THE BLOG
10/29/2013 06:15 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2013

Celebrate the Rodney Dangerfields of Public Education

October is National Principals Month, a 31-day opportunity to celebrate the year-long work of our nation's principals, a welcome respite -- no matter how short-lived -- from the unrelenting criticism of our efforts by the purveyors of school privatization.

By chance, October is also National Bullying Prevention Month, dedicated to encouraging communities to work together to stop bullying and cyberbullying by increasing awareness of the prevalence and impact of bullying on children of all ages.

"The culture of bullying won't end until people across the country take action and show kids that they care," says Julie Hertzog, director of PACER's National Bully Prevention Center. Nor will bullying be diminished until the crucial role of principals as community leaders is recognized as essential for creating healthier learning environments, free from either physical or cyber aggression.

The public can hardly be blamed for failing to recognize this crucial role of principals as community leaders; for, the heightened -- and much hyped -- demand for improved education in recent years has focused largely on critiquing teacher performance as measured by standardized student test scores, a criticism that is both unfair to teachers and uninformed about how quality education for all is achieved.

In fact, principals are the Rodney Dangerfields of public education -- we get no respect for the demanding work of our calling.

To be sure, the importance of good teaching cannot be discounted. But teachers don't work in a vacuum. They are in fact part of a working environment in which the overarching importance of principals, though often ignored by policymakers and the media, cannot be overstated.

Simply put, great schools begin with great school leaders. So it is fitting during the month of October we say "thank you" to the many dedicated leaders who run our schools and create learning cultures that value all people.  

Second only to a principal's job as an instructional leader is the job of creating positive school climates. Overseeing good schools requires leaders who are capable of creating environments that allow teachers and students to feel valued and that empower them to influence the way the school operates.

School leaders provide the vision and set the tone. A good principal cannot be a spectator or a top-down leader and expect success. A school leader must provide an atmosphere of trust and a willingness to work with others to develop the appropriate school culture. How well school leaders succeed depends largely on how much they value the collaboration and input of teachers, students and the community.

These are not qualities that can be easily measured. Nor do they lend themselves to simplistic data-driven assessments. But anyone who doubts the significance of these leadership qualities for achieving classroom success need only ask a teacher how important they are and chances are good that you will get quite an earful!

A good school leader's prescription for creating a positive school climate involves a complex set of interrelated actions: setting clear guidelines and directions, supporting and encouraging the school's staff and students, sharing decision-making, remaining open to collaboration and new ideas, celebrating diversity, and above all else, listening twice and acting once.

It's a demanding calling that requires leadership that is uniquely embracing and magnanimous, that respects those who work and study under their leadership. But it is leadership well worth celebrating, not least of all for the sake of the children who benefit from it.

So, devoting a month to salute the work of school leaders is time well spent, since, against all odds, they spend a lifetime of work to achieve successful schools.

Diann Woodard is President of the American Federation of School Administrators.

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