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Facing the Challenges: How Principals can Survive and Thrive in Today’s Schools

reviewed by Robert H. Voelkel, Jr. - April 01, 2021

coverTitle: Facing the Challenges: How Principals can Survive and Thrive in Today’s Schools
Author(s): John T. Fitzsimons
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1475846606, Pages: 134, Year: 2019
Search for book at Amazon.com

Facing the Challenges: How Principals can Survive and Thrive in Today’s Schools provides new and seasoned principals with practical tools and strategies to help navigate the often murky waters of the principalship. The goal of this book is to focus on recent school reforms and the daily challenges principals face. The author, John Fitzsimons, has 50 years of public educator experience, with roles ranging from classroom teacher to superintendent in three North American states. The book is a practical guide for principals that describes daily events and how to navigate them. Fitzsimons makes a case that beyond simply surviving in today’s challenging environment, principals can thrive and be successful when public schools initiate broad-scale reform from within the school organization. The content in the book challenges every principal to reflect deeply on the complex nature of the principal’s role and its relevance to the diverse communities principals serve.

The book is organized into five valuable chapters, and begins with a brief introduction. The introduction to Facing the Challenges establishes the focus, which is to incorporate the critical voices of superintendents, principals, and teachers in conversations regarding principals’ survival. Fitzsimons promptly moves into Chapter 1, which highlights the voices in the field by presenting three different questionnaires that he designed: one for superintendents, one for principals, and a third for teachers. Fitzsimons designed the questionnaires with the intent of creating a true learning culture and supporting principals. He makes a strong case that the questionnaires should be used as a starting point for all principals for the purpose of gaining the perceptions of all educators within the school organization.

Chapter 1 centers on each questionnaire and its purpose. The superintendent questionnaire helps principals better understand superintendents’ expectations and perspectives on their own performance as a superintendent. The principal’s questionnaire examines their own job performance, and the teachers’ questionnaire focuses on the performance of the principal. The chapter continues with a conversation about leadership teams that include teachers and administrators. The first chapter concludes with a discussion of the relationships between the three voices and the importance of ongoing, positive interactions.

Chapter 2 focuses on the sociopolitical aspects of principal survival and how to become a successful and flexible leader. Fitzsimons discusses the multiple issues principals should consider that impact school funding, including managing school governance, educational equity, separation of church and state, political considerations and local control, teacher unions, and implementing professional learning communities. This rich discussion provides the background for principals to better understand school finance and the politics surrounding how schools are funded.

Chapter 3 examines the need for a collaborative culture between principals and central office leadership. Fitzsimons makes a strong case for central office leadership being present often in schools, which leads to more positive working relationships for all educators of the learning organization. To accomplish this, the central office leadership must be transformed. One example is to establish ongoing professional growth. Fitzsimons suggests that administrative retreats conducted over several days provide an important professional growth opportunity. The chapter continues by looking at various central office leadership roles and how they can support principals who reach out to them. One example is contacting pupil personnel support for assistance in supporting students with special needs. The chapter concludes by discussing high school graduates, with an understanding that public schools are designed to produce college graduates.

Chapter 4 explores the critical tasks and effective practices of principals that help them thrive in their role as site leader. Fitzsimons establishes important key skills and practices that require principal expertise, including long- and short-term planning, time management, fiscal allocations and building operations, leadership, and supervision and evaluation of personnel. A discussion of each of these areas ensues. Fitzsimons then discusses the role of assistant principals and department chairs in the day-to-day operations of schools, including conditions they must consider when planning. Like the principal, assistant principals and department chairs must consider teacher probationary periods, maximizing instructional time, scheduling to include rotating block schedules, improving teaching and learning conditions, and challenging the status quo. When considering the status quo, the author suggests that principals must seek support from power brokers and gain political capital to increase the likelihood of their success.

Chapter 5 presents building a safe, social, emotional, and academic school environment. Fitzsimons begins by discussing social and emotional learning, then transitions into the research of mindfulness, which looks at how the brain functions. Integration and restorative justice are discussed next. Fitzsimons suggests the importance of integrating social, emotional, and academic aspects of schooling. To help principals in this area, the author encourages them to have counselors shadow students; while this practice is not utilized often, he argues for its necessity, astutely reminding readers that counselors are a vital resource and are often too far removed from classrooms. Because counselors are often isolated from students, in part because of their office location, shadowing students provides opportunities for both students and counselors to connect.

Fitzsimons then discusses open house and parent conference events, acknowledging that neither event is effective, and parents often complain of being bored. He suggests that principals follow students’ schedules with their parents when conducting an open house, which should result in ways to improve the open house experience for parents and faculty. Fitzsimons concludes the book by focusing on leading successful organizational change. He presents a call to action for principals to develop a direction, vision, and shared leadership model that supports social capacity and minimizes the top-down approach.

In this highly readable book, Fitzsimons adopts a straightforward approach to bringing practical tools and strategies to the forefront for principals. Principal support is often lacking, and books that focus on this critical topic are few. While many principals are successful in their role, too many are compelled to either return to the classroom or leave the profession altogether. The discussions and suggestions that Fitzsimmons provides lay groundwork for new and experienced principals to not only survive, but thrive in the often-challenging role of principal. All principals could potentially benefit from the discussions, tools, research-based suggestions, and information intended to create a sense of urgency for supporting principal success.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 01, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23655, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 9:46:05 AM

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About the Author
  • Robert Voelkel, Jr.
    University of North Texas
    E-mail Author
    ROBERT H. VOELKEL, JR., Ed.D., is an assistant professor, Department of Teacher Education and Administration, University of North Texas. His research interests include school reform, professional learning communities and teacher collective efficacy, leadership, and social justice. He is also interested in immersive simulations and their role in effective PLC teams and leadership development. He was a former middle school principal and middle school National Board Certified Teacher. His recent publications include "Causal Relationship among Transformational Leadership, Professional Learning Communities, and Teacher Collective Efficacy" and "Developing Increased Leader Capacity to Support Effective Professional Learning Community Teams." He is currently working on two articles: "District Leadership in Redefining Roles of Instructional Coaches to Guide Professional Learning Communities through Systemic Change" and "District Office Leadership Supporting Collaborative Teams."
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