Column: Turnover becomes a principal concern

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Janet Smith loves being a teacher. She knows that a lot of her students – poor, from single-parent homes – don’t have many constants in their lives. She likes being one.

“Over time, you build up a rapport,” says the 20-year veteran. “The parents get to know you. They come up to you and say, ‘Oh, you’re going to have my Brian in two years!’ I love that, being part of the community. I like that stability.”

Which is why she doesn’t like the fact that she’s worked for five principals in the last six years.

“It’s crazy,” said Ms. Smith. (That’s not her name, but I’d rather she not get in trouble for talking with me.) “You never know what the new person wants. You spend all your time trying to be careful and keep your head low. It’s not the way to run a school.”

The folks who study how kids learn say that stability is key to a good learning environment. When you cycle through superintendents at the speed that DISD did in the 1990s, nobody knows who’s in charge. When you have to replace a third of your teachers each year – as some suburban Dallas districts do – you can’t keep any momentum going.

But in between teachers and superintendents are the principals. More than anyone else in education, they’re the ones in charge. They’re close enough to the kids to know their names, but high enough on the chain of command to think strategically.

If you’re running through them like Kleenex in hay-fever season, best of luck improving your schools.

“If you’re constantly turning over your principals, it’s impossible for teachers to feel they have an idea where the school is going,” said Vincent Ferrandino, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. “The culture is constantly disrupted.”

Ms. Smith moved to Dallas six years ago, after teaching in Illinois and Arizona. She started in a South Dallas middle school. In three years, she had three principals.

“Each one had their own unique shortcomings,” she said. “The first year, students were literally running the halls in gangs. They’d burst into my classroom, screaming and laughing, throw candy at the kids, then run out. Nothing would happen to them. There was no discipline.”

That principal was replaced with one from an elementary school. “She wanted to be best friends with the kids, so she’d side with the kids on everything. She’d talk bad about the teachers right in front of the kids. That undercut us.”

A year later came someone else – a disciplinarian. “He’s like Attila the Hun,” she said. He would roam the halls paddle in hand, she said, ready to dispense justice at all times. Discipline improved, but she thought: “I’ve got to get out of here.”

Ms. Smith moved to a high school – and a principal she liked. But that principal retired after two years, bringing in yet another new leader. And a new everything.

Each principal had a vision for the school. Each wanted Ms. Smith teaching different classes. Each had different ideas about paperwork, different ideas about discipline, different ideas about teaching.

Whether they’re good ideas or bad ideas, they’re just too many ideas.

“They all walked in and said, ‘Excuse me, but this is my school now and this is how I’m going to run it,'” she said. “Then you had to adjust to it.”

Ms. Smith isn’t the only one who had to deal with principal churn. The Dallas Independent School District has 218 schools. When the current school year began, 61 of them had new principals. A year earlier, 52 of them had new principals. That means that roughly half of all Dallas schools have a different principal now than they had two years ago.

Now, I can’t pass judgment on these principals, old or new. I don’t have the slightest idea if they were brilliant or awful. Superintendent Mike Moses, no doubt, has his reasons for moving people around. And Dallas isn’t the only district that cycles through principals.

But even if you had to deal with five wonderful, brilliant bosses in six years, I bet you’d have trouble getting better at your job.

“It’s bad for the kids, bad for the teachers,” Ms. Smith said. “You see a complete erosion of respect, up and down the ladder. There’s no single person at the helm with a steady hand, and the kids know it.”