This week, I’m in Richmond participating in an AdvancED system visit.  I had a nice little conversation with Gina Coss, the principal at St. Gregory the Great School.  I asked her what kind of principal she was and her response was remarkable.  “I’m a teacher’s principal,” she said.  It reminded me of something I heard at the NCEA Convention.  What would the principalship look like if principals knew they were going to hold the job for only 3 years and then return to the classroom?

Many principals view their position as a career path.  They take the long view, thinking about how to keep their position until retirement or their next job.  But what if we rotated principals back to the classroom?  Wouldn’t our approach be different?  Wouldn’t we think first of how any new initiative (new student information system, new testing, new dress code, etc) would affect teachers in the classroom?

This same thought exercise could be extended to central offices.  Catholic school superintendents often talk about the tension between a school system and a system of schools which can also be placed within the context of subsidiarity (a site-based orientation) and solidarity (working together).  The assumption is always that a school system (centralized) is better and easier to manage than a system of schools.  Yet we forget the call for holiness of all lay people found in Vatican II as well as the challenge to collaborate and dialogue.  We are called to distribute leadership among students, parents, pastors, and consultative bodies—even to share the responsibility with boards of limited (or governing) jurisdiction.

Certainly in my context where I have limited resources (fiscal, human, and time) I cannot imagine or embrace a full school system.  Asking myself whether new initiatives make life easier for school leaders is the same question for principals above.  If I approach my job as if I’m going to cycle back to the principalship, it causes me to pause before pushing any new initiatives.  “Would I welcome this if I was a principal?” is the question I often ask myself.  I cannot judge the potential effectiveness of a new initiative from only my chair.  I have to lead from the middle, getting what Pope Francis referred to as the “smell of the sheep” on me as I try to lead.

Thanks Gina for sharing your leadership philosophy.  St. Gregory is lucky to have you!  Here’s another article about Gina Coss.

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