590: Principal

Have you ever been called into the principal’s office?


Full episode script

“In American public schools, the principal is the most complex and contradictory figure in the pantheon of educational leadership. The principal is both the administrative director of state educational policy and a building manager, both an advocate for school change and the protector of bureaucratic stability. Authorized to be employer, supervisor, professional figure-head, and inspirational leader, the principal’s core training and identity is as a classroom teacher. A single person, in a single professional role, acts on a daily basis as the connecting link between a large bureaucratic system and the individual daily experience of a large number of children and adults. “

 

This quote, from the book Principal’s Office, The: A Social History of the American School Principal, sets up what is probably one of the most overlooked tensions of this particular role in public school. Most of us have only one experience of a principal — and that’s being in trouble, or at least not in a good place. Being called to the principal’s office comes with connotations of having gotten into so much trouble that you need to be sent out of the classroom and have someone with more authority work with you.

 

But, at the same time, principals can make a huge difference in the experience of education. It’s been said — and shown — that people will quit bad managers long before they quit bad organizations. In schools, principals are the managers that can impact the experience of both teachers and students.

 

As David Leonhardt noted in an opinion piece in the New York Times, quote:

Tom Boasberg, Denver’s superintendent, put it this way: “Your ability to attract and keep good teachers and your ability to develop good teachers, in an unbelievably challenging and complex profession, is so dependent on your principals.” Most other knowledge-based professions, he added, pay more attention to grooming leaders than education does.

 

And like the 2016 book A Decade of Research on School Principals, Cases from 24 Countries points out:

This collection is an important addition to existing international research that has shown beyond any reasonable doubt that the influence of school principals is second only to that of teachers in their capacity to impact students’ progress and achievement and to promote equity and social justice.

 

So maybe, just maybe, the principal’s office is a place where more than just discipline happens… though I’ll admit, I still get a little worried when I even hear the phrase.


Looking for something to listen to this weekend?

May I suggest The Story Behind? This podcast seems to be a near-perfect fit for listeners who love our podcast, because it really digs in to the story behind, well, everything! They have even touched on some topics very similar to ours, but have a take all their own. If you love research, something new to think about, or just a little bit of weird history, it’s definitely worth the listen.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.