Dear JCPS: The Principals Come First

Bruce Maples (bruceinlouisville@gmail.com)
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Here’s a question for you:

Can the principal be your pal, if they never come out of their office?

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I was intrigued by the comments of a JCPS principal in a recent C-J story. When asked to identify the main problem facing our school system, this principal said they needed “more qualified teacher candidates.” Because if those teacher training schools send you a bunch of dunces, what’s a poor principal to do?

I’m sure coaches Pitino and Petrino would like to use this line of reasoning. “Hey coach, why did your team lose to that Division II team?” “Well, obviously, it’s the quality of players that these high schools are sending us.” Yeah, that would fly.

I could go on in a similar vein for a few more grafs, but let’s cut to the chase:

In any school, the most important person is not the teacher — it is the principal. A good teacher can affect a single classroom. A good principal can turn around an entire school. And a bad principal can destroy a school by driving away all the good teachers.

What, then, are some of the things that a good principal can do to make a difference? The list is long, but let’s start with these:

Hire better. One of the key responsibilities of any executive is hiring. When I was managing a team and had an opening, I knew that hiring the right person was going to be one of the most important decisions I would make that month, perhaps even that year.

If you don’t like the quality of the people you hire, the mirror is the first place to look. Why did you hire them, if you knew they couldn’t do the job? And if you didn’t know, shouldn’t you work on your interviewing and hiring skills?

Oh, and if you say “I knew they wouldn’t work out, but those were all the candidates I was given to interview,” then don’t blame the candidates — blame your HR department for not doing THEIR job.

Coach ‘em up. Guess what, principals — if you hire a newly-hatched teacher, they are not going to be as prepared as a ten-year veteran. Or even a three-year veteran. Every good organization knows this, and every bad organization ignores it. So are you and your school the good organization, or the bad one?

I hate to keep falling back to the sports analogies, but they fit here so well. Winning college coaches not only recruit well (hiring), they take the raw talent they’ve recruited and coach and train them until they know the system, know the plays, know the signals, and know how to improvise when needed. The training and coaching regimens of our sports teams often put our teacher coaching programs to shame … and that’s a shame.

Principals, one of your key responsibilities is to help every teacher in your school continually improve. That means observing without attacking, suggesting without belittling, and demonstrating without showboating. If you can’t do those things, then you shouldn’t be in the corner office.

Be present and visible. And speaking of the corner office, how much are you in it and how much are you out and about? Your first job is not to sit in there and check your email, or write reports, or correct spreadsheets. And your first job isn’t to go to meetings downtown, either.

Your first job is to know your school by knowing your teachers, your students, and your staff, as completely and intimately as you can. Discipline works better with relationships, coaching works better with relationships, improvement comes after relationships, and achievement comes because of relationships.

Here are two anecdotes that I heard recently, that should break the heart of any principal worthy of the name:

  • A certain principal recommended that a first-year teacher not be rehired the following year. Not too unusual, except for one thing: That principal had never observed that teacher the entire year.
  • A group of students at a local high school were standing with their teacher when the principal walked by. The students asked the teacher, “Who was that?” And no, this wasn’t a new principal or new students. This was the principal these students had had their entire time in that school.

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Are there good principals, even great principals, in the JCPS system? Absolutely. They are the ones who are reading this and nodding their heads, because they know that the principal is where it all starts.

Dear JCPS: If you want to improve your schools, don’t start by blaming the first-year teachers. Start by improving your principals.

Photo by LendingMemo

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