2000-06-10 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

Two weeks ago I commented on the fact that one of the problems facing our schools is that principals are often tied to their desks, doing mandated paperwork and issuing reports and memos when they should be out in the halls and in the classrooms playing educational leader.

A school person who does not work for this district saw the column and faxed me at The Wave a copy of an article from a small magazine called "Schools in the Middle." It is published by the National Association of Middle School Principals (NASSP).

And, like all in-house publications, it elucidates the needs and problems of its membership. If you do not believe that in-house periodicals reflect the membership of the organization that publishes it, look at the City Journal some time or the UFT newspaper.

In any case, the publication article that was faxed to me is called "Principal Visibility: The Key of Effective Leadership." Most articles of this type are dull as dirt, interesting only to the small population that belongs to the organization.

This one, however, has implications for schools in general, and therefore, for society as a whole.

The article states the problem precisely.

"Telephone calls, budgetary matters and discipline are some of the management tasks that chain middle school principals to their desks. As they become enslaved by the work that piles up in their offices, leadership begins to take a secondary position to their management imperative."

It has been my observation over 28 years that there are really two kinds of principals in regard to paperwork tasks. The first hates paperwork and delegates as much of it as possible to others in the building. This type of principal spends very little time in his or her office. District offices do not often value this type of principal. I have often heard this type of principal derided because "he is too close to the teachers," or because "she really doesn’t know how to do the paperwork."

The second type of principal relishes the paperwork because it can be used as a reason to stay out of the line of fire, a reason not to have to deal with people. They keep the computers in their offices fired up and spend most of their time doing paperwork. They cannot be faulted, because they believe that the work that they are doing is "important." They delegate the hands-on duties "necessary to run the building" to others, often assistant principals.

Why is it important for principals to eschew the necessary paperwork and get out more into the world?

Let the "experts" who wrote the article tell you.

"Research continues to point out that successful leadership comes when the principal is visible, but many principals find that difficult to accomplish, because of their many management tasks. Effective school leadership, however, cannot be accomplished from within the confines of an office."

"…a governmental study (hearings of the U.S. Senate, 1972) reached the following conclusions about the principal’s role:

In many ways, the school principal is the most important and influential individual in any school …It is his (this was 1972, after all), leadership that sets the tone of the school, the climate for learning, the level of professionalism and morale of the teachers, and the degree of concern for what students may or may not become."

The article points out that there is a type of management principle that they call "Management by Wandering Around (MBWA)."

The article says, "MBWA leaders are seldom found in their offices during school hours. They are on their feet, wandering with a purpose. They spend their time in classrooms and hallways, with teachers and with students. This is one of the crucial underlying values of MBWA: the commitment to be with the people and the belief that the classroom and the teachers and students are the source of diagnostic information and solutions to problems."

The study found that the schools run by MBWA leaders were generally happier and healthier.

"According to data collected in a research study regarding the relationship between principal effectiveness and school culture, many principals mistakenly regarded office management tasks as a top priority. This caused the principals studied to spend inordinate amounts of time in their offices, inaccessible to stakeholders who may have needed them. The result was the creation of a negative school culture in which principals fit the descriptions to which many of us have grown accustomed. All stakeholders frowned upon their lack of visibility. Moreover, teachers in these schools with negative cultures said that they could usually find the principal in his office. This occurred because the principals in these schools saw paperwork completion as a top priority.

"As a contrast, the principals of schools with more positive cultures were highly visible to stakeholders throughout the school day. These principals, the study showed, felt it was important to be available to people whenever they were needed. They could only accomplish this, they believed, if visibility was a top priority."

Few problems have an easy solution, but I believe that this one does.

That solution is to task somebody else with the paperwork that is keeping the principals in their offices.

Each of the district schools should be funded with an administrative assistant. That person would be tasked with doing the myriad reports, memos and everyday paperwork details that are now done by the principal.

Of course, this is the New York City Board of Education and that means that the system will make problems of its own.

The administrative assistant need not be an assistant principal because that person will not supervise anybody nor would they act as an administrator. They will simply do paperwork and make sure that the day-to-day functioning of the building is maintained. The union that represents administrators, however, has traditionally argued that an administrative assistant has to be a licensed supervisor, making the position much more expensive to fund.

Secondly, the principal must trust the administrative assistant to do the job. Many principals have become so obsessive and paranoid under their new contract that took away tenure that they do not trust anybody but themselves to do anything important.

The idea that the principal should be visible in the building is such a simple one that it is amazing that it need be noted in the principal’s association’s own in-house periodical. Yet the increase in mandated paperwork has forced many principals to stay out of the classrooms, hunkered down in their office doing what the central board and the district mandate them to do.

That has got to stop and it has to stop soon. If principals are going to be accountable for what goes on in their buildings, then they have to get out and see what it is they are accountable for.

They have to be visible to teachers, to students and to parents. They cannot do that locked in an office.


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