Growing school leaders: distilling wisdom and passion
James Thompson is the principal of Wolcott St Elementary School in LeRoy, New York; Neil MacNeill is the principal of Ellenbrook Primary School, Ellenbrook, Western Australia and George Manthey is Assistant Executive Director, Educational Services at the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA).
A century ago, the school principal and the local priest were honoured in American and Australian societies as educated people. Today, the gradual loss of respect for public institutions and schools has also eroded the public perception of principals. This loss of respect, reflected and sustained by rapid reforms, school accountability measures and legal threats against schools, has all made the principals’ roles more challenging. As a result, some jurisdictions are finding it difficult to recruit high-quality principals for their schools. As the Baby Boomers retire from the principals’ ranks, society needs to nurture school leaders and ensure that retiring principals transfer their knowledge to the new generation.
The Letter to Your Successor Project
The 'Letter to your Successor' project originated in the USA, sparked by concern at the vast amount of principals’ intellectual capital walking out of school doors, never to return, and the consequent difficulty in recruiting new school leaders. The project authors asked colleagues in Western Australia and the USA to write a letter to their successors, covering a series of survey questions. It was felt that the project would help retiring principals to initiate steps to grow new leaders, allow for personal reflection and smooth leadership transitions.
In the first part of the project, ten principals were selected to trial the survey instrument. Their responses were positive, informative and funny, and became the basis for this short article. The authors are now gathering information that will allow them to make judgements about the future direction of the project. The principals’ responses have been assembled around the six survey questions below.
What did you cheerlead?
Conceptualising the role of the principal as a cheerleader reflects how principals apply their leadership and status to motivate others in their own endeavours. Reported ‘cheerleading’ incidents ranged from encouraging preschoolers learning to tie their shoes, to building collaborative and reflective learning communities. One principal reported cheerleading for a team of five ‘extraordinary’ assistant principals, demonstrating how devolved leadership is about motivation as much as delegation.
Who did you console?
Principals’ descriptions of the times they took on consolatory roles demonstrate the tougher emotional side of school leadership. They also show that emotional connections may be required of principals at all levels in the school. One principal consoled the parents of a child dying from leukaemia; another provided moral support to a new teacher after an earbashing from a parent; and another reported consoling a young student over the death of his dog.
Yet another level of consolation occurred after major national events, such as the Columbine school shooting, or September 11 terrorist attacks. This reflects the role principals can assume as community leaders and focal figures in times of crisis. The wide variety of experiences that had touched these principals demonstrates the true extent of their care, from the community as a whole to each individual within it.
What did you confront?
Some principals expressed regret at not having confronted challenges in their schools nearly enough, but many had successfully taken action against attitudes and practices they felt were detrimental to the school environment. These included sarcasm, resistance to change, claims that something had been taught without evidence that it had been learnt, or making excuses for children not learning. Others described confrontation at a more personal level, overcoming ‘learning plateaus’ in their own development, or even taking steps to improve their diet, exercise and general wellbeing.
What did you learn?
The importance of building positive relationships within the school emerged as a recurring theme. This included selecting the best staff and learning with them as a team, as well as establishing trust and respect between the school, its students and its community. The importance of looking after one’s own personal circumstances also emerged, keeping time for their own health, family and relaxation. Setting goals, seeking outside advice and having fun also all featured in the wide range of learnings principals wanted to pass on to their successors. Tellingly, one principal noted that her most important learning was how much she still had to learn!
What should your successor know about your school?
The strongest message in these comments was that a core part of the principal’s mission should be to get to know the school themselves. Caring, listening and establishing mutual care between the students (‘never ignore a hurt child’), staff and the principal took priority over leading change. Visibility and integrity were mentioned as essential to becoming a true participant in and leader of the school community.
What did you celebrate?
Celebration is an essential part of leadership and building social capital in the school community, as well as a contributor to principals’ own satisfaction with their work. A number of principals described the accomplishments of their school, such as outstanding assessment results, or victories in inter-school competitions. However, some referred simply to shared experiences that brought the school community together in an atmosphere of celebration, such as a cat having kittens or a warm day in winter. Others celebrated ongoing practices that the school prided itself on, such as differentiating learning or collaborative professional development.
It was clear from the quality of the responses that the principals who wrote the letters all loved their jobs and their school communities. They took time to think carefully about what they would tell their successors when they hand over the school keys. Passion, excitement, humour and dedication are qualities that develop contextually, and they were palpable in what the principals had to say.
Furthermore, there is a growing recognition of the role schools play in the development of a sense of community, something that small rural schools have always known. The principals recorded in this paper are respected as key players in their communities. The multiple levels of care and interaction in their comments reflect the breadth of the connections a principal must make, across both the school and the community they serve.
One principal reported being haunted by a quote from Tom Armstrong’s Bringing Out The Genius In The Classroom: “Kids come to us as exclamation points but leave us as periods [full stops]”. The hope and love encapsulated in these letters clearly show that the writers still believe that students and school leaders can exit schools as excited exclamation marks, not as full stops.
Subject HeadingsWestern Australia (WA)
United States of America (USA)