Earlier this year, I had the honor of attending the Principals@ED event at the U.S. Department of Education, representing the 1,900 students at my high school. As I shared with my fellow principals that day—early in my second year as a principal—one thing had become clear: The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) creates a wealth of exciting opportunities for students, teachers, parents, and school leaders to work together to make sure every student does indeed succeed, and leaves high school prepared for the worlds of work and education beyond preK–12. One key takeaway from my day at Principals@ED is that there is, perhaps now more than ever, a key role for state and local leaders to be a voice for what they know works best for their own students and schools.
At the same time, the stakes have never been higher for school principals. We need to be sure that we are informed of and engaged in all of the conversations about what our students need and will receive from and through ESSA in our schools, whether around civil rights, funding, assessment, college and career readiness, health and wellness services, and more.
Especially concerned about the logistical and instructional impacts presented by our first year of Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing in 2015, and curious to know how other schools were managing key issues being presented by first-year implementation, I sent out an introduction and email invitation to area high school principals suggesting we get together once a month or so to review key developments in the state and share ideas. Whether motivated by my building’s central location or the promise of muffins and coffee, I got an almost immediate and enthusiastic reply from nine local principals. We met throughout the course of the year and plan to continue our conversations. Here is some of what we learned:
Sharing Knowledge Is Power
All of us worry about the same things, whether we have been a principal for one year or 31 years. We feel the pressures that parents, students, and staff do, all at the same time, and all the time. PARCC testing in New Jersey this year created technical, logistical, and instructional problems for districts. We faced, in varying degrees, external and internal shortages of computers to use for the testing and frustrations on the part of students, parents, and staff about lost instructional time (which we as principals painfully shared while at the same time being responsible for this occurring).
We are increasingly concerned about mental health struggles and the use of drugs and alcohol among students, particularly as we see teens using substances to self-medicate and alleviate stressors. We are worried for our teachers who feel increasing pressure to “get it all done,” whether the matter is content, testing, relationship-building, their own professional learning, or the increased anxiety and sometimes harassment they experience from parents and students over grades, learning, expectations, and instruction. At our monthly meetings, we shared tips and tricks for handling all these concerns and more.
We also quickly established a text messaging and email group for quick help on emergent matters. For example, one principal who was asked for his input on a new grade software management system was able to get through all the marketing talk offered by vendors by sending out a query about which system we all used in our schools and its benefits and drawbacks. In just a few hours, he had real-time, real-world information from each of us about how and why the system would or would not work for his school, and a list of key questions to ask the vendor and central office staff. We shared tips on communicating with parents and students about social media app perils, and ways to help decrease student tardiness and develop supports for struggling students. We also assist each other on all matters relating to school safety and security, including evolving information from local law enforcement agencies throughout our towns, and shared tips from meetings and conferences.
In addition, we took the opportunity to rotate where the meetings happened, taking time at each other’s schools so that we could visit particular programs or learn more about programs or supports we might take back to our own. As a result of this collaboration, when asked a question in our own schools or communities, whether by a parent, student, teacher, coach, or even the superintendent, we have all found ourselves able to answer or provide information not only from our own perspective or experience, but from a number of principal colleagues as well.
When the host principal sends out the reminder about the meetings, we also solicit agenda items so we can look at it in advance, see what common concerns or questions we have, and then bring any supporting materials or resources to the meetings. This way, we learned about each other’s PARCC testing schedules, policies on prom and graduation participation, open campus procedures, attendance contract guidelines, AP course enrollment initiatives, homework policies, extracurricular activities, and more.
The Importance of PLCs
It became clear as we met over the course of the year that the job of a high school principal is both the most and least predictable one around. We all entered teaching and ultimately administration hoping to support, inspire, and lead schools where every student is supported and engaged, and every teacher and staff member is fully resourced to do that work with us. But after more than a year of conversations with my principal colleagues, it is clear—though we all agree, not surprisingly—that the realities of testing, facilities, budgets, staffing, and the daily lives of teens and those who love them are the very cause of that lack of predictability.
Working together in person and by email, phone, and text, in what feels like a pretty practical and effective “Principals’ PLC” has provided me not only with role models for my own growth as a leader, but also with information about how to manage the daily pressures of the principalship in a powerful way.
Elizabeth Meola Aaron, MAT, MEd, is entering her third year as principal of Columbia High School in New Jersey’s South Orange Maplewood School District.