By NV Fellow Ben Dickson
October was National Principals Month. If you were like me growing up, a principal was the person I really did not want to see, the guy (they were all guys then) who sat behind a big desk, had a paddle (did he ever use that?), and who I never once saw come into my classroom, not in 1st grade, 8th grade or 12th grade.
The reality for a building leader is much different now. Today’s principals are tasked with responsibilities that dwarf what their predecessors had to do. The role of a building leader is greater than that of a disciplinarian; a building leader must truly lay the foundation for their school.
A building leader today has to be a manager. They must be able to hire well, knowing they are ultimately responsible for the person they hire and that the number one determiner of student success is a great teacher in the classroom. They need to understand how to budget, how to use their money in the most effective way, and make decisions involving hundreds of thousands of dollars. They must understand the physical needs of their building. They need to be able to evaluate staff effectively and to have hard conversations when they are needed.
A building leader today has to also be an instructional leader. They need to understand the content their staff members are delivering, and also know multiple ways to engage students in that content. They need to know how and what to coach, and when to push and when to support. They need to know what the instructional needs of their building are, where to find support, and when to say no. They need to know data inside and out and collect from multiple sources. And they need to be able to use that data to persuade their staff to make change when change is needed.
A building leader today has to be a teacher, able to understand the challenges and triumphs that occur in the classroom everyday. They need to be ready to co-teach a lesson with a teacher, model an instructional strategy, and in the case of the non-existent substitute, be ready to take over for the day. They need to be able to empathize with the the needs of their teachers and speak with them - not over them.
A building leader today has to be a counselor. They need to be able to lend a sympathetic ear to students, families, and staff in their time of need. They need to know where to find wrap-around services, and when they aren’t available, how to ensure the basic needs of their community are met. They need to be able to encourage and hold themselves and others to high expectations.
A building leader needs to be a revolutionary. They need to understand that the status quo is never going to be good enough. They must be able to understand and communicate change that is needed for improvement, and that if schools are not improving they are doomed to fail. They need to know how to rock the boat, and accept that when it flips they will be the first one in the water.
In short, today's building leaders have to be so much more than an unseen authority figure behind a big desk. They have to be superheros.
Ben Dickson has worked in education for over 17 years, teaching Kindergarten through 6th grade. He has worked as a district level and site based instructional coach and currently serves as the Dean of Students at a Veterans Memorial STEM Academy, in Reno NV. He is an America Achieves National Fellow.