Every year, the Minnesota High School Principal of the Year speaks at the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals Winter Conference. As the 2021 winner, I recently had that honor.
Everyone there already knew firsthand that these have almost certainly been the three hardest years of our careers as school leaders. Let’s face it: Being a principal is a difficult job, but I don’t think any of us could have imagined what these last few years would be like. I know that many principals across the country are considering leaving the profession. But as I told my Minnesota colleagues at the conference, this is not the time to quit.
The well isn’t deep enough for any of us to leave the profession early. I know these past three years have been extremely challenging, and there have been many among us who have either left the principalship or are questioning whether it’s worth it to stay. Well, I say it is worth it—your school community needs leadership now more than ever, and if not you, well then, who? So, don’t quit.
I offered my colleagues some advice for dealing with issues around equity, which has brought additional political and social challenges to many schools and districts over the past few years—and have made the job of school leader even more challenging. If anything, those stresses have only added to the temptation to retire or leave the profession early. My advice to my colleagues is to know your “why.” I think when we find our why, it confirms why we became school leaders in the first place and why the work continues to be vital and fulfilling, despite all the obstacles.
Finding My “Why”
It’s different for everyone. For me, my “why” has always been aligned to my school’s organizational purpose: “Each and every student will graduate prepared for postsecondary success regardless of race, class, gender, or ability.” Another way of saying this is that you will not be able to predict students’ postsecondary readiness based on those demographic indicators. So, my why is really about student experience. And it’s my why that has helped me navigate tough issues and stay focused on what matters most.
From helping our school communities heal from the many civil and social injustices that have occurred, to leading a school community through a pandemic where new meaning has been given to the phrase, “Just follow the science,” our work has never been more complex or politically influenced. And somewhere along the way, equity became more complex, too. I’ll return to that thought later.
During the pandemic, when most schools in our area were moving to distance or hybrid models of learning, we took a different path at Wayzata High School that ultimately focused on student experience. Classes that needed to meet in person for practical purposes continued to meet in person. Students who needed more personalized support were invited to receive that support in the building. And classes that could meet more seamlessly if they were remote moved to a synchronous and virtual model of instruction.
A lot of these ideas weren’t necessarily new. This wasn’t the first time we considered online learning or differentiated instruction to accommodate the needs of students, nor was it the first time we questioned the significance of a 900-square-foot classroom in our never-ending pursuit of developing highly effective pedagogical practices. Somewhere along the way, we allowed the social and political climate to change the complexity of our work, and that work suddenly became uncomfortable, stifling, and/or confusing to many school leaders.
When we had to help our students reacclimate to more normal routines for this school year, we learned just how quickly many forgot how to “do school.” Add to this the staffing shortages, learning disruptions, COVID-19 variants, increased stress levels among teachers, and greater student dependency on cellphones, and it became even more evident and critically important to fall back on what should matter most: student experience.
Equity and Student Experience
Equity is embedded in student experience, and it shouldn’t be complex or political. It’s actually rather simple and purposeful. We work purposefully and strategically to meet the needs of all students, individually, regardless of race, class, gender, or ability. We focus on their individual experience as it correlates to opportunities, expectations, and aspirations.
We don’t teach theories to promote or achieve equity, and we avoid the equity traps, tropes, and language that prevent this work from moving forward or drawing a cynical counter-narrative. Equity is about evolving our practices and our processes to yield higher results and better the school experience for all students—not just students who have the resources or know how to do school well.
If these past three years have taught us anything, it’s that it’s difficult to predict what the future will look like in the next month, let alone the next year. Regardless of what comes our way, it’s imperative for the success of all students that, as school leaders, we are preparing staff to do more than just work hard and care for the students in their classrooms. They need to work smart, care for all students unconditionally, and believe they can ultimately change the trajectory of every student’s life by changing their practice when a student does not succeed.
Finally, we must be efficacious in our work. For example, when Harold is failing his classes because he’s not doing his homework, we can’t blame Harold. We must dig deeper into understanding why Harold is choosing not to do his homework and identify ways to help him understand the value of homework so that he begins to do it. Or, if Harold is failing because of significant personal, emotional, social, or other health-related concerns, we don’t give up on him. We take responsibility for getting him the help and the support he needs until he’s ready to perform at the level we know he’s capable of performing. Or, if Harold is failing because he doesn’t have a supportive structure at home, we provide those missing supports here at school to help him succeed. In other words, if Harold fails, then we as a school community are failing Harold.
When I think about students like Harold, and how much they depend on our school community, I know the last thing I want to do is leave the profession, especially as we start to emerge from a pandemic that has caused significant disruption to our students’ overall educational experience. Student experience matters. Leadership matters, too. And good leadership will result in a good culture. You’ll know you have a good school culture when you can no longer predict your students’ academic success and/or your students’ experiences based on race, class, gender, or ability.
That’s what keeps me coming back every year, and I’m already looking forward to the fall—after some time off this summer, of course. And that’s why I’ll say it again: This is not the time to quit. We need good school leaders now more than ever.
Scott Gengler is the principal of Wayzata High School in Plymouth, MN, and the 2021 Minnesota High School Principal of the Year.