When I was a principal, I would cringe every time someone made a joke about “being sent to the principal’s office.” It bothered me when people viewed me as the school’s disciplinarian. This was so far from my reality. I was my school’s CEO. I was the quarterback. If my school was an orchestra, I was the conductor. I worked with my staff and community to set the vision and direction of our school. I led the decision-making process for our curriculum. Every Monday I met with my administrative team to drive our school systems and culture. Every Friday I provided three hours of professional development for instructional coaches. The days in between were spent observing classrooms and coaching teacher leaders to ensure we were delivering high-quality instruction and meeting the needs of our students.
My leadership mattered — but you don’t have to take my word for it. Look at the research: outside of direct classroom instruction, school leadership has the most influence on student learning. That’s true in so-called “normal” circumstances, and it’s doubly so today.
Simply put, school principals are the best-situated leader to ensure success during this time of crisis. COVID-19 has brought to the surface and multiplied the many inequities impacting marginalized communities. There is no handbook for how to do school during a global health crisis. Consequently, every school system in our country is creating its own blueprint for leading for equity and redefining school — they are faced with complex decision-making.
Complex decisions are necessary when the context holds many unknowns, unpredictability is high and the path forward is unclear. But complex decisions are not insurmountable.
Researchers David Snowden and Mary Booth share that complex decision-making requires a probe-sense-respond approach. Leaders must adopt a stance of experimentation to “probe,” be incredibly present to their shifting context to “sense” the path forward, and identify the best “response.” As school districts are probing, sensing, and responding, they need CEOs and quarterbacks to carry the community through this unprecedented year. Here are three of the many critical hats the school principal wore before COVID-19 that school districts should leverage as they face complex decisions:
Principals are community leaders
Every decision a principal makes will transcend beyond the four walls of a school building and into homes, community recreation centers, local businesses, and churches. During my time as principal, our community was faced with an incident of police brutality that stole the life of a black man. The act of violence sparked days of protests and a city-wide curfew. I learned quickly that what happens in the community impacts the school and what happens in the school impacts the community. I organized quickly with our school staff to partner with our students and provide them the opportunity to exercise citizenship and advocacy. Principals in deep partnership with their community will come to know the warmth and cultural assets their community has to offer. They will also come face-to-face with inequities. Before COVID-19, the best principals already knew the inequities in their community and, without being asked, were brokering resources to meet the needs of their students and families. For districts to address the compounded inequities unveiled by COVID-19, they must be in tune with the community’s needs and experiences. Principals are the necessary ears to the ground and equity leaders of their school building.
Principals are integrators
School districts are dynamic systems comprised of different departments — HR, transportation, academics, IT, child nutrition, building services, and much more. In the midst of a global pandemic, every department is faced with complex decision-making and must determine how to shift in order to meet the system’s needs in its new environment. For every shift in a department that impacts a school, the principal is notified. When I was a principal, I would experience this notification coming in the form of an email, a newsletter, a robocall, or a memo, and they could all occur within the same day.
Principals play the critical role of integrators, processing all the system’s information to make meaning for their school community, and establishing streamlined systems of communication to staff and families. School districts involving principals in district strategic planning will be key in managing system dynamics toward change and away from chaos.
Principals are a compass for culture
As a principal, I led our school through implementing 1-on-1 technology: every student received a Chromebook computer as a tool to help better meet the unique needs of each student. There were many layers to the change. Teachers delivering their lessons online was new. Students experiencing online learning was new. It was my role to manage the change by setting a culture that would push us through what was new, while providing enough support to prevent us from drowning in the process.
At the end of this school year, school staff and families will look back and either think about all the challenges, or think about how their school overcame them. It is the strategic and intentional leadership of the principal in shaping the school’s culture that will make the difference. The principal’s leadership will determine to what extent members of a school community feel in connection with each other even when they are not physically proximate. Their leadership will determine in what ways staff feel as a collective unit driving towards a common mission and goal. The extent to which staff, students, families, and the community felt welcomed, heard, and included in the school is directly dependent on the leadership of the principal.
Let them lead
Complex decisions lie ahead. How can system leaders amplify the role of the principal this year? The principal’s role as a community leader, integrator, and culture compass makes them the most powerful leader within a school system and therefore the best positioned to carry school districts through a pandemic. School systems must lean into decentralizing power and elevate the leadership of principals in their discussions and implementation. School districts must call upon principals as thought partners, collaborators, and allies in the revisioning of school in the COVID-19 era. School districts will have to collaboratively set the vision and direction, then get out of the way and let principals lead. Only then will “being sent to the principal’s office” carry the same importance as “taking a meeting with the CEO.”
Erica Jordan-Thomas is a doctoral candidate in education leadership at Harvard Graduate School of Education and completing her doctoral residency on the Education & Society program team at the Aspen Institute.