A critical shortage of principals in Ontario schools is looming, putting many school boards under pressure to find new school leaders before current principals retire.
That was a major focus for discussion by an expert panel on the role of school principals at the People for Education Making Connections conference at York University on November 13th and 14th, 2010.
“Sixty-nine percent of the high school Catholic principals in Ontario can retire in 2011…There’s nobody to replace them,” said James McCracken, who recently retired as director of education for the Ottawa Catholic School Board after a 34-year career in education.
The shortage is not limited to just the Catholic boards, according to the Ontario College of Teachers, which says the shortage is most acute in the French Language boards.
“We have a shortage of people wanting to be principals,” said McCracken, who was joined on the panel by Penny Milton, former CEO of the Canadian Education Association, Paul Shaker, professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University, and Ken Thurston, director of education at the York Region District School Board.
“There’s a number of people who are not principals who have the qualifications but who have decided they don’t want to be principals,” McCracken said.
His board studied why these people are shying away from the job and what they found was that teachers see the job of the principal as too bureaucratic and not enough about the school and its students.
“What they have seen is a good person starts off being idealistic (about what the job will entail) and then (becomes) someone who is spending an inordinate amount of time doing management and work in their office,” he said. “They were not ‘principaling’ the school and that was turning people off of the job.”
Thurston said part of the problem may be that principals have been misled about what the job would entail. “Principals today have a very complex, busy, demanding and impactful role,” he said. “We’ve sort of set up a lot of people for disillusionment when we talk about the singular focus of curriculum leadership (leading teachers in how to teach kids).”
There are so many other duties that can fall to the principal too, including such unexpected things as dealing with the sewage system when school staff go out on strike, he said.
Boards also need to support principals through all functions in order to keep the job enjoyable and attract more teachers to the job, he said. “We need to give more power back to our principals and staff,” he said. “I think it’s rather like the results we find on teacher satisfaction testing; it’s not the number of things they have to do (that makes the job satisfying), it’s the level of efficacy they feel in doing those things.”
The more they are able to make site-based decisions, the more job satisfaction they will have, he said.
From chief safety officer to manager of public relations to overseeing the integration of services, principals wear a lot of hats, said Milton.
“There is not a single role for the principal,” she said. “And managing a small rural school is not the same as managing a large urban school.”
One of the most important roles of the principal, meanwhile, is to communicate their vision for the school with the parents, she said.
Being a good manager, though is not enough, said McCracken, who illustrated his point with the analogy of a group being dropped in the middle of the jungle needing to find a way out.
“A good manager makes sure everybody has a machete and the tools they need… a good leader starts by making sure they are in the right jungle and that they are going in the right direction,” he said.
Beyond that, principals should be willing to be flexible when dealing with teachers, parents and students, he said. “A good principal knows how to park the policy and make it happen,” he said. “I don’t want someone who always just drains the life out of people. I want someone who says, ‘yes, we can do this together.’”
Referring to a point made by conference keynote speaker Stuart Shanker about how playing hockey helped his own son develop self-regulation, Shaker said principals need to be brave enough to take unconventional steps in schools.
“What the elementary schools should be doing is using things like hockey to teach things like reading, but you don’t dare do that,” he said.
He said principals need to know child development theory well enough to defend themselves to parents and the board when they try things outside of the box. “We lack the language and metaphor to defend these standpoints,” he said.
Making every school happy with the right principal is also a challenge, said McCracken.
“I have 84 principals and moving them around is a science,” he said. “We used to have a system where the younger principals got a small school and then graduated to a bigger school. Today a small school might have 125 students but be in an urban area with 25 different cultures represented and a large school might have 900 students but be in the suburbs without many challenges.”
Making everyone happy can be almost impossible, he said. “To be honest with you, everybody wants Jesus Christ with computer skills,” he said. “No administration wants to put the wrong principal in the wrong school; you’re just making more work for yourself. You want the very best fit and sometimes that doesn’t work.”