School Principal: Nightmare Job or Dream Profession?

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By Bryan Goodwin

Goodwin School Principal 300x300A couple years ago, I wrote in my monthly “Research Says” column for Educational Leadership how the mounting pressures of school leadership appear to be contributing to high rates of principal turnover. Sadly, the average high school principal won’t see her first freshmen class graduate—within three years, she’ll have moved onto a new position (or have left the profession altogether).

Imagine my surprise, then, when I stumbled upon an article published in Forbes earlier this year that reported that the number one happiest job in America, according to a survey from the job website CareerBliss, is a school principal.

Say what?

How can a profession with annual turnover rates ranging from 15 to 30 percent be the “happiest” job in America? I wondered, didn’t Forbes bother to interview some principals to get the real story? Turns out they did.

Brian Rosenbloom, a 60-year-old principal at Chelsea High School in Manhattan, told Forbes, “I couldn’t be happier with what I do.” Sure, he acknowledged, there’s a lot of “ridiculous, stupid paperwork and . . . mandates that come down,” but that’s overshadowed, he said, by the opportunity to spend time with kids and watch them grow (Chelsea’s graduation rate has more than doubled in seven years, from 40 percent to 90 percent).

How is that so many principals in the CareerBliss survey have presumably found just that, while other principals in a different national survey reported experiencing the highest levels of stress ever—largely due to anxiety and frustration over trying to raise student performance in the face of budget cuts?

One explanation might be that a survey that asks people questions about stress on the job is likely to elicit different responses than one like CareerBliss’ survey, which asked people to rate their jobs in areas such as the “people one works with,” the “rewards one receives,” and “company culture.”

But another explanation might come from taking a deeper dive into the research. As I reported in my Educational Leadership column, studies of principals who leave the profession find that most take the job out of a desire to help students achieve and teachers improve, but quit when they become disillusioned with bureaucratic roadblocks, overwhelming workloads, and clashes with teacher groups. In fact, as one study of first-year urban principals found, the key to whether principals decide whether to stay or go in their jobs appears to be how well they develop collegial relationships with teachers, something nearly half of them struggled to do.

Wrap your head around that for a moment.

The very thing that’s a source of happiness for some principals—working with students and teachers—is the professional undoing of others. Happy principals develop fruitful and rewarding working relationships with teachers; miserable ones find themselves mired in combative and counterproductive interactions with their colleagues.

Well, sure, some principals may think, I could have rosy relationships with my teachers if I weren’t asking them to change their behaviors.

But that’s not the point—prioritizing adult harmony over student achievement is hardly the mark of a good principal. To the contrary, research shows that great principals find a way to balance three key components of effective leadership by serving as visionary strategists (providing a clear focus for improvement efforts), optimistic change agents (overcoming resistance to change by inspiring everyone to believe better outcomes are possible), and purpose-driven team builders (developing strong communities where people share goals and an abiding sense of purpose).

In Balanced Leadership for Powerful Learning, which I coauthored with Greg Cameron and Heather Hein, we followed up on McREL International’s first major study of school principals and the work we’ve done to develop the talents of some 20,000 school leaders in the U.S. and abroad to capture the experiences of a handful of principals who took these findings to heart, using them in their own schools to effect real change. These leaders show how striking the right balance between the three key components of leadership has been essential to their schools’ success and their own personal sanity and, dare we say, bliss.

Indeed, some of the principals we profiled told us that they had been on the verge of quitting before they came to understand the science of leadership, dissecting what had once seemed mysterious and amorphous into a more approachable collection of component responsibilities (21 in all, according to our research).

Perhaps what is most important, though, is that they came to understand that they didn’t need to shoulder the entire burden of leadership on their own; rather, they could share what has become an unbearable load with a team of formal and informal leaders. Gaining this understanding helped them to catch a second wind in their careers.

That’s the two-fold, hopeful message of our book: first, that leaders aren’t just born—they’re made; and second, that there’s no such thing as a good leader—only good leadership teams. Knowing that won’t make ridiculous paperwork demands and the pressures of the school leadership go away, but it can make them a lot more bearable—and just might help to transform what could be a nightmare job into a dream profession.

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Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has authored or coauthored several books, including Balanced Leadership for Powerful Learning: Tools for Achieving Success in Your School, Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success, The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, and The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020. Goodwin writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership.

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