Friday, February 5, 2010

On Being a Newly Assigned Principal at a 21st Century School

I have now spent the last two weeks, give or take some snow days, as principal at a new school. During these two weeks, I have spent most of my time observing. This school is at a unique crossroads in its development. It has never had a principal other than a lead teacher during its four and half year existence, and I have been granted the privilege of working as their first administrator. It is a restructured high school, and not the typical comprehensive high school. Central to it’s core focus are rigor, relevance, and relationships. First of all, I have observed first hand already the rigor of the curriculum. Students work diligently on health science projects that are to be presented at the end of each nine weeks, and both students and teachers communicate a high level of expectations for these projects. There are also quite a few students taking challenging online courses through the North Carolina Virtual Public School and through the University of North Carolina Greensboro. In talking with students so far, they have reminded me again and again that they sometimes do not make the same grades they use to make because the work is harder and more is expected of them. Secondly, the relevance is also evident in the courses taken by the students and in the work they complete. For example, students are currently working on health science projects tied to water. They are provided with a theme for their projects each nine weeks, and those themes are relevant to their lives. Project-based learning gives learning a relevance that is missed in the old-fashioned,  here’s the info-take a test instructional model. One of the front-line struggles I have learned from my observations is that these teachers struggle hard to make relevance a key ingredient to their instruction. Finally, the efforts on the part of staff at this school to form relationships with students almost hits you in the face when you walk in the door. In my two weeks, student after student has walked up to me and introduced themselves. They are polite, open, and genuinely interested in the adults who enter their building. They have a sense about them that says “I know the teachers in this building care about me.” I could immediately tell that these students are tentatively expecting the same from me as principal. They want their principal to get to know them as individuals, and they want the principal to have a caring relationship with them that is genuine.

Honestly, I plan to still do a great deal of observing in the coming weeks. I am consciously trying to avoid imposing my own high school cultural expectations on this school. I have as much to learn as the students, and it is apparent to me that the teachers at this school are continually learning as well. One of the biggest lessons for me during the past two weeks is, I might just have to find out what the principal’s true role is in this kind of school. It is clear to me already that there are a few aspects of the principal’s role that are similar, but it is equally clear to me that a big task for me in the coming weeks is define my own role in the culture of a redesign high school. Ultimately, it is exciting to me because there are legitimate questions still unanswered about what a 21st Century principal looks like and I am in a position to explore those answers first hand.

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