The essential role our school principals play in the quality of our students’ education is keenly recognized by those of us who have spent our careers enlisted in the pursuit of continuous school improvement. No leadership role is more critical in public education than that of the school principal. Study after study asserts this as if it’s a revelation, but we educators across the spectrum — whether it be teachers, custodians, counselors, superintendents, etc. — are not surprised and we don’t need convincing — we know that the strength of a school is directly and universally correlated to the strength of its principal.
Principals are the CEOs of their schools, responsible for leading highly complex organizations engaged in one of society’s most complex and essential functions. On a daily basis, they face and work around a myriad of long-standing systemic challenges — a shortage of highly qualified teachers and instructional support staff, ongoing technology and facility needs, and growing numbers of children living in poverty.
This past year, the challenges were complicated tenfold by a pandemic that none of us ever imagined we would encounter in our lifetimes. However, our principals, along with their teachers and staffs and with the support of their superintendents, stepped up and faced head on the additional challenges posed by unfamiliar models of remote instruction and ever-changing safety protocols. Previous training had not prepared them for leading through a pandemic, but somehow they learned from each other, adapted, and applied what they already knew about effective leadership to their new and unprecedented situations. Principals are problem-solvers and overcoming challenges is what they do every day.
Our schools, led by our principals, go above and beyond to meet our students’ needs, and this past year was no exception. They delivered meals to students when cafeterias were closed and opened their buildings to provide day care for essential workers’ children. They devised a variety of ways to honor disappointed graduates when traditional graduation ceremonies were canceled. Some held mini-celebrations for each student as individual diplomas were delivered; some held creative drive-thru graduation events to maintain safer social distancing, a new requirement that would impact all of our traditional norms of schooling as well as our daily lives. They devised all sorts of creative solutions for providing internet hotspots to students to access virtual instruction and prepared and delivered paper packets to those students they couldn’t reach.
Principals supported their teachers, both technically and especially emotionally, when even the most experienced and effective teachers questioned their ability to deliver remote instruction adequately. When school schedules shifted back and forth between plans A, B, and C, our principals responded flexibly and made it work. When parents wanted a total virtual option for students in addition to a hybrid and a full in-person option, principals worked with their teachers to make it happen even though it doubled or tripled their workloads. They managed suspected and real outbreaks of COVID-19 within their schools and kept lines of communication open with families and the community to alleviate concerns. When some of their teachers and staff members were reluctant to return to an in-person learning environment for fear of risking their health and the health of their families, our principals again made it work. Throughout, they remained focused, resolute, and positive.
We recognize the importance of our principals now and every day. After all, we depend on them to take care of each child who walks through their doors as if he or she were their own. We count on them to inspire their teachers and staff to have the highest expectations for their students and for themselves as educators. We depend on our principals to identify the barriers that get in the way of their students’ learning and work with their teachers and staff to overcome them.
In short, we expect our principals through the sheer force of their leadership, the rejection of excuses, creative problem-solving, and plain old hard work and tenacity to create the conditions that provide the opportunity for every student to be successful, even in a pandemic. Our appreciation for the front-line, essential role they play cannot be overstated, and we at NC PAPA are proud to serve and support them.
Editor’s note: Shirley Prince serves on EducationNC’s Board of Directors.