Teachers Quit Principals, Not Schools

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NBC’s new show This is Us has captured the hearts of America. It highlights the real struggles and triumphs that we as humans face on our journey through life. On a recent episode, “What Now?” Randall was grappling with his father’s death and how much he had sacrificed and given to his job.    

Ten years Tyler.  I’ve worked here for ten years.  I’ve brought in 80% of our clients. I grew this company from a six man operation into a sixty person machine. I’ve given you 20 hour days man and nights away from my wife and children.  My father died man and on the day of his memorial, you sent me pears which I’m allergic to and you know this because at the lunch where you hired me we ate Roquefort salad and I went into anaphylactic shock.  And along with the pears that could have killed me, you sent a card with a one line Hallmark message and a typed out signature from the team. And for all this Tyler I thank you. You see for days I’ve been plagued by this question, “How do I honor my father’s legacy?” And I realize I honor it by taking what I learned from how he lived his life and having it shape how I go on living mine’s and so here it is Tyler.  Um, I quit. No hard feelings man  I walk out of here in triumph.  I came. I saw. I conquered.  Sanjay, It’s all you now brother.  Peace.

Randall did not quit because he didn’t love his job. He quit because of issues stemming from his boss Tyler. It’s been said many times before, “People don’t quit jobs; they quit bosses.” In education, as pointed out in the New York Times article “Want to Fix Schools?  Go to the Principal’s Office.”, there has not been much focus on the leaders of schools. The principal helps set the culture which helps retain teachers. The brief, “Musical Chairs:  Teacher Churn and its impact on Indianapolis Public Schools” published by Teach Plus stated: "for teachers who voluntarily left a school at some point in their career, 49 percent cited school leadership and 40 percent cited school culture as reasons for leaving.” The principal is the one who steers the ship and when the principal cannot steer the ship in the right direction families and teachers look for a different school environment.

I once worked for a principal who avoided having difficult conversations and avoided dealing with conflict.  At a staff meeting this principal said “Nobody has a gun to your head. If you don’t want to be here leave.” When minority staff complained about other staff members stating we were affirmative action hires, the principal told us we should move on and not worry about it. Although I earned a highly effective evaluation rating and loved the students, I eventually resigned from the school. Working in an environment where the culture is toxic was not good for my mental health. When a teacher’s mental health is compromised, the teacher cannot be the best he or she can be for his or her students.

This is why a strong leader is key. School districts across our country need to invest more resources into developing their leaders. Yes, teacher development is important, but a great teacher under a poor leader is a teacher who is likely to leave and a school that is not likely to succeed.  

The school leader also has to be a cheerleader for his or her school. I recently heard Julie Bakehorn speak. She is the principal of Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis Public Schools and the recipient of the prestigious Hubbard Life-Changing School Leadership award. She shared with a cohort of future administrators that they had to be the best pitch person and cheerleader for their schools because no one wants to work at a school where the principal is not passionate. She also shared that you had to have the right structures and relationships in place to operate a successful school. She said, “I don’t want an assistant principal who is waiting for me to retire to become principal of this school. I want to build assistant principals who can go on and lead another school.”

Just like Ms. Bakehorn is intentional about building strong leaders in her building, we need other principals to do the same. We need districts to include improving principal leadership in their strategic plans. We need the community and other important stakeholders to hold schools accountable for developing the best leaders. We know when a school has strong relationships with the community and high student success, there is a great leader leading the charge.