, professional development opportunities and communication structures in a way that orients all our work towards the mision. Everyone relies on everyone else, and the entire operation begins working in harmony with one another–interdependency rules, and networks of scaffolded support, are inherently built-in.

Middle management is daunting, however, it’s an opportunity to make an immense difference. The school principal, after all, only ranks second in impacting student achievement compared to teachers. So, go get a good night’s sleep, embrace the mision, and change people’s lives.

As a school leader, how do you balance your own goals with the goals of the district? What do you think are the most important aspects of school leadership? Tell us in the comments.

Pete HallPete Hall

Pete Hall is a veteran school administrator and an educational consultant. As a member of the ASCD Faculty, he trains educators worldwide. He is a co-author of the 2017 ASCD book Creating a Culture of Reflective Practice: Capacity-Building for Schoolwide Success, as well as six other ASCD books.