What’s Not Working in School Leadership


Canter-c120x148Formerly a teacher, now an administrator-in-training, Chris Canter blogs about his yearlong assistant principal internship at Fulton County Public Schools in Atlanta, Ga. Canter was a 2010 ASCD OYEA honoree.

I’ve spent a great deal of time discussing what works in school leadership. As I near the end of my internship, however, I find it helpful to talk about what DOESN’T work in school leadership.

For the sake of discussion, I have created a small list of things that can severely inhibit the roles of principals and assistant principals, per my experiences.

#1: Don’t nurture power struggles within the building.

Too many times, a behavior referral comes across my desk that is really about a teacher wanting to show “who’s boss.” Some of the behaviors written up include things like sneezing too loudly and popping gum (I always wonder, why not just ask the student to spit out the gum?). And, when this particular student wasn’t suspended, the teacher brought me another referral and said, “I’m bringing you another one because nothing was done to him and I want something done.”

This is the ultimate power struggle. When teachers don’t have a list of interventions they have tried, I am rare to intervene. The teacher must show at minimum that some phone calls have been made, e-mails sent, and detentions (even lunch detentions) were served before I’ll handle the issue, unless it is a major issue disrupting the right of other students to learn.

#2: Don’t allow “drive-bys.”

This is what I call it when a teacher drops off a student in my office. Instead, students must work with a buddy across the hall or somewhere else, and the teacher must ensure that the child has work. Oftentimes, teachers are too quick to remove a student. This helps them rethink that and conveys that I’m not just the discipline depot, where problems get passed off. My role is to work with teachers, students, and parents to solve problems.

#3: Don’t forget to hold leaders accountable.

All leadership teams need weekly meetings where progress, calendars, and other objectives are discussed. This helps each team member be personally accountable for pulling his or her own weight. Also, impromptu one-on-ones with the principal help grow accountability on both sides.

#4: Don’t take it personally.

So, the student punched a locker. He didn’t punch me! I know this sounds facetious, but sometimes we take a student’s constant disruptions as personal attacks, when they are not. The good news is that if we depersonalize the action, we can depersonalize the consequences and make them more objectively fitting.

#5: Don’t forget to have fun.

Enough said.

What other suggestions do you have for the list?


  1. Think Different: Teachers need a chance to do your job for a day or more. You need a chance to try their jobs. If you solve the problems while in their classrooms, you are on your way to becoming a great leader. It is all about working as a team. For the most part everyone means well.Not everyone can handle the challenges of becoming a teacher in 2011. How would the business community solve this sort of problem? Would things improve, if you had the power to fire everyone. Schools are going through new sets of economic and social challenges and there are no quick fixes in the education business. What are your thoughts?

  2. I would add that teachers need a seat at the leadership table. Administrators who are not on the ground, close to the action, in their buildings rarely understand the day to day issues impacting the effectiveness of teachers and progress of students. This is a big issue in my building.

  3. Great idea! I love it. I think that teachers should definitely see what the job entails. That also gives us a chance to build some leadership capacity among teacher leaders within the building. 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

  4. Great advice. I’ll have to check out the blog you have. Power struggles are one of the worst things…they can totally destroy credibility…at all levels. I think some great strategies to avoid them would be a great idea.

  5. I agree. I think that we need to redefine what and who a leader is…and not conform to the traditional hierarchical set up. Some people are influential leaders, yet hold no title. Some are skilled in certain areas that could benefit the school, yet hold no title. Yet, these teachers are still leaders. We need to try to find ways to include these teacher leader voices….and in fact to empower them.

  6. Be visible. Know where problems start, keep an eye on struggling teachers, let your staff know that you are there to support them. Don’t keep to your office. You might get the paperwork finished but you will never know your most important assets, the children and the teachers.

  7. What’s not working in school leadership is the number of principals who would rather invest their times in anything except coaching teachers to have better instruction. You have to maintain the focus on the important areas that impact students. Being in classes and hallways is the second most vital thing an administrator can do. Coaching and giving feedback is number one.

  8. I think this is a great idea! I know there is no simple solution and not one solution will fit all situations. Too many times it seems easier to just remove the child and send them to an administrator but it really does send the message to the rest of the class that you aren’t always capable of handling the situation. Kids are opportunists and love to get out of class thinking it means they won’t have to do the work. When most of the time the student who is causing the trouble really cannot afford to lose the instructional time. Viscous cycle.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here