Do Principals Need Teaching Experience?

Yep. I could stop the article right there, but let me try to make the case for my answer. On April 13, Tim Dawkins, the principal of Oliver Winch Middle School in South Glens Fall, New York, wrote a guest blog for Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground Blog in Education Week. Dawkins gave a confessional title to his thoughtful and not unpersuasive piece: “I’m a Principal Without Teaching Experience.”

Do Principals Need Teaching Experience? by Regina Paul for Policy Studies in Education

Dawkins wrote about his own valuable and relevant professional experience—eight years as a high school counselor and two years as a high school assistant principal. He said that the question we should be asking about principal preparation and the answer we should be getting is this:

‘What types of professional experiences encourage a smooth transition into school leadership?’ Is facilitating learning in a classroom one such experience? Absolutely. Is it the only experience that matters? I submit that the answer is no.

Well, I couldn’t agree with Dawkins more about that. Having watched principals up close for many years as they opened new schools or made major reforms in the curriculum or instituted innovative instructional programs or launched new school governance models, I know that teaching experience is not nearly enough to make a great principal. Dawkins is right when he characterizes his days as a principal as being filled with “unpredictability.” I am sure they are more like his former days as a counselor, in many respects, than like a teacher’s days—meetings with upset or misbehaving students, conferences with concerned or angry parents, scheduled events being pushed aside in the face of crises that no one could have predicted the day before.

And who doesn’t agree that principals need some kind of leadership/administrative training and a year or two of assistant principalship experience? Because nothing prepares you for the wide variety of administrative and instructional and community relations and personnel and legal duties that principals face every day like being an assistant, under the watchful and mentoring eye of a great principal. Clearly, teachers do not have this experience and, perhaps with a rare exception, will need it to become highly effective principals.

So, I agree with Dawkins that facilitating learning in a classroom is not the only experience that matters. But, ideally, it is a necessary experience.

Last November, I wrote a piece called “7 Things That Make a Principal Great.” One of those seven things was this (and I stand by it still):

A great principal is a great teacher. You might think this goes without saying, but it doesn’t. I love that the principal is typically called the “head teacher” in the U.K. If a principal is not a great teacher (any grade or any subject will do), then he or she cannot supervise the teachers in the school. You cannot supervise what you cannot do. Everyone knows that—including every teacher. If a principal cannot write a great lesson, deliver a great lesson, be creative in using all of the technology available, make up an appropriate student assessment, and keep the students engaged throughout, then that principal might as well stay in the office (which we already know means that he or she is not great).

In the May issue of More magazine, Judith Stone profiled a number of “second acts”—that is, career-changers who became successful in their “second act.” All the profiles were engaging, but I particularly enjoyed the one about Aihui Ong, a former software engineer, who founded Love with Food. In the profile, Ms. Ong offered her thoughts about good leadership:

I’m the only person in the company who’s done everyone’s job. I wrote the code for the site, I pitched to brands, I built our Facebook following, I packed boxes—I tell people I have a PhD in folding boxes. Because I understand the staff’s challenges, I can set reasonable goals for them. And when there’s a problem, I’ve walked in their shoes, so I can be understanding and flexible.

Yes, she can do everyone’s job—and they know it. That’s why she can supervise them and make them better.

The real work of school goes on in the classrooms and on the field trips and in the labs and in the gyms and music rooms and art studios. And, to his credit, Mr. Dawkins knows that. He wrote:

As a principal it’s my job to provide opportunities for kids and teachers, and I try my best to open that door daily.

Exactly right.

School is about what teachers do with students to help them learn all that they can. Contrary to the way that many central offices deal with principals—in a flurry of paperwork, reporting on this and that—whatever principals do to pay attention to teachers teaching and students learning makes all the difference.

So, give us principals who are great teachers themselves—indeed, who have already done that job and done it well—who can walk into a classroom and pick up the ball where a hesitant teacher dropped it, who can bring a classroom to life with a great impromptu performance, who can model challenging discussions, who can play the game better than anyone else on the field. I have known principals just like that. Who wouldn’t want one?