Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. And the number 1 factor in setting the quality of teacher working conditions is the skill and attitude of the school’s Principal.
A good Principal helps build a strong highly-motivated cohesive team involving all members of the school community, while the actions of a poor one causes even an already cohesive team to start to fragment.
When an excellent Principal replaces an ineffective one school culture of learning and support improves within a few months. Staff morale and cooperation increase. Student behaviour and learning improves. And families who had felt shut out suddenly feel more involved in their children’s schooling.
When an ineffective or incompetent Principal is placed in a school, the opposite happens: conflict among staff, between students, and with families increases. Heightened tensions distract from learning. Students feel less cared for and less safe.
Students, staff, and families understand this well. Most have experienced it personally.
During the standard 10 years of elementary school each student will probably have a dozen or more teachers. During the standard 4 years of secondary school, a student will have another one or two dozen. The common wisdom is that a great teacher is the most important school factor in a student’s learning. This is only partially correct. In reality the important thing is for a student to encounter good to great teachers year after year after year. An individual great teacher surrounded by mediocre ones often can do little more than damage-control.
Even a series of great teachers isn’t the whole story. A school’s teachers need to work together to share their knowledge of each student they work with, to set consistent expectations for the students, and to allow the school’s students to use each year’s learnings as a springboard to the the next.
This unity of purpose and approach can happen spontaneously, but most often (particularly in a large school) it requires someone to act as a coordinator. In most schools that person is the Principal.
Like a coach on a sports team, a school’s Principal is responsible for building a cohesive team with a common purpose and student-focused culture. This means hiring a balanced staff (a soccer team made of only strikers would not be very successful, no matter how excellent the players), mentoring each staff member, and encouraging supportive relationships between the school’s staff members. Wherever possible, the Principal protects the school community from damaging outside influences, particularly from misguided policies and demands of bureaucrats and politicians. It is not an easy job to do well.
The negative impact of an ineffective Principal can extend far beyond the school’s walls and degrade the quality of thousands of schools. Several years ago the Principal of one small Ontario school generated conflict with teachers over arbitrary and excessive calling of after-school staff meetings. This led to a collective agreement grievance, which went to arbitration. The arbitrator, who had no prior experience with education-sector agreements, set down restrictive rules for how staff meetings could be called and what topics could be covered. This precedent was then applied to the approximately 5000 schools across the province.
And yet it is not often that school Principals receive the training, evaluation, or on-going support to bring their school to excellence. As in any line of effort, some have natural skills, the majority are adequate, and some are incompetent or even negligent.
A few jurisdictions understand how important a Principal is to a school and take concerted action to improve the effectiveness of these school leaders. Most just assume that a successful teacher will be a good school leader and risk the Peter Principle taking hold (“A person will be promoted to her/his level of incompetence”). Many even have rules that prevent an effective Principal from returning to the classroom; once a Principal, always a Principal.
files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED498770.pdf (Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions)