A School Principal Must Be a Support to Teachers

by Lisa Dabbs

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I was born into a family of educators. As a result, I decided when I was 13 years old that I wanted to be a teacher. My friends thought I was crazy! They quickly jumped to counsel me that I should want to be a Doctor or Lawyer or…anything but a teacher. Their attempts to sway my decision failed. I spent many happy years as a classroom teacher and truly loved this experience.

During the course of my time in the classroom, I began to think a lot about the work that my dad and uncle were doing as school principals. I loved their global perspective and that they had big visions for their schools and their work. It was in my second year of teaching that I decided that I wanted to become the first female principal in my family. Years later, I was fortunate to spend 14 years as a school principal. As a result of this work, I’m very passionate about supporting and mentoring new and experienced teachers.

The Role of the Principal is complex

As a principal, I spent hundreds of hours going in and out of classrooms observing and evaluating teachers. This part of the job was always very challenging. The challenge for me was not the paper work or time spent in follow up meetings. Rather, the challenge came in that I observed lots of good teachers who were committed and passionate about their work, but I also observed many who should not have ever set foot in the classroom in the first place. It became clear to me as I met with these teachers that many of them who were struggling with classroom management, lesson delivery or building relationships with students were probably never given opportunities to be supported, coached or mentored. Why? Where had their principal been during all the years that passionless teaching was going on…right under their noses? Why had they not stepped up to offer guidance, support, or mentoring to these teachers?

I’m the first to tell you that the job of the school principal is one of the most difficult ones in the country. For that matter, in the world. As a principal, at least here in the US, you are responsible for everything that goes on in your school. Every child, teacher, and parent is YOUR responsibility. There is an expectation that you’ll put time into working with students, meeting with parents, and attending school events. Add to that the need to know and support curriculum standards, analyze ongoing assessments, maintain policies and procedures, and ensure campus safety. Mind boggling, no? But all that— and much more— is what it takes to be a good leader. The role of the principal is complex, particularly in relation to support for teachers. But one thing is clear: most teachers are depending on their principal to let them know what their expectations are and to support them to get there.

The Role of the Principal in Supporting Teachers

The role of a principal in supporting teachers can be challenging at times, but absolutely necessary. In the midst of all the responsibilities that I had as a principal, the call to support and mentor my teachers was always at the forefront of my work. Whether through a formal observation or chatting over coffee in the staff room, this work of support, which was daily, made a huge difference in the success of my students and my school community. Seeking guidance from my teachers became part of my school’s culture. Together we consistently worked to develop a professional learning community.

In my work now as an educational consultant, I’m troubled by hearing about the lack of support that teachers receive from their school principal. Would those teachers who struggled on my campuses have been better teachers if their principal had offered support? My response to that is: YES! How a school principal works to mentor, guide and support teachers is critical to the success of a teacher, not to mention the students in his or her care. I strongly believe that a school principal must work to continuously be a coach and mentor for their teachers, even when it is challenging to do so.

Over the last 2 years, I have become very involved with the utilization of social media to support, coach and mentor teachers. As a result I founded a chat on Twitter. The chat, which meets every Wednesday and lasts for an hour, is attended by many teachers (and principals) from around the world. The chat is practitioner-focused and supportive. In a recent chat topic, “How should a principal support a new teacher?” it became very clear that many teachers were struggling with the role a principal plays in this work. Here are some of the questions that were tweeted in the chat:

– How do principals lead?

– Why does my principal delegate all my concerns, instead of supporting me himself or herself?

– What’s the difference between an instructional leader and a manager?

– Why do I never see my principal in my classroom?

It was clear in this dynamic hour of discussion that there is still much work to be done in this area, as well as ongoing dialog on this topic at our school sites. In addition to that, experienced and new teachers must build relationships with their school leaders, who can then support them through the roller coaster of those first years of teaching and beyond. That said, I’m certain that those school principals who are working to be supportive leaders are asking their new and experienced teachers what they need to support their work and doing their best to provide it. I’m also certain that we still need more leaders who are consistently taking the time, in their complex and challenging day as a school principal, to offer meaningful, practical, hands-on support to their teachers so that they and their students can be successful.

Lisa Dabbs

Lisa Dabbs is an educational consultant and former principal who lives in California. She is a Core Blogger at Edutopia.org, founder of New Teacher Chat #ntchat on Twitter and blogs about supporting new teachers at Teaching With Soul.