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Spotting Blobs of Chewing Gum

I read and reread (and reread) Fernanda Santos’ article in Friday’s New York Times (Oct. 28) trying to understand the point.  The article’s title “Office to Hallways, A Day with a Principal: Inside a Big, High-Performing School” accurately portrays the substance – a day in the life of a principal, Musa Ali Shama. 

Still, I was confused.  Was this a soft story attempting to describe a principal’s typical day in a high performing school?  Or was Santos attempting to make a more important point? Never were any activities portrayed indicating the role of the principal as the instructional leader of the school. In fact, the words “ teacher” “teaching”, and “instruction” didn’t appear…not even once.  I learned of the principal’s role as official greeter, custodian, hall monitor, and head of a student governance board. Shockingly, about 10% of the article and 20 minutes of the principal’s day was spent tracking down the whereabouts of a dropout, not with the intention of bringing the student back to school but with the specific intention of trying to boost the school’s progress report grade by eliminating one dropout from its statistics.

I’m certain that this isn’t how principals of a high performing school in NYC typically spend their days so I am going to give the principal and the reporter the benefit of the doubt.  I have to assume that some of the principal’s time that day went unreported – the time the principal spent observing teaching practice in classrooms; working with teams of teachers in collaborative planning time; interacting with counselors, students, parents and teachers to assure students are receiving appropriate academic and social interventions; and reviewing student performance data to monitor and inform the school’s progress.  This is what we see principals in high performing schools doing and we see how powerful their leadership can be in improving teaching effectiveness and helping children succeed. It is just too depressing to think that the call-out activity of the day for the principal of a high performing school is “spotting blobs of chewing gum.” And in the majority of cases, it’s just not true. To get a different portrait of principals in action see our video Turnaround in Action.

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