Time in role – a key to principal success

To see improvement and success for teachers, students, parents and the community, principals must spend years in their role.

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A key statistic that everyone who cares about education must consider is the time that principals remain in their roles in a school. It is simply staggering to learn that the average tenure of a principal in a North American school is somewhere between 3 and 4 years. This amount of time is insufficient in most instances to inculcate a vision of success for all students and deliver on teacher, student, parent and community commitment to what that means and how it looks. Principal success translates to school success and school success to teacher and student success. These successes do not occur overnight nor do they occur when there is a revolving door at the principal’s office.

Making changes

Very often a new principal is assigned to a school with the stated mandate of bringing about change, typically change that falls under the category of school improvement. Getting everyone to first understand and then pull in the same direction is not something that can be effected in a single school year. It is a process that starts with communication and moves to developing habits of mind across a group that can often be resistant from the outset. Understanding negative reactions to change (reasons for resistance include fear of change and the unknown, mistrust in people and process, loss of control over how one undertakes the job of teaching, a predisposition against change and experience with other failed attempts at change) and allowing time to effect the change will make the difference between failure and success.

Defining roles

The role description for a principal (and vice principal) is critical to success and must clearly highlight the primacy of instructional leadership. Some jurisdictions (including the UK and Australia) call the principal “head teacher” and clearly separate out the management function into a role called “business manager.” Similar separations may be made and have been made across North America where the vice principal takes on business and disciplinary activities to allow the principal more time to focus on instruction and professional learning communities.

The role of principal must be seen as prestigious and valuable, one that can engage and challenge an incumbent for many years. It cannot be seen simply as a necessary stepping stone to a district-level role that can lead to further appointments and career advancement. Given the critical nature of principals to school success, the principal selection process must keenly seek out those with the right knowledge, skill and attitudes to lead sustained school improvement activities over a significant period of time. Then those principals need to be continuously supported and educated. They need their own professional learning communities to further develop their skill and perspective.

Focusing on performance

Just as jurisdictions must be insistent on long tenure for their principals, they must also be equally diligent about weeding out those who are unsuccessful in fulfilling the role. The cost of a poor-performing principal is not the amount of money that it costs to terminate that person or hire another principal. It is the loss of success for the student population and the lack of growth in the teaching staff, neither of which can be tolerated in today’s environment.

In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. If a school year is roughly one thousand hours of instruction time and includes other time for other outside-class activities, it takes something between 5 and 7 years for a principal to reach mastery after fully committing to and being educated about the role. While this may not be a perfect proxy for this particular role, it is nonetheless a guidepost. Encouraging or allowing movement within that 5 to 7 year window is shortsighted and doesn’t allow for appropriate energy and stability to gain the desired outcome.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.