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School principals have been around for a long time. Among other things, you might hear the leader of a school referred to as headmaster, lead teacher, head of school or even dean of students. I’m sure there are plenty more depending on where you live, but those are the ones I hear most often.
Teachers, students, parents, and the community would each describe the role of a principal in variety of different ways. Most would say that the position is a formal one, and that he or she is responsible for or “in charge” of leading the school.
Since schools are now being held more accountable for the academic performance of all students, principals are in the spotlight more than ever. In the United States, this accountability is based on whether schools and districts are making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) toward the goal of bringing 100% of their students to academic proficiency by the end of the 2013-2014 school year. If a building fails to meet the AYP a consequence may be that principals may lose their job- and if that were to hold true you can bank on 1000’s of principal vacancies around the country in 2014 because all of us know that the 100% AYP checkpoint isn’t realistic at all for most schools.
The sheer depth of today’s school principal job description however, is very realistic. Historically, our role has been mainly that of a manager which involves setting clear goals, allocating resources for instruction, managing the curriculum, monitoring lesson plans, and evaluating teachers. Today, the job description of a building level administrator is evolving to also emphasize instructional leadership. More than ever principals, need to become involved in the “core technology” of teaching and learning. The building level administrator’s job now carries a more sophisticated focus on teaching and learning, developing leadership capacity in teachers, creating conditions for professional learning, emphasizing the use of data to inform instructional program decisions (King, 2002).
Lost in all of that formal language, is that the principal serves as the main relationship-builder and/or partnership architect in terms of connecting the school and those families that attend the school.
Call it what you will. Liason. Buffer. Bridge. The principal is the glue that keeps the school and the families together through good times and the most challenging of times. You have to understand both roles inside and out, the current climate, the history, the culture as well as strengths and weaknesses each bring to the table. You spend a great deal of time to ensure each equally-important piece is supporting each other, in the best interests of the students. You make suggestions on how to go about certain situations including when or how to communicate about behaviors, events or academic concerns. Sometimes it’s the teacher who needs advice. Sometimes it’s the parents who need someone to listen to in order to arrive at a child-based decision. Your job is to ensure “the child” is always at the center of the table of conversation.
It’s very hard to serve this role well without building relationships on a daily basis and “meeting parents where they are,” as Chris Wejr described in his thoughtful post earlier this week. Parents need to fully believe that their building leader is working to provide them and their child consistency, safety, high standards, a helping hand, a valuable resource, a dependable ally and a comprehensive social and emotional offering while at school. Feeling supported outside of school via online/phone help, professional development for parents or events is also important in a well-rounded approach.
Bottom line: Besides steering the school’s ship in the best direction, today’s parents need principals to possess the skills necessary to bridge home and school. These skills allow you to be successful in creating the partnership dynamics that are best for your respective school situation.
Below is an initial list of behaviors that I hope will grow in the comment section as school leaders share their most successful approaches to building partnerships with parents and community members. I refer to them as unprincipal-like, because they were not the strategies taught in “principal school.” They are simply a handful of outside the box efforts proven valuable with experience.
- Make a home visit. Find out what “home factors” are impacting your student.
- Walk the pick-up/drop-off to greet parents.
- Stand outside the school to welcome each visitor.
- Cold call 5 parents per week to ask how the school year is going.
- Connect with technology. Offer Skype virtual office hours.
- Go out to the school lobby and sit down. Drum up conversation with the parents that are waiting.
- Constantly update teachers on the conversations you have with parents. They are the ones who spend all day with the child and can make home–>school and school–>home the most seamless possible for them.
- Attend school and community functions. Bring your family.
- Invite your Family Engagement School team to peruse the most recent online edition of Promising Practices on Joyce Epstein’s website. There are tons of innovative ideas that schools across the country are putting into action to engage families.
- Ask parents about the parent-teacher conferences. Show them you care and can provide further resources on meeting the needs of their child.
- Recommend a book or website to a parent. Send home or email it to them.
- Email all participants from your new family orientation night afterwards thanking them for coming, and providing links, information on their new school and how they can reach you.
- Be transparent with your office staff. Be sure they know as much as they need to about your families to enhance and build upon the partnership.
Of course, you cannot engage all of these at one time, but as principals, we need to differentiate our approach and employ a variety of strategies while providing a most stable bridge between home and school. Like one of my favorite tweeters, Steven Anderson, says each morning, “Be Awesome Today!” The little things you do as the building leader truly matter in building these most important partnerships.
King, D. (2002). The changing shape of leadership. Educational Leadership, 59(8), 61- 63.