Balanced Leadership: How Effective Principals Manage Their Work
reviewed by Eliot Larson - June 19, 2006
Title: Balanced Leadership: How Effective Principals Manage Their Work
Author(s): Sheryl Boris-Schacter and Sondra Langer
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807746983, Pages: 111, Year: 2006
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While it is well settled that the principal plays a key role in the success of a school, what is less well understood is how difficult the job of principal actually is. This fact becomes all the more salient as increasing numbers of principals retire with a serious shortage of strong leaders to replace them. Sheryl Boris-Schacter and Sondra Langer jump feet first into this conundrum with their book Balanced Leadership: How Effective Principals Manage Their Work.
Between 1998 and 2004, Boris-Schacter and Langer interviewed and surveyed over 200 principals to learn more about questions like why the principalship has become less attractive, why current principals are leaving their positions, how those who persist manage their work, why Americas schools lack capable and willing new principal candidates, and whether the role of principal can be rethought to improve recruitment, retention, and more realized academic goals. People who aspire to be principals generally do so because they want to be instructional leaders, but when they become principals, they find that there are many other competing demands with precious little time left in the day to act as an instructional leader. Boris-Schacter and Langer observe that principals suffer the quintessential middle-management dilemma of having responsibility without adequate authority (p. 27). From their data, the authors identify three recurring tensions that principals must learn to cope with if they are to become successful in their work. These three tensions include competition between instruction and management, work and personal lives, and societal/community expectations and individual priorities.
The authors provide a closer examination and analysis of each of these sources of tension. For the instructional leader, their bane is paperwork that must be completed and meetings that must be attended. The key coping strategies in this domain include being able to hire their own teachers, delegating tasks to others, and blocking out time in their schedule for instructionally related activities (p. 26). When you first become a principal you have little idea of how demanding it is to run a small village (p. 35) and you need to make choices about how to balance your professional responsibilities as well as your personal life. This is an especially pressing issue for females since they generally have the primary responsibility for child care. Drawing from their data, the authors suggest several coping mechanisms. The first task is for principals to determine who they are, what they value, and how their passions could be integrated with their professional goals (p. 41). They can then use this self-knowledge to establish priorities for how they choose to spend the day, which translates into how they schedule daily activities. The authors note that how one resolves this tension is dependent upon what stage of life one is in and also how long one may have been a principal in the same community. Ultimately, the trick is to be able to integrate ones personal and professional life and, sometimes, this can only come with experience. As the educational landscape seems to be ever changing, it is inevitable that principals will experience a conflict between the values and aspirations of the community and their own individual priorities. Boris-Schacter and Langer cite as an example how the demands of the No Child Left Behind legislation have shifted community attitudes in the direction of demonstrating competence on standardized tests and away from implementing innovative curriculum. Here again, the key to success is for the principal to be able to negotiate with the community to resolve differences and turn disagreements into sources of engagement. The authors point out that one of the major sources of dissonance is based on race and gender, stating that the toughest hurdle that a principal faces is the ingrained prejudices about leadership held by the community before the arrival of a new principal (p. 59). To manage this stressor, principals reported that they keep the students as their main focus, hire the best people, and then delegate some of their responsibilities, while building coalitions in the community through communication tools like regular newsletters.
At one level I found the results of this study to be very compelling as they resonate with my own 25 years of experience as a building principal. I believe this data would be useful for those who aspire to be a principal since the authors offer valuable insights into the realities and demands of being a principal and how the job is no longer simply about being an instructional leader. Graduate schools should also find this study useful as a way to instruct how to better prepare principals in their pre-service certification and graduate programs. At another level what I found less persuasive and far more problematic were the various models of the principalship suggested by the respondents to address these fundamental tensions. Some of the suggested models included a co-principalship where two people share the job, a rotating principalship where a teacher assumes responsibility for being principal for a set period of time while the principal returns to the classroom, an expanded role for the assistant principal, and planned professional development and peer support for the principal that is incorporated into their work week. Boris-Schacter and Langer sorted these responses into two categories: structural and cultural. They define structural responses as those that cause a change in personnel or duties, thereby changing the districts table of organization. They identified cultural responses as those that modify the role of the principal by changing building or community norms (pp. 73-4). By focusing solely on the role of the principal, I believe the authors lack an understanding of the broader strategic and political context of the principalship; you cant change the role of the principal without changing the way the entire school system is governed. Indeed, many of the tensions that characterize the principalship reported in this study could probably describe most, if not all, of the administrative positions in a school system.
Nonetheless, I believe this book offers a very good start towards a deeper understanding of the complexities and ambiguities that principals must deal with while rising to meet the higher expectations demanded not only by NCLB, but also by the local community. The sign of an effective organization is not one where there is an absence of problems. An effective organization is one that identifies problems and then has the capacity to effectively resolve them. Balanced Leadership can help districts become more effective.