Challenges Principals Face & How to Respond to Them

Classroom Q&A with Larry Ferlazzo

In this weeks edition of Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo, a blog featured in Education Week, Larry asks the question:

What are the biggest challenges faced by principals and what are the best ways to respond to them?

Dr. Sanée Bell, Jen Schwanke, Mike Janatovich, Joseph F. Johnson, Jr., Cynthia L. Uline and Lynne G. Perez contribute their thoughts on the topic. You can read the responses by Joseph F. Johnson, Jr., Cynthia L. Uline, and Lynne G. Perez below and read the entire article here.

In our book, “Leadership in America’s Best Urban Schools,” we explained that in many schools, leaders are expected to help teachers,
support staff, and others “…achieve what they have never previously achieved, for Leadership in America's Best Urban Schoolspopulations of students they have never served well, amidst all of the frustrations that typically confront urban schools, districts, and communities.”  While this may be a daunting task, mortal principals have accomplished this in ways that yielded multiple evidences of impressive learning outcomes for all demographic groups.  These leaders have overcome four challenges that frequently frustrate the efforts and good intentions of leaders in more typical public schools.

Challenge #1: Promoting A Compelling “Why”

If school culture, curricula, and instruction do not improve, neither will learning results.  So leaders must build within their faculty, staff, parents, and students a desire to improve culture, curricula, and instruction.  Too often, leaders assume that people will be motivated by state assessments, district expectations, or their desire to please their administrator.  In contrast, we found that in high-performing schools, leaders were successful, in part, because they tapped into the motivations that led their colleagues to enter the teaching profession.  They were able to help educators see that their hard work was improving the lives of the students they served.  Similarly, leaders helped parents and students find new hope.  In the absence of hope, the quantity and quality of effort essential to promote success would not be sustained.

Challenge #2: Building Belief

Secondly, leaders must build within their faculty, staff, parents, and students a belief that desired changes in culture, curricula, and instruction can be achieved at their school.  Even if people have a compelling reason to try, people will not engage in sustained effort if they do not believe that the desired results are possible.  In high-performing schools, leaders deliberately and systematically helped stakeholders come to believe that success was attainable for the students they served, even in the face of challenges associated with race, poverty, language background, and other urban issues.

Challenge #3: Defining Critical Roles

Additionally, leaders must build within their faculty, staff, parents, and students a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities related to essential changes in culture, curricula, and instruction.  Even those who believe that success is attainable will become disenchanted if they perceive that they must do a thousand things well in order to contribute to a successful effort. In effective schools, leaders were able to help stakeholders understand the few critical roles they needed to master in order to make a powerful difference.

Challenge #4: Building Capacity and Providing Sufficient Support

Finally, leaders must build within their faculty, staff, parents, and students a belief that they have the capacity, support, and resources necessary to implement essential changes in culture, curricula, and instruction.  Leaders modeled a growth mindset as they worked with teachers, support staff, and students.  Principals assumed that their job was to build everyone’s capacity to succeed.  Teachers, parents, and students trusted that school leaders had their best interests at heart.  As a result, in high-performing schools, we found a palpable sense that success was attainable.

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