When I first started as an administrator I came across the following infographic and have referred back to it many times.

Top Qualities for a Principal

There are eleven qualities identified as being the most important for a principal:

  1. Willing to and actively challenges the status quo
  2. Has quality contact and interactions with teachers and students
  3. Recognizes and rewards individual accomplishments
  4. Involves teachers in the design and implementation of important decisions and policies
  5. Provides teachers with materials and professional development necessary for the successful execution of their jobs
  6. Monitors the effectiveness of school practices and their impact on student learning
  7. Establishes clear goals and keeps those goals in the forefront of the school’s attention
  8. Establishes a set standard operating procedures and routines
  9. Is directly involved in the design and implementation of curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices
  10. Fosters shared beliefs and a sense of community and cooperation
  11. Adapts leadership behaviors to the needs of the current situation and is comfortable with dissent

I was initially going to do a single post about all of these qualities, but as I have researched and thought about my experiences I don’t think I could do a single post about all of them, it would be far too long. So rather, I want to do multiple smaller posts to break it down and get jiggy wit it.

The first quality is willing and actively challenging the status quo

This doesn’t have to be something big that we do. It can be something as simple as, why? Why have we always done it that way? I have a dear friend that is a fellow administrator and he is great at asking that question. He looks at things through a different lens and thinks to ask the question, why…? Something that I don’t always think to ask.

A couple of quotes from the article Why the education status quo cannibalizes new ideas—and what to do about it by Julia Freeland Fisher help identify this and explain the phenomenon. She talks about how all new ideas are going to be cannibalized by the status quo unless diligent effort and steps are taken to avoid that.

As an organization matures, like most decades-old school districts, the people working in the organization gradually come to assume that the processes and priorities they’ve repeatedly used in the past are the right way to do their work. Those processes and priorities become ingrained in an organization’s culture… In the case of districts, if existing ways of doing business keep the budget afloat, they quickly become a habit.

Anyone who has worked in or with education know this is true. While working to implement PLC practices into our school and department I had multiple teachers tell me, “This too shall pass.” They had seen too many fads come through that had tried to change the status quo and because of how entrenched schools are in their own status quo they were unable to make significant and long-term change. This gave them evidence to quickly dismiss the collaborative work we were trying within our department. Luckily for us, we had a principal who subscribed to these types of traits and didn’t allow us to follow the status quo.

She brings up some great arguments and examples in the article but later says something that I don’t necessarily agree with because of my personal experiences.

True disruptive innovations cannot come from within schools’ or systems’ existing resources, processes, and priorities. 

I have had in the trenches experiences with leaders in buildings that have challenged the status quo, and have been a so-called “maverick.” They have gone to battle to fight for what they believe is right for students, even if it did go against the status quo.

While reading about status quo and examples of people challenging it, I came across a great list of how to “safely” (is that possible?) challenge the status quo. It has some great ideas:

  1. Prioritize
  2. Learn how to ask great questions
  3. Prepare your approach
  4. Look after your own well-being
  5. Don’t go it alone
  6. Plant the seed
  7. Be resilient

We need to not only have school leaders who are empowered to challenge the status quo, but we also need teachers. Teachers and administrators who are willing to prioritize their ideas so that they choose the ideas most likely to succeed. Teachers and administrators who learn how to ask great questions of their leaders and leaders who can take those questions in stride and work together on a solution. Teachers and administrators who carefully prepare their approach to making sure it isn’t a knee jerk reaction that is challenging the status quo. Teachers and administrators who ensure that they are not sacrificing themselves for the sake of the challenge. Your well-being is critical in this endeavor. Teachers and administrators who don’t go it alone. Find allies who have similar visions of what can be in your organization and school. Teachers and administrators who are willing to plant the seed and be willing to let it grow. That means there are times where things are out of your control and while that is scary, it is necessary for true growth. Finally, we need teachers and administrators who are resilient. This is not a quick battle to be fought. It takes time and energy to challenge the status quo.

While I have not been able to follow this entire list during my career, there have been multiple times that I have worked with a status quo breaker (is that proper English?), and it has been refreshing. Not always easy, but refreshing. Especially when they have been resilient and willing to work towards that goal.

Finding an ally was one of the most important steps for me when I was trying to challenge the status quo in my classroom and try different grading systems. I had a principal that supported my challenge, and a colleague that I could work with and bounce ideas off (whether they were good or not) and that made all the difference. We would spend many lunches together debating the merits of different grading philosophies (yes you can judge us, we were nerds and proud of it!). Those conversations are still benefiting me as an administrator.

So whatever your position and passion are, challenge the status quo. Find what works for you and go for it! Even if it is something as simple as asking why.