How a new generation of younger principals is handling the job


Modern Age


They have less experience but more responsibility. They're often younger than their entire staff. How a new generation of younger principals is handling the job.




principals_illustration.jpgMaternity leave is over. On this mid- May Thursday morning, just seven days until students go on summer vacation, Jessica Rosenthal, Ed.M.'08, has her hands full inside Hawthorne Elementary, the Louisville, Ky., school where she's wrapping up her first year as a principal after teaching English for four years in Nashville, Tenn. The one-story school's neighborhood, with homes that have manicured front lawns, is less than a mile from the house where Rosenthal and her husband live. It's the 28-year-old's second day back since taking more than a month off to care for her infant son, Neil, now 7 weeks old, and she arrived at 8 this morning. She has been going nonstop ever since, spending as little time as possible in her tidy office with a few crayon-colored pictures on the wall. "It feels weird to be in there with all that's happening around me," she says.

There's the boy who got a referral for biting another student, a committee she needs to advise about purchasing textbooks, and two positions she needs to fill for the 2010-11 school year. The PTA president has a question about a year-end picnic. Rosenthal has 31 pages of e-mails to back up before the school's new system kicks in, and is also considering leading an afterschool program to train girls to run a 5K. She also needs to go into every single classroom to observe teachers and take digital notes on her tablet computer, something she tries to do daily. Not to mention that at 1:30 p.m., her mother, in from Tennessee to help with childcare until summer, will bring Neil to Hawthorne for a feeding. (Striking a balance between work and family has been challenging. At home, Rosenthal sometimes types an e-mail with one hand while using the other to hold her son.) "Everything comes to a halt until I make a decision," she says. "Everything falls on my plate."

The students in the hallway are having trouble staying in a line, which is something Rosenthal plans to fix next year by making them stand in alphabetical order while alternating the leader to be fair. But that's for another day because right now a kindergarten boy in a navy blue polo shirt is bursting with energy in the hallway, hopping from one foot to the other as if the janitor-polished floor is scalding his feet. During art class, a teacher kicked out him and two other students -- whom Rosenthal will have to deal with, too -- for fighting. This late into the school year, the teachers seem fed up with the troublemakers. "Everybody is at the end of their rope," Rosenthal says. "I have a little more patience because I was out for so long."

She is tall and bends over at the waist to whisper into the child's ear, a strategy she uses often. "Your choices are to stay in your class or go to Ms. Wilson's class," says Rosenthal, holding the boy's hand.

"I don't want to go to anybody's class," he replies.

Temporarily, Rosenthal puts the boy in a room with fourth-graders, tells him to work on some subtraction math problems. Then she's on to the next task. Always a next task. "I don't think anybody can come into this job prepared," she says, despite last year serving an internship with two Louisville principals. "Until you're in the position and you are really the authority, you can't know what it's like. I honestly don't think more years in the classroom would have made this job any easier."

The trend over the last five to eight years, says Vick Flanary with the National Association of Secondary School Principals, has seen educators enter principalships with fewer years of experience than what has traditionally been expected. "If I talked to a group of principals 10 years ago, it wouldn't be uncommon for them to say, 'I spent 10, 15, 20 years in the classroom -- or as a counselor or an assistant principal -- before taking a principal job. Today the incubation period is as short as it has ever been," says Flanary, who was a middle school principal for 12 years in a Washington, D.C., suburb. And the job, he adds, has changed.

"Responsibility has increased, expectations are much greater, and accountability has grown exponentially. There's so much more scrutiny with how your school is performing," he says. "The demands have created a pool of principal candidates that is shallower than it has ever been, which leads to the hiring of younger principals. As you look at the profession overall, I do have concern with our shortening the path to the job."

Joseph Shivers, Ed.M.'85, Ed.D.'89, is 62 years old. He graduated from Salem High School in Salem, Ohio, and has been the school's principal for the past four years. It is his sixth principalship. The first one came in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1989. That was after 12 years teaching at a parochial school, a charter school, and a school in South Korea, to name a few, plus administrative positions with the Diocesan Department of Education of Columbus, Ohio, in the early 1980s. At Salem, he was director of curriculum and testing before becoming principal.

"I don't know that youth is an insurmountable obstacle or impediment, but one has to have really great judgment to do this job. For me, that's been a slower process. It seems that each year I've learned more about improving my judgment," Shivers says. "Each week, each month, each year I spent in the classroom framed what I do as principal. After 18 years, any problem that arises is a variation of something I've seen."

It's Teacher Appreciation Week, and Filip Hristic has prepared a breakfast for his staff: eggs and bacon, fruit salad for the health-conscious, bagels and cream cheese as a nod to his East Coast roots. The 32-yearold Hristic, Ed.M.'07, is wrapping up his third year as principal of Newberg High School's Yellow School, one of four small schools that have 400 students or so in Newberg, Ore. "It can be a little bit daunting to sit in front of a staff of 25 and realize most of them are as old as your parents -- if not older -- and think of yourself as their boss," he says.

Hristic was born in Belgrade, Serbia, came to the states in seventh grade, and went through high school in New Jersey. After studying teacher training at Boston College, Hristic spent a few years teaching in Massachusetts, first at an alternative high school for "behaviorally and emotionally challenged students, but also students so bright and brilliant they were bored out of their minds in a traditional setting," he says. They went on what Hristic calls "real-life expeditions," such as traveling to Mexico to examine environmental and political issues on the U.S.-Mexico border. His next stop was a charter school in Salem, Mass. "Through those experiences my interest in working with students was confirmed," he says. "I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I also got really excited about helping shape schools."

After studying principal training at the Ed School, Hristic and his spouse wanted to move to the West Coast, to be closer to his wife's family in Alaska. Newberg High School was divided into five small schools at the time, and Hristic interviewed for each position in one night and landed the job at the Yellow School.

"One of the real challenges is to understand your limitations and understand where you can speak from experience and knowledge and when you need to pull in other resources. I will never be one of those principals who says, 'I've been in the classroom 25 years and can tell you from my experience ... ,'" he says. "For those principals who don't have as much classroom experience as your staff, I think it's really important to recognize that and be honest about it. But that is not to say we cannot be instructional leaders. It probably means you're not going to teach many of your staff members how to be better teachers, but you can connect them with other teachers you recognize as highly effective."

Kim Marshall, Ed.M.'81, works for New Leaders for New Schools, a nonprofit that places principals -- mostly in their late 20s and early 30s -- into urban schools. He says a principal's age should not affect job performance.

"There are an awful lot of veteran assistant principals who want to be principals but just don't have the burning belief or the energy to do this kind of work. This is a 70- or 80-houra- week job, just incredibly intense," says the 62-year-old Marshall, who taught for more than a decade in Boston before becoming a principal at age 39 at Boston's Mather School, a position he held for 15 years. "If you're sitting down giving critical feedback to a 50-year-old high school physics teacher, it's tough to do that if you're 28 years old. But at the same time, many of these young folks have the talent and leadership skills to do that."

Marshall has heard some people express concern that principals who enter the position at a younger age run the risk of burning out. "You could turn it around and say it's like appointing somebody to the Supreme Court. You want somebody to be young so they'll be around for a while," Marshall says. "A lot of these folks, though, aren't going to be principals for 35 years. They're going to move up the ranks."

principals_illustration_2.jpgAllison Gaines Pell, Ed.M.'00, wrote the business plan for and helped start New Leaders for New Schools, where Marshall works, while at Harvard. Then in 2006, she founded -- and still serves as principal of -- the Urban Assembly Academy of Arts and Letters in Brooklyn. Despite her accomplishments, Gaines Pell admits that being in her early 30s affected how she presented herself early on. During the first three years, she wore a suit to school every day to look different than the teachers.

"This year, I finally decided it wasn't about the suit," she says. "When people see me they often say, 'Oh, you're the principal?' They expect to see someone older. I don't think I look that young anymore; I have some gray hair now, so that's good."

The Urban Assembly Academy of Arts and Letters is a middle school with 300 students on the third floor of a building shared with an elementary school. After drafting a proposal, and after the New York Department of Education determined a location for Gaines Pell's school, she hired teachers and recruited students. The oldest person on staff is just older than 40.

"I saw the need for a school that was a balance between the more progressive and more traditional approaches," she says. One recent project had sixth-graders asking whether ancient Rome was a society of achievement or brutality. The school partnered with a local arts organization to create illustrated A-Z children's books. Gaines Pell has put in a proposal to become a K-8 school and hoped to have an answer by fall.

Gaines Pell grew up in Brooklyn and lived in an apartment that's within walking distance of the building where she's now principal. By eighth grade she was writing essays about education reform. After studying English and graduating from Brown University, she taught elementary classes at the K-12 school where she went in Brooklyn Heights. In total, Gaines Pell has five years in the classroom, which includes a stint in Syracuse, N.Y. Before starting her own school, she also worked for an organization called Pencil, which focuses on developing relationships between business leaders and public school principals.

"If you define the traditional way to becoming a principal as 15 or 20 years in the classroom and then an assistant principal position, then obviously my resume is different," she says. "I maintain that leadership requires a lot of different types of experiences and a lot of those experiences I've had working at a lot of different places.

"That said, I also knew when I started the school that I was not going to be the most important instructional leader in the school," she adds. "I'm good at surrounding myself with people who know more about things than I. Instructional expertise must be in the school, but it doesn't necessarily have to come from me."

For the 50-year-old Kathy Barwin, Ed.M.'87, a belief that she did not possess the skills to be an effective classroom instructor led her to quit her job as a middle school reading and language arts teacher in Vermont and go to the Ed School to study reading, language, and learning disabilities. For one, as a teacher she had no clue what to do with her underachieving readers. Following graduation, though, it was back to the Vermont middle school, where she taught for 12 more years, putting her total at 17. Barwin is now the principal of Founders Memorial School, for third-, fourthand fifth-graders in Essex Town, Vt. Before accepting that position, she also worked as a literacy teacher-leader for the state's school district, plus accepted a position as a curriculum coordinator.

"The complete advantage to a path like mine is that you have more credibility with your teachers. They know I've been there, given my background," she says. "The downside is you end up with tunnel vision about the public education system."

Barwin, who has been principal at Founders Memorial School for five years, says that the principalship is a job that has evolved. "The old-school model of a principal was thought of as a management job -- making sure the building was clean, the buses were on time, teachers had money in their budget -- and that model doesn't cut it anymore," she says. "You have to be an expert in education and have experience differentiating your instruction. There are a lot of principals who have spent years in the classroom, but they've done the one-size-fits-all type of teaching, and you just can't do it these days."

Technology, Barwin says, is one area in which the younger principals have the advantage, calling them "technology natives" and herself a "technology immigrant." At her school, Barwin has a technology integrationist. "But I'm in luck. I have four kids and they're the ones who teach me; they're my technology integrationists at home," she says with a laugh. "I was joking with my five-year-old and said, 'When you grow up and move out of the house, I'm going to have to get another kid so I can keep up.'"

Gerald Yung, Ed.M.'07, has been principal at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School in Cambridge, Mass., for one year. One of the first things he did involved the school's enrichment block. The volunteers who had been leading the sessions on topics such as yoga, newspapers, and cooking were not always reliable, and Yung, 33, asked his teachers to do the teaching instead, basically adding an hour to their day.

"That was one of my first moves: Guess what, teachers, I need you to pick up another block," Yung says. "There was some discontent, but not a lot. I remember one of the teachers at the staff meeting said, 'You know what, Gerald, I think we've seen this coming. We understand how this can really help our school.'"

Yung attended high school in Cambridge and, after graduating, went on to study economics and political science at Emory University in Georgia. To fill some credits, he took a few teaching classes. "The rumor at the school was the education courses were the way to [fill credits]," he says.

Soon he was in an urban Atlanta middle school, teaching seventh-grade geography students where Atlanta was on a map. "I was hooked on that ability to transfer knowledge," he says. "I loved it when kids had that oh moment and you knew they understood. As time progressed, I just saw the challenge of taking those moments and having the ability to multiply that across a school."

After graduating from Lesley University in Cambridge (where he earned another master's), but before heading to Harvard, Yung taught eighth-grade U.S. history for six years in Milton, Mass. Yung's current job is his second principalship, the first being at a Worcester, Mass., charter school. Now his school, which has 270 students, grades preK-8, has applied for a federal grant to expand its dual-immersion language program, which has kids receive instruction in both English and Mandarin.

"I think if you have the expertise and the skills to lead a school, I'm not sure how much relevancy age should have," he says.

Hawthorne Elementary in Louisville, where Rosenthal is principal, is also a dual-language school. On this day in late May, a week before summer vacation, Rosenthal is sitting in a tiny blue chair in a kindergarten classroom, listening to the instructor speak in Spanish, teaching her students about coins through song.

"¿Como se llama esta moneda?" the children sing, looking at a picture of a nickel on a chart their teacher is pointing to. "¡Se llama Thomas Jefferson!" they all shout. Then, in Spanish, the teacher asks the kids the value of each coin. Rosenthal records notes on her tablet computer about how she likes all of the Spanish decorations papering the walls.

Next year, all K-5 Hawthorne students will take their math and science classes in Spanish. During Rosenthal's first year, about two-thirds did. It will be a big change, no doubt, but after one year parents will then have a choice to continue with the program. After checking in on the kindergartners, Rosenthal's next stop is a fourth-grade math class, and the teacher is not speaking a word of English. An overhead projector displays math problems. As she asks questions, hands shoot up all over the room. "I really have to pay attention to understand what she's saying, but the kids are clearly getting it," Rosenthal says. "And it's not taking any time away from any core content." After jotting more notes, it's on to the next task -- backing up e-mails, talking to the PTA president, and observing children in the library. Always a next task.

"As a principal, I have a great opportunity to make a difference in these kids' lives," Rosenthal says. "I mean, I know I'm young. By no means do I think my first year was stellar, but I'm certain I'll be a better principal next year -- and the next year and the next year."

-- Josh Moss is a staff writer with Louisville Magazine. This is his first piece in Ed.

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Comment by Phyllis Harrington on December 5, 2010 at 9:42pm
This was a fascinating article to read. It brought me back to my dissertation entitled 'The Young School Principal'. Maybe it's time to revisit that work!
Comment by Michael Keany on December 4, 2010 at 2:37pm
From Fred McKenna:

Over the past few years I have read articles like this about the need for leadership in schools. Some of those articles have cited the need for people who have had careers outside of education and the resulting broad view of the world. This particular article cites the lack of senior leadership candidates and the resulting hiring of younger, less experienced leaders. I support the views expressed in the article but I think that it focuses too much on educational technical experience and not enough on the need for leadership experience.

In his book, The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner suggests that successful individuals in the 21st century will possess the following key skills:

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
Collaboration across Networks and Leading by Influence
Agility and Adaptability
Initiative and Entrepreneurialism
Effective Oral and Written Communication
Accessing and Analyzing Information
Curiosity and Imagination

Organizations require leaders that are disciplined and focused and are able to develop a cohesive team from a group of individuals. As in business, the leader must make sure that everyone understands the organization’s mission, develop goals to achieve that mission and continually monitor performance in achieving those goals. The leader must assure that the organization is flexible and able to shift direction whenever necessary as circumstances change and above all the leader must be an outstanding communicator and develop that same skill in the members of the team. The leader must be able to effectively work with each stakeholder, support their efforts and thereby provide everyone with the best opportunity for success.

I was excited to return to education in 2008, believing that my years of leadership experience in education and business would be valued. In my fifteen years as an educator and twenty as the leader of a company working with educators throughout the country I was excited to bring my experiences to schools. I truly believed the rhetoric that I had read in the educational news and speaking with educational leaders throughout the country.

My experience has been that educators are not ready to embrace this new world view of leadership in our schools. They cling to the belief that successful school building leaders need to have just left the classroom and that central office administrator’s can only be successful if they have been career educators. The notion that leadership is the same in any environment and that the most critical skill of any leader is to be an outstanding communicator has not been accepted in most educational organizations. The 21st Century skills sited by Tony Wagner do not support the current hiring practices of our school organizations.

I would have expected my twenty-five years as an innovator in educational technology and leader in an educational software company would have led to a job as a Director of Technology. To my surprise, my letters of interest for positions in over ten school districts has led to only one interview.

I am an experienced software engineer and I built a data model used by school districts, large and small, throughout the country. I have a tremendous amount of experience in data modeling and analysis. Even this experience has not led to an interview for a data position.

I believed my twenty five years as a successful leader would lead to opportunities for building leadership. To date I have not had the opportunity to interview for a principal position and when interviewed for A.P. positions I am always asked why I would want to be one given my extensive leadership experience.

I site my personal experience only to highlight the current way educational organizations look at leadership positions in our schools. It is my belief that schools will continue to struggle to fill leadership positions with strong, qualified individuals as long as they hold to their current hiring practices. Educators would be well served to read books written about the leadership qualities of successful leaders in quality companies and begin to consider those qualities in their hiring decisions.

Regards, Fred McKenna

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