Conversations with Principals: Issues, Values, and Politics


Andrew E. Dubin

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part I: Elementary School

    Part II: Middle School

    Part III: High School

    Part IV: No Child Left Behind

  • Dedication

    This book is dedicated to my loving wife, Jane, and my daughters, Lauren, Erica, and Katie.

    It is also dedicated to my New York family; my sister Judy, my brother-in-law, Michael; my sister-in-law Judy and my nephews and nieces; to the Wheeler family; and of special note, to Priscilla Wheeler.


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    I wish to thank all the K-12 site principals and other administrative leaders at the county and district levels who graciously contributed their valuable time and honest perspectives regarding their leadership experiences. My work was totally predicated on their willingness to talk to me. Indeed, their candor and insights about their administrative work was offered without qualification to better understand the complex nature of leadership and also help and support those aspiring to become leaders in our K-12 schools. I am not at liberty to mention them by name due to the confidentiality of their remarks; otherwise I would certainly do so.

    A special gratitude is extended to San Francisco State University, which supported my work to conduct this ethnographic research. As well, a thank-you to Professor Jack Fraenkel, my friend and colleague, for assisting in the methodological design, which explains my research approach. I am also indebted to my colleague, Dr. Mary Ann Sinkkonen, for always being available for feedback and reflection on what I hoped to convey and capture in these interviews. Her support and availability were unqualified and of tremendous value.

    Much appreciation is extended to the very expert and honest reviewers who helped direct and shape my writing pedagogy geared for graduate students studying leadership practices. Their comments and suggestions were particularly helpful throughout the conceptualization and writing process. Specifically, I would like to express my thanks to J. D. Jones at Marshall University Graduate School, Charles W. Elliott at Bridgewater State College, and Ernest Johnson, Ed.D., at the University of Texas at Arlington. Appreciation is also due to Joyce A. Dana, Ph.D. at Saint Louis University, Norman Dale Norris at Nicholls State University, Mark D. Myers at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne, Wayne White at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Brenda G. LeTendre at Pittsburg State University and Mary Lou Yeatts at Murray State University. My reviewers read and reread my many drafts, resulting in a clear and personalized interview series that truly captures the reality of K-12 school leaders.

    I also want to thank Diane McDaniel, my editor at Sage, as well as her production staff, for their support and guidance throughout this process. Diane's focused and expert literary perspective helped navigate our discussions so that the book captured my intentions while balancing it with a cogent and pedagogically sound research and content approach for the readers. This process requires skill, time, tact, and a sensitive hand that was both enjoyable and very effective.

    Finally, I also want to thank my wife, Jane, whose professional expertise in psychology provided yet another lens for me to view and understand these findings.


    The Role of the Principal

    The most common community center, institutional organization, and bastion of cultural understanding that we all hold as part of our collective traditional heritage is the public school. It is perceived to be the most understood institution. We have lived, breathed, and grown together through this national institution. It has been, continues to, and will always be the focal point for personal and professional development for our citizenry, responsible for effectively maintaining and perpetuating our collective democratic vision while evolving and incorporating a changing and growing population. It involves all human dynamics, social and organizational structures, and environmental features. It embraces all disciplines of the soft and hard sciences and increasingly engages the international world around us. And it is the principal, and no one else, who ultimately assumes the responsibility for the school's effectiveness.

    Yet, when one considers the all-transcending and perceived understandings we all share, there is no document, no blueprint, no formula from which we can draw that provides a road map for an effective educational process in all situations. It is no wonder that we are always in a quandary as to the reasons our educational system is so problematic, and also infinitely successful. It speaks clearly to the complexity of the schooling enterprise and the enormous influence of the principal.

    Within this context, it is the principal who is the critical person orchestrating the movements of all the players in the school. The principal makes the decisions that affect people's lives, directs considerable sums of money, creates a climate that impacts the community, and projects the appropriate philosophy and practical vision that propels a school forward. The principal, in essence, is a critical player in balancing and promoting the progress of our society.

    These leaders coordinate and direct a system whose purpose involves a paradox: create innovative movement in the development of human behavior and intellectual and physical prowess, while instilling socially acceptable moral and ethical values. These school leaders are responsible for initiating a progressive, fluid, and responsive organizational system while maintaining its steady state, its stability and equilibrium necessary at the current moment in time. Educational leaders are without question as important a professional group of contributing members of our society as any. They face the daunting task of overseeing, directing, and protecting the lives of our children within our schools.

    Schools have the companion responsibility of developing young people's capabilities, while socializing them to conform to societal needs and expectations. In order to accomplish this Herculean task extraordinary leadership is required. How does leadership actually function at the school site? What types of real decisions are a part of their daily experiences? How do they make these decisions? A review of the literature in educational administration will reveal volumes of conceptual material that attempt in large part to present all the component parts that underscore the rationale behind leadership behavior. This theoretical underpinning is essential to providing students of the discipline a grasp of the larger picture, the modus operandi for the craft of school leadership.

    While all of us have had a range of experiences within the school, either as a student, parent, educator, or community member, unless you have assumed the leadership of a school, it is difficult to understand what is involved in taking on this role. This book is an attempt to bring to view in a simple, straightforward, and honest manner the realities of the principal-ship as experienced by those who assume this role.

    Connecting the Principal to the Reader

    An extremely effective and potent method of understanding this professional discipline is eliciting commentary from those in school leadership positions, the principals themselves. In Conversations With Principals: Issues, Values, and Politics, I have direct discussions with these principals, which offer a clear and cogent description of the actual school leadership setting for the reader, thus capturing the irrefutable and pure reality of the experience. This is different from other approaches taken by leadership texts because it is a personal dialogue between the principals and the reader.

    While case-study presentations are very effective in capturing the realities of the site experiences, they are presented from the standpoint of the writer and therefore have been somewhat skewed and unavoidably interpreted before the reader has an opportunity to assess the case personally. A verbatim exchange between interviewer and interviewee presents the situation with virtually no prejudice or bias and thus open to the interpretation of the reader. It is a pure account of the principal's experience, thinking, and reflection.

    Having taught educational administration for more than 25 years and worked as an administrator on virtually every leadership level nationally and internationally, I have found that the stronger the connection between the reality setting, that is, the school, and the academic classroom, the think tank, the more potent the information and worthwhile the experience and preparation for the student. That is why the pedagogy of Conversations With Principals: Issues, Values, and Politics is so effective in the graduate classroom. Without exception, students feel that they know the principals, understand what they are experiencing, and are more sensitive to the considerable demands required of the position.

    How the Principal Interviews were Formulated

    My primary objective in Conversations With Principals: Issues, Values, and Politics is to develop the connection between the students of leadership and those practicing in the field.

    The principals were randomly selected and representative, rather than exemplary, although the more experienced principals I interviewed had been award winners. They all wanted to make a contribution to the field and arranged their schedules so that the interviews were conducted when they were not preoccupied with school matters. Some were phone interviews, others were done in person, some during the week, others on weekends. All the interviews were tape-recorded and then transcribed for analysis. The principals were told that the information would be treated anonymously, and in some instances changed somewhat, to further maintain confidentiality. They all had an opportunity to read and edit their interviews.

    When I first approached them, I also indicated that I wanted honest comments, feedback that would reflect and capture their experiences in the schools. I requested that they not hesitate to cite political, emotional, social, or otherwise controversial issues that generally might cause inhibition and restraint. It was their candor that would be so important and potent in conveying their positions and experiences as principals.

    For each interview, a structured schedule was utilized with probe questions. A purposive sample was selected because I intended to represent a wide variety of levels, experiences, and backgrounds; hence the qualitative nature of the research.

    The demographic information about each principal presented in the beginning of the chapters, as well as the series of initial questions focused on their backgrounds, was particularly useful in developing a general profile about the principals, that is, experience in teaching, prior administrative work, types of previous schools, age, and so on. I have found that graduate students need this information to compare their professional and personal situations to those who are assuming the role of principal. It provides a very important point of reference as they consider their career paths, background, and timing. It also helps them better understand that particular principal as he or she is involved at and responds to that specific school site and situation.

    Organization of the Book

    Each interview in this book conveys a different school experience. While there are administrative connections throughout each interview, as one might expect given the discipline and applied skills, there are distinct differences as well. Although, on one hand, it is important to identify those characteristics that each leader must possess, as evidenced by their comments, there are rich data here that make each experience different and unique to that particular individual and site. This demonstrates the complexity of the profession and breathes life into the prospect that each individual can apply his or her particular imprint on an organizational situation. That specific vision or philosophy has power and is real. Candidates soon discover that principals can make a difference.

    The elementary principals, while representing the same grade-level student populations, deal with different organizational issues and utilize distinct leadership styles. These school levels are highlighted in order to demonstrate the uniqueness of each school situation while also capturing the overlap of elementary-school demands and expectations. This reflects the complexity of the schooling enterprise and also emphasizes the leader's role and contribution to his or her school. Specifically, each elementary principal reflected his or her own personality and particular school need in the following ways: systematized testing and uniformity in the curriculum; community dysfunction and staff alienation; maintaining stability and consistency; creating equilibrium and predictability; and, finally, utilizing personal, gut feelings as a part of the decision-making formula.

    The middle school principals rather dramatically delineated the very distinct leadership orientations that drove their decision making and defined their schools. On one hand, while politics was the significant thread that linked the schools together, the particular school ethos and backdrop that affected the middle school principal's leadership and application to their schools was wholly different. Emphasis on board encroachment, committee-shared decision making, and focused planning all were part of these respective schools, as indicated by these interviews. While politics was a part of all the school processes, it was specific to the school site.

    Finally, the high school interviews were still another vehicle of consistency and also were idiosyncratic to the respective schools. And again, these issues ranged from international students and cultural conflict to continuation schools and organizational coherence and the grounding necessary for management control and authority.

    The titles of the leaders were designed to more easily identify the more salient aspects of their personalities and of the issues derived from the inter-views. While other titles could likely describe these principals as well, these were selected in the attempt to capture the issue and more easily identify the principal and school.

    The pedagogy that follows each interview asks the reader to think very carefully and substantively about the interview. It also asks the reader to be more actively involved and engaged on a cognitive and visceral level. It is extremely important to exercise a physical practice as part of the development of leadership abilities. How you behave, that is, your comments, movement, interactive skills, and so on, must be practiced. Language, voice, diction, and general physical presence require training.

    Finally, the pedagogy in Connecting Across Interviews as well as in the Matrix of Interviews below asks students to see outside of each situation so that the thematic issues and cross-pollinated leadership traits are realized.

    Connecting Across Interviews

    In all the interviews with the principals, what leadership styles can you identify? If we assume that the spectrum of leadership philosophies or approaches can range from authoritative to laissez-faire, how would you define the Philosopher (Chapter 10) as compared to the Balancer (Chapter 4) or the Traditionalist (Chapter 3) as opposed to the Ethicist (Chapter 2)?

    If you were to compare the lessons learned by the Intuitive Leader (Chapter 5) to the insights of the Sage (Chapter 6), what would they be? If you recall, the Intuitive Leader was principal at two sites and reflected on her initial experience as helping her when she assumed her second principalship. What had she learned and were there similarities with the Sage's approach?

    All the principals were asked about loneliness or the sense of isolation. How did the Wise Veteran (Chapter 8) respond to that as compared to the responses of both the Community Activist (Chapter 1) and the Traditionalist?

    How did each principal address the need for support in the field? The Sage identified specific ways in which she was supported. What did she say and how did her experiences compare to the Traditionalist?

    The Philosopher stressed the need to be prepared for the position, administratively and physically. What specifically did he indicate about his philosophy and how he applied it? The Sage was also quite clear in how she prepared for the opening of the school in the fall. How did she prepare the faculty and what did she do during the summer before meeting the students?

    In each of the interviews, the need to approach the diverse student populations in each school was central to their discussions, but with a different accent. How was the diversity issue evidenced by the Internationalist (Chapter 11) as compared to the Politician (Chapter 7)? How did their approaches contrast with the Multitasker (Chapter 9)?

    In terms of priorities, how would you compare the Balancer with the Community Activist? They both spoke of their initial experiences with a new school, a new student body, faculty, and parents. How did their experiences compare?

    Keeping things in perspective must be a significant characteristic for a principal. How was this identified in the interviews? What did they say about how they handled pressure?

    What did the principals state about their respective districts? What role should the district play regarding their support of principals? The Balancer assigned very specific responsibilities to her district. What were they?

    The principals were very candid when they spoke of frustrations, problems, issues that were particularly difficult. What specifically did the Ethicist identify regarding his school and curriculum that was most distressing to him? What changes in the curriculum did the Community Activist identify that related to discipline? How was she going to change that?

    The school site implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act was the focus of Chapter 12. Did you find this principal's general philosophy and leadership style to be similar to any of the other principals interviewed?

    Table 1.1 Matrix of Principal Interviews

  • Appendix: Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium Standards for School Leaders

    Standard 1

    A school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by facilitating the development, articulation, implementation, and stewardship of a vision of learning that is shared and supported by the school community.


    The administrator has knowledge and understanding of

    • learning goals in a pluralistic society
    • the principles of developing and implementing strategic plans
    • systems theory
    • information sources, data collection, and data analysis strategies
    • effective communication
    • effective consensus-building and negotiation skills

    The administrator believes in, values, and is committed to

    • the educability of all
    • a school vision of high standards of learning
    • continuous school improvement
    • the inclusion of all members of the school community
    • ensuring that students have the knowledge, skills, and values needed to become successful adults
    • a willingness to continuously examine one's own assumptions, beliefs, and practices
    • doing the work required for high levels of personal and organization performance

    The administrator facilitates processes and engages in activities ensuring that

    • the vision and mission of the school are effectively communicated to staff, parents, students, and community members
    • the vision and mission are communicated through the use of symbols, ceremonies, stories, and similar activities
    • the core beliefs of the school vision are modeled for all stakeholders
    • the vision is developed with and among stakeholders
    • the contributions of school community members to the realization of the vision are recognized and celebrated
    • progress toward the vision and mission is communicated to all stakeholders
    • the school community is involved in school improvement efforts
    • the vision shapes the educational programs, plans, and activities
    • the vision shapes the educational programs, plans, and actions
    • an implementation plan is developed in which objectives and strategies to achieve the vision and goals are clearly articulated
    • assessment data related to student learning are used to develop the school vision and goals
    • relevant demographic data pertaining to students and their families are used in developing the school mission and goals
    • barriers to achieving the vision are identified, clarified, and addressed
    • needed resources are sought and obtained to support the implementation of the school mission and goals
    • existing resources are used in support of the school vision and goals
    • the vision, mission, and implementation plans are regularly monitored, evaluated, and revised
    Standard 2

    A school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by advocating, nurturing, and sustaining a school culture and instructional program conducive to student learning and staff professional growth.


    The administrator has knowledge and understanding of

    • student growth and development
    • applied learning theories
    • applied motivational theories
    • curriculum design, implementation, evaluation, and refinement
    • principles of effective instruction
    • measurement, evaluation, and assessment strategies
    • diversity and its meaning for educational programs
    • adult learning and professional development models
    • the change process for systems, organizations, and individuals
    • the role of technology in promoting student learning and professional growth
    • school cultures

    The administrator believes in, values, and is committed to

    • student learning as the fundamental purpose of schooling
    • the proposition that all students can learn
    • the variety of ways in which students can learn
    • lifelong learning for self and others
    • professional development as an integral part of school improvement
    • the benefits that diversity brings to the school community
    • a safe and supportive learning environment
    • preparing students to be contributing members of society

    The administrator facilitates processes and engages in activities ensuring that

    • all individuals are treated with fairness, dignity, and respect
    • professional development promotes a focus on student learning consistent with the school vision and goals
    • students and staff feel valued and important
    • the responsibilities and contributions of each individual are acknowledged
    • barriers to student learning are identified, clarified, and addressed
    • diversity is considered in developing learning experiences
    • lifelong learning is encouraged and modeled
    • there is a culture of high expectations for self, student, and staff performance
    • technologies are used in teaching and learning
    • student and staff accomplishments are recognized and celebrated
    • multiple opportunities to learn are available to all students
    • the school is organized and aligned for success
    • curricular, cocurricular, and extracurricular programs are designed, implemented, evaluated, and refined
    • curriculum decisions are based on research, expertise of teachers, and the recommendations of learned societies
    • the school culture and climate are assessed on a regular basis
    • a variety of sources of information is used to make decisions
    • student learning is assessed using a variety of techniques
    • multiple sources of information regarding performance are used by staff and students
    • a variety of supervisory and evaluation models is employed
    • pupil personnel programs are developed to meet the needs of students and their families
    Standard 3

    A school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by ensuring management of the organization, operations, and resources for a safe, efficient, and effective learning environment.


    The administrator has knowledge and understanding of

    • theories and models of organizations and the principles of organizational development
    • operational procedures at the school and district level
    • principles and issues relating to school safety and security
    • human resources management and development
    • principles and issues relating to fiscal operations of school management
    • principles and issues relating to school facilities and use of space
    • legal issues impacting school operations
    • current technologies that support management functions

    The administrator believes in, values, and is committed to

    • making management decisions to enhance learning and teaching
    • taking risks to improve schools
    • trusting people and their judgments
    • accepting responsibility
    • high-quality standards, expectations, and performances
    • involving stakeholders in management processes
    • a safe environment

    The administrator facilitates processes and engages in activities ensuring that

    • knowledge of learning, teaching, and student development is used to inform management decisions
    • operational procedures are designed and managed to maximize opportunities for successful learning
    • emerging trends are recognized, studied, and applied as appropriate
    • operational plans and procedures to achieve the vision and goals of the school are in place
    • collective bargaining and other contractual agreements related to the school are effectively managed
    • the school plant, equipment, and support systems operate safely, efficiently, and effectively
    • time is managed to maximize attainment of organizational goals
    • potential problems and opportunities are identified
    • problems are confronted and resolved in a timely manner
    • financial, human, and material resources are aligned to the goals of schools
    • the school acts entrepreneurially to support continuous improvement
    • organizational systems are regularly monitored and modified as needed
    • stakeholders are involved in decisions affecting schools
    • responsibility is shared to maximize ownership and accountability
    • effective problem-framing and problem-solving skills are used
    • effective conflict resolution skills are used
    • effective group-process and consensus-building skills are used
    • effective communication skills are used
    • there is effective use of technology to manage school operations
    • fiscal resources of the school are managed responsibly, efficiently, and effectively
    • a safe, clean, and aesthetically pleasing school environment is created and maintained
    • human resource functions support the attainment of school goals
    • confidentiality and privacy of school records are maintained
    Standard 4

    A school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by collaborating with families and community members, responding to diverse community interests and needs, and mobilizing community resources.


    The administrator has knowledge and understanding of

    • emerging issues and trends that potentially impact the school community
    • the conditions and dynamics of the diverse school community
    • community resources
    • community relations and marketing strategies and processes
    • successful models of school, family, business, community, government, and higher-education partnerships

    The administrator believes in, values, and is committed to

    • schools operating as an integral part of the larger community
    • collaboration and communication with families
    • involvement of families and other stakeholders in school decisionmaking processes
    • the proposition that diversity enriches the school
    • families as partners in the education of their children
    • the proposition that families have the best interests of their children in mind
    • resources of the family and community needing to be brought to bear on the education of students
    • an informed public

    The administrator facilitates processes and engages in activities ensuring that

    • high visibility, active involvement, and communication with the larger community is a priority
    • relationships with community leaders are identified and nurtured
    • information about family and community concerns, expectations, and needs is used regularly
    • there is outreach to different business, religious, political, and service agencies and organizations
    • credence is given to individuals and groups whose values and opinions may conflict
    • the school and community serve one another as resources
    • available community resources are secured to help the school solve problems and achieve goals
    • partnerships are established with area businesses, institutions of higher education, and community groups to strengthen programs and support school goals
    • community youth family services are integrated with school programs
    • community stakeholders are treated equitably
    • diversity is recognized and valued
    • effective media relations are developed and maintained
    • a comprehensive program of community relations is established
    • public resources and funds are used appropriately and wisely
    • community collaboration is modeled for staff
    • opportunities for staff to develop collaborative skills are provided
    Standard 5

    A school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by acting with integrity, fairness, and in an ethical manner.


    The administrator has knowledge and understanding of

    • the purpose of education and the role of leadership in modern society
    • various ethical frameworks and perspectives on ethics
    • the values of the diverse school community
    • professional codes of ethics
    • the philosophy and history of education

    The administrator believes in, values, and is committed to

    • the ideal of the common good
    • the principles in the Bill of Rights
    • the right of every student to a free, quality education
    • bringing ethical principles to the decision-making process
    • subordinating one's own interest to the good of the school community
    • accepting the consequences for upholding one's principles and actions
    • using the influence of one's office constructively and productively in the service of all students and their families
    • development of a caring school community

    The administrator

    • examines personal and professional values
    • demonstrates a personal and professional code of ethics
    • demonstrates values, beliefs, and attitudes that inspire others to higher levels of performance
    • serves as a role model
    • accepts responsibility for school operations
    • considers the impact of one's administrative practices on others
    • uses the influence of the office to enhance the educational program rather than for personal gain
    • treats people fairly, equitably, and with dignity and respect
    • protects the rights and confidentiality of students and staff
    • demonstrates appreciation for and sensitivity to the diversity in the school community
    • recognizes and respects the legitimate authority of others
    • examines and considers the prevailing values of the diverse school community
    • expects that others in the school community will demonstrate integrity and exercise ethical behavior
    • opens the school to public scrutiny
    • fulfills legal and contractual obligations
    • applies laws and procedures fairly, wisely, and considerately
    Standard 6

    A school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by understanding, responding to, and influencing the larger political, social, economic, legal, and cultural context.


    The administrator has knowledge and understanding of

    • principles of representative governance that undergird the system of American schools
    • the role of public education in developing and renewing a democratic society and an economically productive nation
    • the law as related to education and schooling
    • the political, social, cultural, and economic systems and processes that impact schools
    • models and strategies of change and conflict resolution as applied to the larger political, social, cultural and economic contexts of schooling
    • global issues and forces affecting teaching and learning
    • the dynamics of policy development and advocacy under our democratic political system
    • the importance of diversity and equity in a democratic society

    The administrator believes in, values, and is committed to

    • education as a key to opportunity and social mobility
    • recognizing a variety of ideas, values, and cultures
    • the importance of a continuing dialogue with other decision makers affecting education
    • actively participating in the political and policy-making context in the service of education
    • using legal systems to protect student rights and improve student opportunities

    The administrator facilitates processes and engages in activities ensuring that

    • the environment in which schools operate is influenced on behalf of students and their families
    • communication occurs among the school community concerning trends, issues, and potential changes in the environment in which schools operate
    • there is ongoing dialogue with representatives of diverse community groups
    • the school community works within the framework of policies, laws, and regulations enacted by local, state, and federal authorities
    • public policy is shaped to provide quality education for students
    • lines of communication are developed with decision makers outside the school community
    Reprinted with permission of the Council of Chief State School Officers.


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    About the Author

    Dr. Andrew E. Dubin is Professor of Educational Administration in the Department of Administration and Interdisciplinary Studies (DAIS) in the College of Education at San Francisco State University (SFSU). He received his Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate School and has worked as teacher, dean of discipline, and grade adviser in New York City; as a teacher and drama specialist at Colegio Nueva Granada in Bogota, Colombia; and as a principal and superintendent for the American International School in Lahore, Pakistan. In 1994 he was headmaster for the American International School in Rome. He has published numerous articles and several books on educational leadership nationally and internationally, has worked as an educational consultant, a lecturer at California State University, Fullerton, and as program coordinator in educational administration at University of California, Irvine. He also wrote How To Remember Anything (1971, Memory School Publishing) and has served as a memory consultant for schools and nonprofit agencies. He directed a teacher training program for returning Peace Corps volunteers at SFSU. He has developed the educational administration leadership institutes in San Francisco and San Mateo County and is currently directing the Marin County Leadership Institute.

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