Principals Must Become Change Agents Motivating Teachers To Learn

The modern tension between technological change and traditional values in American culture characterizes the context in which the role of the school principal is currently being reshaped. Schools are traditional centers of community. But they are also confronting rapid social and technological changes. Understanding the principal’s changing role is important, since evidence indicates that principals make schools better places to work and learn. This paper describes the reshaping of the principalship, first identifying how work roles generally have become more complex and then examining the internal and external complexities that are transforming the principalship.

In the industrial society of the last century, work was highly rationalized through the streamlining, simplification, and automation of organizational and industrial processes. Industrial-era work involved standardized procedures, and it deemphasized human agency in favor of mechanization. Work roles featured limited contact with other roles. Moreover, efficiency and quantity of individual achievement were the chief criteria for work assessment. These characteristics of work in industrial society served schools well, allowing the spread of mass education and inspiring parental trust. However, they increased rigidity and segmentation, which are dysfunctional in today’s society. Society has now entered a postindustrial phase that is based less on industrial processes and machines than on an explosive growth in information and on concomitant rapid change. As a result, work roles now emphasize the ability to respond to complexity. Postindustrial work is less standardized and more customized. In today’s dynamic schools, emerging problems cannot be solved with standardized procedures. Customized responses, such as creating individualized lesson plans for atrisk students, are necessary.

Human agency has also become important in postindustrial work. School leaders cannot rely on applying existing knowledge mechanically. As agents who must solve problems using individual judgment, they must continually develop new understandings to address changing demographics, existing understandings of learning, and technologies of teaching, as well as changing political, legal, economic, and organizational features of schools. Another feature of postindustrial work is increased contact among roles, with collaboration essential to solving complex problems. Self-managed teams with shared leadership are becoming more common in schools. An example of such lateral organization is interdisciplinary teacher teams. Assessment of today’s workforce emphasizes innovation, creativity, collaboration, and use of others’ perspectives. The principal in postindustrial society is valued less for decisiveness and firmness than for flexibility and sensitivity to complex environments. Principals must redefine their roles to address rapid change while acknowledging that schools should be communities.

Educational policy today is marked by societal tension between industrial and postindustrial perspectives, between improving schools through standardized measures of professional and student achievement and meeting educational challenges locally through innovation. Principals are often caught between these perspectives. The orientations of principals toward leadership practice must expand. The postindustrial shift from hierarchical bureaucracies to networks of interacting professionals requires leaders capable of building strong professional communities that foster teacher collaboration, dialogue, and learning. Establishing such communities requires that principals become collaborative instructional leaders guiding the development of school improvement that, while based on scientific research, is tailored to school contexts. Principals must also be open to leadership from within the professional community. Studies show positive outcomes in schools with strong professional communities. In some schools, achievement inequities are diminished, and gains in math, reading, and science performance are seen. Teachers working in strong professional communities hold high expectations for students and enjoy supportive teacher–principal relationships. Professional community enhances teacher support from colleagues, motivates teacher and student learning, and inspires shared commitment.

Principals must nurture these benefits, sharing leadership with teachers. The principal’s role is evolving from a controlling to an empowering one. School leadership involves a web of social relationships that principals should sustain through three leadership modes: interactional, collaborative, and democratic. Principals transform traditional top-down communication patterns into open patterns that foster the spread of shared values and innovation. Collaboratively, principals encourage relations that create professional communities. They attend to the political conflicts that can interfere with group efforts and help teachers negotiate the tension between autonomy and whole school improvement. Democratically, principals stress the moral dimension of school leadership, modeling openness and honesty, full participation in the development of ideas, and compassion. These modes of leadership combine to open schools to change.

Principals must ensure that professional development in their schools is valued and meets teacher and student needs. Principals’ activities should also be oriented toward fostering shared decision making driven by issues directly related to student learning. Moreover, to model desired teacher behaviors, principals must develop deep content and pedagogical knowledge that they use to help teachers identify and solve problems.

While focusing on the internal complexity of schools is critical, principals must also be aware of the larger environment in which schools operate. The following three aspects of this environment in particular affect principals and the school community. Given current trends toward holding schools accountable for student achievement and research showing that effective instructional leadership characterizes effective schools, principals should be the central figures in school accountability. As instructional leaders, effective principals rely on empirical data to facilitate curricular and instructional decisions. They analyze and reflect on the consequences of those decisions while making teaching and learning the shared responsibility of all stakeholders. They find solutions to the challenges of increased accountability, which include fiscal cuts, school probation, and even closure.

The desire for greater accountability has also stimulated market oriented views of schooling, which assume that schools competing among other schools of choice are compelled to improve in order to attract and retain students and that principals must promote schools of choice, becoming more responsive to families’ educational needs. Research confirms that principals spend increased time marketing schools of choice. Evidence also shows that school choice enlarges the principals’ environmental management functions, particularly parent outreach.

It is unclear how greater choice affects activities of principals of schools of choice toward fostering community and activities of principals of traditional schools toward retaining good students. As a result of social changes increasing the numbers of students with disadvantages, many schools have taken new civic roles as social workers, health care providers, and character developers. In such schools, principals must be key leaders who build civic capacity at the school site. They are vital to coordinating public and private efforts toward supporting students at risk. Principals should build community support by forming partnerships with businesses, serving on key stakeholder groups, and working closely with social agencies that assist families. They should work to create broad-based coalitions to rejuvenate school neighborhoods. Building civic capacity also requires principals to take the attitude that their schools cannot succeed without community resources that will increase their students’ chances of success.

The reshaping of the principal’s role is taking place in a context where future and past, change and continuity, are in conflict. Principals work in increasingly complex settings where people’s lives and hopes confront societal injustices, uncertainties, and demands. Every day, school leaders adapt their strategies and activities to these settings. They must balance the need for fostering an effective professional community with the need for meeting demands for accountability, market viability, and civic capacity. As they reshape their roles to meet these demands, principals are experiencing stressful expectations yet guiding their school communities—and themselves—toward exciting growth opportunities.


Megan Wilson is a teacher, life strategist, successful entrepreneur, inspirational keynote speaker and founder of Megan champions a radical rethink of our school systems; she calls on educators to teach both intuition and logic to cultivate creativity and create bold thinkers.



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