Mr. Ward, dressed in black with a ready paddle, was the model principal in 1974. He kept order while teachers worked separately as “islands” behind closed doors. When I began teaching, there was consistency in discipline, but not education. My career led me from inner-city Missouri, to affluent southern California, to rural southern Illinois. While my classrooms covered three states and vastly different socioeconomic areas, I was impressed more by my schools’ similarities. Teachers wanted classrooms with top-notch learning, but didn’t always know how to get there. I received evaluation ratings of “excellent” from administrators who sometimes had more sports trophies than classroom experience. Accolades were nice, but I needed guidance to hone my skills.
In 2003, my educational life changed when a visionary superintendent encouraged the faculty to earn National Board Certification (NBC) for teachers. Why? Because NBC educators are teacher leaders and lifelong learners with proven skills to help students succeed. I wanted to be that kind of teacher; I became certified in 2004. As an NBC teacher, I learned the value of collaboration and cognitively engaged kids. Closing my classroom door had impeded my growth; I willingly opened both door and mind to positive change. It was then that I forged my vision: to be a high school principal who respects—and collaborates with—the school community, striving for excellence for every student.
While my path to the principal’s office meandered, the research that led me was straight and unequivocal: The key to excellent schools is the teacher in the classroom. How does that connect to a good principal? Studies recognize that an effective principal, especially one with more than a dozen years of teaching experience, is second only to good instruction. In fact, those years in the classroom are often valued over administrative experience. Why? Because principals hire, evaluate, and fire teachers—a weighty responsibility that requires a solid investment in good teaching.
My aspirations led me to volunteer hundreds of hours as an “administrative intern.” Highlights included mentoring new teachers and training other mentors. NBC teachers introduced me to the Instructional Practices Inventory (IPI), a teacher-led process for school improvement that’s recognized by NASSP’s Breaking Ranks framework. I brought IPI to my school. With every step, I became a more skilled teacher who was better prepared for administration. In 2012, I left the classroom to be an assistant principal. In 2013, I became the first female principal at Highland High School in Illinois.
Where does a new principal start? Fortunately, in my case, not at the bottom—I followed an excellent principal. My team included supportive assistant principals, knowledgeable staff, and a seasoned team of strong teachers, many of whom were National Board Certified. Twenty years in the district had allowed me to build relationships of trust with the school community. However, there were also bumps in the road. In 2013, the Illinois budget crisis forced the high school to reduce staff and move from block scheduling to a traditional schedule. Change included an earlier school start time with a constricted bus schedule that squeezed the day so tightly that both staff and students struggled. The following year, the district went through the first teacher strike in its history.
There was much that I wanted to do, but most important was to address the climate created by an unpopular schedule and a divisive strike. It was then that a mentor and retired administrator, Barry Thomas, shared his trademark wisdom. He cautioned, “If you think you’re leading, and no one is following, you’re just taking a walk.” He was right. I could not do anything alone. The key to improving school climate was something all good teachers do—collaborate. I sent out surveys to parents, teachers, and students for input on the schedule. “Coffee With the Principal” became a meeting place for community members and staff. I established a Principal’s Advisory Committee (PAC)—seniors who provided more voice for students. PAC member Devan Kaufman created a powerful visual representation of her school-related stress (see above). By December, the school had a workable schedule.
Teachers organized a Climate Committee, and administrators presented spontaneous “You Make a Difference!” certificates to staff. The staff designed T-shirts with a unifying message: We Are One! Staff-Students-Community! And while all this was happening, the school focused on instruction.
Faculty meetings opened with data that emphasized the importance of effective teaching. With morale still recovering, teachers seemed reinvigorated by research that valued their work. I made my personal library on education topics available to staff. Great books were plugged at faculty meetings. Some books were so popular, I bought multiples to lend.
Just as some teachers “flip” the classroom, faculty meetings were “flipped,” with housekeeping items sent via email to allow more time to collaborate. The faculty watched videos of teaching and discussed lessons through the lens of the new teacher evaluation tool.
We sought ways to engage students in higher-order thinking. The IPI team of teachers led collaborative discussions on new taxonomies of thinking. They created a vibrant Pinterest page with ideas from their classrooms. In 2014, I affirmed my respect for teachers and teaching by revisiting the classroom to renew my National Board Certification.
The district provides staff one day a month for collaboration, but teachers wanted more. Community members joined administrators for a cost-free solution. Each month, principals supervised students while community members spoke on valuable topics such as bullying and drunk driving. During assemblies, teachers collaborated. Book studies became a way of life. Teachers read Grit: The Power and Passion of Perseverance by Angela Duckworth, with grit videos sprinkled in during meetings and assemblies. This year’s book study, Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, uses brain research to support perseverance.
My last two years have been a tribute to Highland High School’s teachers and students. In 2016, our students’ PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) scores were the highest in our county, placing HHS in Illinois’ top 100 public high schools. In 2017, student PARCC scores were the highest in the region, catapulting HHS to the top 50 public high schools in the state. U.S. News and World Report recognized HHS with a Bronze Medal, one of only two in the region.
Last Year as Principal
In June, as I prepared for my last year as principal, I attended a workshop where principals from across the state “brushed up” on teacher evaluations. Some districts based their “reduction in force” list on teachers’ evaluation scores rather than tenure. With such high stakes, my skills had to be sharp. Administrators watched a video of a teacher’s lesson and determined where to score the observation on the evaluation tool. While most agreed that the lesson “needed improvement,” I was surprised that teachers’ ratings of the lesson ranged from “excellent” to “unsatisfactory.” Back home, my assistants and I had led our faculty through the teacher evaluation tool, analyzing how each domain linked to effective teaching. HHS’ three principals worked together to ensure inter-rater reliability. With teachers’ careers and students’ learning at risk, shouldn’t this be every administrator’s priority?
So, after four decades in education, I go back full circle: A good principal must be a good teacher. Today, when principals walk the halls, it’s no longer with a paddle—it’s with the belief that effective teaching, coupled with good leadership, can help every child learn. Leadership skills don’t evolve from a checklist; they’re rooted in the chalk dust of the classroom. Barry Thomas was right. A school requires more than a principal taking a walk. Good education is high stakes, with the school community walking together toward a shared vision. Just in case I forget, I have Devan’s picture hanging above my desk to remind me.
Karen Earhart Gauen spent more than four decades in education, including stints as a teacher and principal at Highland High School in Illinois.