The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

A Principal’s Dream

on March 11, 2019

Today’s piece is a copy–with minor changes–of an introduction to a book I planned to write for teachers and those who were considering becoming one. Because I never completed that book, this is the first time I have published my introduction. Although I’m not sure that I made my point clear I tried hard to convince readers that establishing a good school is a marvelous–and rare–skill

When I was a school principal a young child would sometimes come into my office, sit down with pencil and paper in hand, and ask questions about my job. I always found those questions hard to answer in terms that a child could understand. But I would have had almost as much trouble if the questioner had been a sophisticated adult. A principal’s job is often a hodge-podge that defies description, and every principal does it differently.

In the beginning I had only a notion about what a principal’s job entailed and no preparation for it. So I proceeded to fill my time with minor tasks like delivering new books to our school library or stepping into a classroom for a few minutes to watch a lesson. One day when our lunchroom supervisor was absent I cleaned the tables in the lunchroom and laughed when students teased me for not doing a good job. But more often, I roamed the hallways or went down to the gym to see what was happening there.

As time went by I got to know many students by name. Several of them had got into trouble and been sent to me for punishment. Fortunately punishment wasn’t what I was good at. I tried to help each person see their situation as a chance to repair errors and restore good feelings. We also talked about the things they wanted from school and how they might get them through different behavior.

I also spent a lot of time talking to teachers personally or in small groups. I wanted to find out what pleased them, what hurt them, and what they needed to do their job well. One thing I was able to change immediately was teachers’ individual work time. The custom had always been having each teacher work alone for one period a day. But it was easy for me to change that. I arranged for same grade teachers to meat at the same time every day to share their skills and ideas

Over time our school made good progress. The turning point came when I received an award for being an outstanding principal and was asked to give a speech on that topic.  For the first time I was forced to look philosophically at the principal’s job and define it in terms that were more universal than my personal experiences.  What I came up with was a three part job description that included 1) managing school operation, 2) fostering teaching and learning, and 3) keeping the dream alive. Below I have reproduced—with a bit of editing–what I wrote at that time for my speech and later shared with parents through our school newsletter. It seemed to me that they, as much as other school principals, should know about my philosophy of seeing a principal’s job as an inter-locked three-part responsibility. Below is my speach

When a school has a dream, everyone involved, though not always consciously, knows who “we” are, what “we” do, and how “we” do it. However, principals do not “create“ schools.  That is, they don’t invent their own dream of excellence and dump it full blown on a school. Their role is to see the school in its true nature, its possibilities for excellence, and the pathways it should follow, then help others to see them too.  Principals are most successful when they bring as many stakeholders into the process right from the beginning and work to enhance their perceptions, hopes, and willingness to continue.  Having a dream makes a principal feel better, but only when everyone involved has it also, can it become a reality.

Ultimately, a successful dream becomes internalized so that everyone  recognizes what fits with it and what does not. When teachers look over a new textbook, they quickly recognize whether or not it’s right for their students. Children no longer have to check the school rules; they just know : “we don’t behave that way at our school.”  Parents know what to expect in terms of homework, discipline and teaching style because “that’s the way things work at our school.”

The most amazing thing about a dream is that when it becomes internalized by everyone there is far less work for the principal to do.  Leaders start to emerge among teachers, other staff members, parents and students. All are eager to take over some small part of the dream.  And they can be trusted to do it well.  The principal doesn’t have to keep rere-explaining the dream or making sure everyone is in tune with it.  At times there may be minor skirmishes with outsiders, but they never seriously threaten the dream. Best of all, the dream building process proceeds under its own steam, gaining momentum and making everyone involved proud and self-confident.

2 responses to “A Principal’s Dream

  1. Kathleen Hagans Jeskey says:

    It sounds like you were an AMAZING principal! I sure wish we had more like you.


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