Illustration two people connecting a bridge between two peoples brains

We’re co-principals. That’s right, co-principals. We think this leadership model has great potential-especially at high-needs schools. And we want to share our story here and at Ignite ’16, but let’s start at the beginning. 

Both of us had worked for our superintendent, Dr. Lynn Moody, in Rock Hill, SC, and we both became school principals at about the same time. We found that we have a strikingly similar education philosophy. However, we also realized that we are very different and we could learn from each other. We started to work on projects together outside of our schools. We have presented together numerous times across South Carolina. When we decided we wanted a different form of professional development, we founded Edcamp South Carolina. We even started a weekly Twitter chat in Rock Hill when we were embarking on a 1:1 journey in that city.

Through the years, we often wished we could find a way to work together in the same school building. We knew it would be awesome, but thought it was impossible. I mean, how would two principals share the same school? To our surprise and delight, the Rowan-Salisbury School system posted a position for a “Transformational Leader or Leadership Team.” We thought, “Wow, what a great opportunity!” 

The two of us decided to apply. We had both experienced great success at high-​poverty schools, and it would have been easy to stay where we were and continue to build on the success at our schools. But that’s not us. If you know either of us, you know we are not ones to rest on past success. We wanted a new challenge—and this was it.

Dealing with the Stress 

We became co-principals/transformational leaders at Knox Middle School in the summer of 2014. The school had experienced constant leadership turnover for the past decade. Test scores were extremely low, and the school, quite frankly, had a horrible reputation in the city. According to the state-issued Teacher Working Conditions survey, it was safe to say it was not a place where many wished to work. Many students were multiple years behind academically. Plus, there was no rulebook or guide for how a co-principalship would work. We knew this would not be easy. 

We also knew we were ready for this challenge. We love telling others that we are co-principals because it is usually met with a series of questions. What is that? How does that work? How do you split responsibilities? Who’s really in charge? Do the kids try to play you against each other? Do the teachers? 

That’s when we answer like this: It works great. We don’t split anything. We share our leadership. The kids now mix up our names because they know they are going to get the same answer from both of us. The teachers love it—and no, they don’t try to play us against each other because they know we share everything with each other. We have a high degree of professional and personal trust between us, and that makes our work successful.

Don’t get us wrong, we know that principals are under stress (see graphic). Our first principalships were solo experiences, and we felt the extreme pressure the principalship brings. We experienced firsthand how lonely it could be for principals—you simply do not have anyone to truly collaborate with in your building. 

The educational rhetoric around teacher collaboration is strong. We continue to emphasize that teaching is best when it’s not treated as an act of isolation. As principals, we are taught to push our teachers to collaborate—but what about us?

We take a complex problem of educating the masses and associate the success of such with finding a singular person who can lead. Contradictory? Just a little. Despite all the research regarding the challenges related to principal longevity and the stress of the principalship, we remain in the box. In a Twitter chat a few weeks ago at #leadupchat we talked about revolutionizing education. This immediately pushed us to think about revolutionizing educational leadership. If collaboration is good for teachers and must be embedded into the school day, why wouldn’t it be grand for principals? A co-principalship creates a voice outside of your own head. Principals need partners. We can say without a doubt that our co-principalship has extended our leadership endurance.

Isolation is the enemy to great teaching as well as to great leadership. Together, we are better leaders and better learners. In a little over one year, our leadership abilities have grown in ways that could not have happened in a solo experience. The co-principalship needs to be scaled up and used—especially in high-needs schools. 

It’s not just about emotional support, either. It’s important to note that there is an intellectual stimulation that occurs as a result of our co-principalship that just didn’t happen when we were solo principals. We challenge each other’s thinking. We have both grown stronger in our ability to look at a situation from a perspective other than our own.

The demands of the principalship can be overwhelming. What we expect a single person to do for a dynamic and complex group of folks (teachers, students, parents, community members) may not be realistic. Being a great principal is about collaborating and leveraging the strengths of everyone in the organization while working with key stakeholders to create a quality educational experience for every child. Why do we assign that task to one person? It’s no wonder that 85 percent of principals are highly stressed. That’s no surprise to us.

We could not be more proud of the work we have done together. The co-principalship has increased our leadership longevity, reduced our stress level, and increased our leadership abilities and perspectives. 

Sidebar: Is the Solo Principalship a Realistic Endeavor?

For far too long, those of us in education have allowed our conceptualization of the principalship to cloud our ability to think about it in a different way. Earlier this year, @educationweek tweeted that 85 percent of principals say they have high stress levels, citing a report from the National Association of Elementary School Principals. A portion of that report data is illustrated below. 

Illustration depicting Stress levels, 2% Low stress, 13% Moderate Stress, 85% High Stress

Latoya Dixon and Michael Waiksnis are co-principals/transformational leaders at Knox Middle School in Salisbury, SC, and visiting professors at Catawba College. They will co-present a session titled “A Unique Co-principalship Model to Serve an Underperforming School in Partnership with Catawba College” at Ignite ’16.