COMMENTARY: School Principal: The Most Difficult CEO Job in the Nation

Schools all over the nation are struggling to modify their strategies to meet the Common Core demands regarding critical thinking and problem solving. They must also find ways to teach 21st Century workplace skills, enhance students’ social and emotional development, and, of course, build their character so they become responsible and productive citizens. Oh, they must also be sure to create an environment where their students are physically and emotionally safe. This list gives real meaning to the term daunting, but it is only the beginning.

I work with CEOs in almost any field you can think of but I don’t know of any job that is more difficult than that of a public school principal. In addition to the very complex and difficult mission of achieving all the educational outcomes expected, they have every responsibility of any other private or public CEO — hiring, supervision, budgeting, facilities management etc. And they must perform these in the context of inadequate and often shrinking resources. But wait, there’s still more.

As public employees, they work in a minefield of rules restricting gifts, forbidding conflicts of interest and avoiding even the appearance of impropriety.

They are constantly besieged with unfunded mandates and often unfair assessments directing what they have to accomplish with inadequate resources and students who often have academic and attitudinal shortcomings (e.g., from lack of motivation to outright hostility).

Then, of course, they have to do all this while pleasing (or at least not displeasing) competing constituencies critical to their success – teachers and other staff, parents, a superintendent, a board of education and a general public, often inadequately represented by the press.

Faced with this daunting array of demands and deficiencies principals deal constantly with pressures and temptations to distort data, outright lie and even to cheat to make their students look better and keep funds coming in. It is an enormous challenge to recognize, let alone meet, all their responsibilities, treat everyone fairly and respectfully and follow all the rules imposed on them.

Their biggest task, however, is to focus on the children they must serve trying to ensure that they are physically and emotionally safe, that they are and feel cared for and that they are treated as individuals.

It’s no wonder that some burn-out and stop trying — they literally retire on the job waiting to retire.
What is a wonder, and really quite wonderful, is how many never quit, how many find ways to do more with less, and provide a kind of leadership that is rare in every other segment of society.

We let down these dedicated educators in so many ways. Beyond the lack of material support, we simply don’t give them the moral, management and decision making tools to help them make effective and ethical decisions. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Adoption of the Common Core by most states imposed a more explicit requirement that schools do a better and more systematic job of teaching higher order thinking and problem-solving skills. At the same time, the schools are expected to teach the kind of practical skills needed in the 21st Century workplace, and help students develop emotional intelligence and executive functioning skills while teaching, enforcing, advocating and modeling ethical character traits.

It is not likely that the demands on our educators and administrators will lessen or that resources will suddenly appear to make their jobs easier. Thus, we need a concerted effort by schools of education and professional associations that offer in-service professional development to devote substantial effort to give them the tools they need.

A Common Core for educators would assure that they are trained to deal with the enormously complex management and motivational challenges they will face. They need to be trained in the higher order thinking and problem-solving skills that could make the difference between success and abject failure. Similarly, they need to be given opportunities to develop and refine the social and emotional skills and traits (including positivity, perseverance and resilience) and other practical skills (such as planning, time management and communication techniques) needed in their 21st Century workplace.

All of this will take hold however only if the core moral qualities needed to sustain performance are systematically and pervasively reinforced. Efforts must be made to enhance and support their character — their willingness to be honest, respectful, responsible, fair, and compassionate while living up to and respecting the rules that guide them.

This is no easy task but it is the only way to assure the future of our educational system.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts.

Comments 5

  1. I respectfully disagree with your assessment of Common Core. It sounds wonderful from the outside, but teachers and students are the ones in the trenches.

  2. I’ve always found it troubling when jobs within the public school position are described using business terms. While there are management components, teachers don’t deal with commodities or products – they work with people. The best principals, the ones who earn the respect of all those competing entities – teachers, students, community members – understand this. They remember that they are, first and foremost, educators. When administration-led staff meetings, community meetings and other forms of communication take the form of stockholders meetings, complete with data, charts, graphs, and clever “inspirational” quotes, a picture is painted of a principal as manager. For many teachers (yes, I am one), this conflicts with why we chose to answer the call to become an educator.

    I am also troubled by the implication that principals are alone in dealing with public relations, acquisition of resources, doing more with less, and other management components of teaching. Today, parents and community members are enabled, even encouraged, to communicate regularly with teachers, through phone calls and emails. Grades can be accessed at any time with the rise of online grading programs, and parents can inquire about their child’s grades at their convenience. Teachers deal with budgets and financing, often having to make curriculum choices based on what’s affordable rather than what’s right. What teachers can’t do, however, is close their office doors to deal with these aspects of our jobs.

    While educators enter their profession with the best of intentions, I believe principals and other administrators sacrifice a measure of idealism when they trade a classroom for an office. Perhaps those of us who remain in the classroom cling too tightly to ours at times, but those ideals are often necessary to keep teachers going when it falls to us to carry out the edicts of our bosses, whether or not we agree with those edicts. Those who choose the administrative route hopefully occasionally reflect on why they got into education, and whether or not they still hold true to their ideals. If one’s ambition is simply to manage, one can find a hotel, restaurant or other actual business in which they can apply their trade. Schools are not businesses, inasmuch as students are not commodities. And any statement or implication to the contrary is sure to rile those who know this.

    Finally, while training for educators is no doubt valuable, diminishing resources are a much more dangerous deterrent. The idea that higher-order thinking development is somehow a new notion aside, training teachers in using and implementing resources, and not providing those resources, is frightening double-speak. And 21st-century learning in decaying mid-20th-century buildings is another cruel joke, and a sadly common scenario.

  3. I disagree with you on the common core issue and also on the bogus idea that School Principal is the top CEO. Teachers, and that includes school principals, are among the least knowledgeable people in our society. Do you think that we draw teachers from a gene pool different from any other occupation or profession? The reason that we have dumb children graduating from high schools and colleges these days is because they are set before fools and taught what to think and not how to.

  4. Well Randall,
    In every profession there is always a spectrum from outstanding to poor performing service providers. Doctors, Lawyers. Police Officers or just fill in the blank. Certainly they’re not all bad. Have you ever had an outstanding teacher? I agree that there are people who need to change professions. But don’t put us all down.

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