Rethinking the Principalship: Why Working Solo Can Be Dangerous

Rethinking the Principalship: Why Working Solo Can Be Dangerous
Latoya Dixon and Michael Waiksnis
January 3, 2016

It’s lonely at the top. We’ve all heard it before. Perhaps many of us have even felt this sentiment as well. For neo principals, this perhaps holds more truth as they’ve not become accustomed to the position, unlike experienced principals. While teacher shortages and teacher turnover plague public school districts throughout the country, principal longevity is at an all time high vulnerability. This can be particularly true in high needs schools and high poverty districts with challenging demographics. In Denisa R. Superville’s blog published on Education Week’s site November 5, 2014, she writes: “A quarter of the country’s principals quit their schools each year, according to the report, and nearly 50 percent leave in their third year. And that churn happens after a district typically has spent an estimated $75,000 on each leader to prepare, hire, and place that person on the job, the report found.” She cites a recently released report, “Churn: The High Cost of Principal Turnover,” as evidence of the frequency and consequences of turnover. The image below from her blog provides a visual of just how increasingly difficult it is becoming for districts to hold on to effective principals. Click here to see more:

The report is based on a number of scholarly studies coupled with a variety of statistics from the economic, labor, and educational sectors. At any rate the vulnerability of the position of principal can no longer be ignored. So the question is, why are principals leaving the position? Superville’s blog cites a variety of reasons, personal, professional, psychological and more as factors, but it also speaks in detail to the “bubble of isolation” that principals often face. Superville writes: “School districts would be considered incompetent if they did not provide teachers with ongoing learning opportunities once they completed teacher certification,” “Yet this is precisely the reality, as most principals are left on their own to find relevant and personalized ongoing learning.” Added to that is a “bubble of isolation,” where principals can neither go to teachers (their subordinates) or supervisors (their bosses) to discuss issues and challenges related to the job, Cone said. “Where do they go with these really deep questions of practice?” she said. “They have to solve it themselves.”

While a variety of solutions have been offered as possible remedies, none address the need for on the job thought partnership. We contend that principals need day-to-day partners. The job has and continues to become so great, that placing such a high level of responsibility and burden on one person increases the vulnerability of the position. While opportunities such as principal coaching, formal and informal mentoring, professional learning networks and collaborative learning experiences are meaningful to the survival of the principalship, none of these experiences can replace the opportunity to have a thought partner in the moment. While assistant principals are certainly helpful, an equally positioned partner creates a level of collaboration that cannot happen with a superior or employee.

As co-principals, we have been fortunate to have just what the research says principals need more of-collaboration on a daily basis. In the midst of decision making, we can turn face to face to one another and ask, “What do you think we should do?, How should we proceed?, How can we better support our teachers?”. The value of a day-to-day thought partner cannot be underestimated. As coprincipals, we share the success as well as the burdens and responsibilities, which may reduce the stress and psychological isolation that comes from serving as a solo principal.

Our toughest decisions are made in collaboration with one another. We diversify each other’s perspectives. We bring an invaluable set of different experiences to the position as we both served as solo principals prior to this opportunity. While we are very different, we have aligned philosophies about what excellent teaching and learning looks like. We are able to strengthen our consideration of perspectives that are not our own because we trust each other as professional partners. Our ability to be objective in our work is improved. We are able to address the needs of staff and students in ways that cannot be done alone as we capitalize on our strengths to improve the whole of the organization. At the same time, we both have grown as leaders. We have learned from each other’s strengths, been able to better assess our own opportunities for growth, and grown in our thoughts about school leadership, how it must be rethought, and how vulnerable it is to continue conceptualizing the principalship in its’ traditional fashion. With an ever-increasing amount of accountability and complexity of the position, we contend that without a forthcoming more formalized structure for collaboration between principals, the churn trajectory will spike higher. We believe this might especially be true in high needs schools. This type of partnership cannot be forced though. The two people who work in tandem with each other must have a strong desire for collaboration and a high level of professional and personal trust.

We contend that principals need partners. The research surrounding teacher collaboration is strong and the need for principal collaboration and partnership is growing and supported by blogs like Superville’s. We need to rethink the principalship and then make structural changes to the position that allow principals to be supported beyond their beginning years and the preparation stage. Districts with high needs schools should take a close look at the coprincipalship model and decide if it’s worth replicating. The cost of continuing to do things the way we’ve always done them when they haven’t been effective isn’t just the definition of insanity, it also adds up in a lack of stability for students, teachers, and community stakeholders as well as student achievement and another principal lost and alone.

To learn more about our coprinicpalship, visit our blog,


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