Lonely at the top: Distinguished principals build community through NISL program
School leaders find improvement through collaboration
“Being a principal is such a lonely field,” said Jesse Rawls, who serves as principal of Central Dauphin East High School in Harrisburg, PA. Rawls noted that despite having four deputies and a fantastic staff, it is often difficult to find support in his current position.
It is this premise that has made the National Institute for School Leadership’s programming such a valuable experience for administrators across the country.
Rawls is one of several principals in Pennsylvania, Mississippi and Kentucky who are participating in NISL’s Distinguished Principals program.
But despite the idea that the participating principals would receive credentials to help propel them to higher levels of leadership through ongoing training and mentoring, participants say it is actually the sense of community with other principals that is of the most value to them.
“The support is there for us to be successful, to help us help someone else be successful,” Rawls said. “You don’t see that too often in education where you get a lot of support. Usually, it’s just like here, go do it.”
Jessica Hodges, principal of Florence Middle School in Florence, MS, said she found the experience “insightful,” because “I got to meet with principals from around the area that I would have not normally have met with.”
“We can always look at community relationships — we’re always looking to build those up better than they are now,” said Hodges.
The collaboration, learning that the problems facing an individual school aren’t isolated issues allows Hodges space to talk with peers to find solutions around identifying “ways that I can get my kids seeing farther” — “trying to design activities and teaching the kids the ability to research outside of their Facebook page” — as well as “trying to figure out how to get my academics more rigorous and getting the kids to see the connections between our world and the outside world,” she said.
“Just being able to work with other principals through whatever their issues and concerns might be, I think really helps,” Hodges continued. “A lot of times, we have the same issues, so it doesn’t make me feel like I’m out on a little island by myself, but you can get stuck in a rut of doing the same things over and over again.”
For Adam Schmucker, who serves as principal of Trumbauersville Elementary School in Quakertown, PA, “to have this group of other principals and colleagues that I can come together with, to think through education with” — on issues ranging from formative assessments to the severity of the clown threat and everything in between, the idea that “I can talk to someone on the complete other side of the state and say, ‘Yeah? You’re dealing with that, that’s something for you too?’” is hugely affirming.
Rawls agreed, saying, “We can’t learn and become better unless we work with other people, because learning is a community process.”
“So if you’re in the classroom and students are just sitting in rows, you can teach them some things, but they’re not going to really learn it unless they’re working with other people,” he said, adding that the same concept rings true for adults and those in leadership positions.
Having that synergizing space, Hodges said, “It just makes you consciously look for ways to make your school better,” she said, whether that is “parental involvement or data analysis or professional development with your teachers,” in ways school leaders are not always able in the school environment.
“If I’m in my building and I’m trying to learn something new, it’s just not effective, because if my staff knows that I’m here, they’re going to find me if there’s a problem,” said Rawls, noting the frequency of issues that pop up demanding his attention on any given day.
And despite the fact that the prevalence of social media and other technology-aided platforms makes communication across district and state lines much easier today than it once was, Schmucker said none of that takes away from the importance of “face-to-face opportunities” to connect, grow and strengthen each other as educators.
“I don’t think anything can replace the power of carving out some time in a very busy day to sit down side-to-side with a peer to really carve out how to really make a school the best that it can be for the kids,” he said.
And it can’t be a one-time thing.
“I think it’s ongoing,” Schmucker said. “Education is not static. It’s always changing because the world’s always changing, and sometimes it’s changing really fast. It’s a dynamic time in the world, it feels like, and school doesn’t just happen inside the walls of the building. Life flows through those walls.”
“It’s important for us to know that we’re going to need to continue to work at it,” he continued, saying there will always be new research around best practices and strategies and emphasizing the importance of using “that information to get into a classroom level to support the kids — and not just a classroom level, but a family level.”
“It’s important to have the professional development be situated in a way that can also match that process,” Schmucker said.
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