The Principal Story

“I became a principal because I want to change the world, really,” says Kerry Purcell in the documentary, The Principal Story, which aired on public TV in September. (If you missed it, there’s a link below where you can watch it until December 14).

The documentary, which job-shadows 2 Illinois elementary school principals for a year, was funded by the Wallace Foundation as part of its campaign to raise awareness of the need to develop educational leadership.

In the public mind, principals are the go-to person when a child is getting bullied or the school budget is being squeezed or if a teacher is not being fair.  But one of the messages the documentary seeks to convey to the public is that a principal needs to be more than a go-to person.

A principal needs to be a healer and a leader, an educational leader.

Teachers and principals are not working with classrooms full of well-fed and well-cared-for children whose minds are free and clear and receptive to learning.

Teaching would be a lot easier job if that were true. They are working with a lot of wounded and distressed children. In fact, schools find themselves at the front line of the war on poverty, and educators more often than not wearing the hat of a social worker.

This state of affairs calls for even more heroic efforts at instructional leadership.  One problem is time. Typically principals spend 70% of their time on “buses, budgets and behavior,” according to the film, and only 30% of their time on instruction.  Columnist Nicholas Kristof calls quality teaching “the best antidote to poverty.”

The film looks at several innovative programs, including one in Kentucky which aims to free up principals so that they can focus more on being instructional leaders.  The Kentucky Department of Education has developed the role of SAMs (for School Administrative Managers) to allow principals to spend more of their time on learning-centered leadership.

SAMs take on many of the bus schedule and behavior issues, while the principal spends more time in the classroom supporting and cultivating good teachers. But SAMs can also be a sounding board for the principal, helping the principal keep his or her eye on the instructional priorities.

Many schools find someone who is already on their staff to step into the role of SAM. The division of labor is clearer than it is between a principal and vice-principal, says one teacher who works at a school with a SAM.

He says you don’t feel like you need to go to the principal first either because you’re not sure whose job responsibility it is or because you want to go to the authority figure first.  The teacher says he likes having his principal more engaged in the conversation of teaching.

To view the documentary go to the link below. The link will be active until Dec. 14:

A research story that may interest you:

Principal effectiveness tools are short on instructional leadership

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