Kerry Purcell is former principal of a Springfield, Illinois, elementary school. She is also one of two school leaders whose experiences over the course of a year in high-poverty schools were chronicled in The Principal Story, a Wallace-funded documentary aired nationally on PBS stations in fall 2009. Now a senior consultant at Focus on Results, an education-improvement consultancy, Purcell recently answered questions about the film and school leadership. Below are some edited highlights.
WHAT DID THE FILM LEAVE OUT?
Ideally, “instructional leadership” occupies half a principal’s day, but time constraints prevented the film from fully capturing all this entails: developing, executing and participating in professional development; reallocating resources to enhance teaching; hiring and evaluating staff; making data-based decisions, for example.
WHO HELPED YOU AS PRINCIPAL?
Two people especially helped me see beyond clouded emotions so I could make sound decisions. One was a principal-trainee who relieved me of lunchroom and other tasks that would have kept me from instructional duties. She also happened to be a great sounding-board. The other was another elementary school principal. Together we formed a two-person professional learning community. Once, for example, I had to figure out what to do about a tenured teacher whose lesson-planning and behavior-management skills were so poor that her students – kindergartners – were suffering badly. My colleague gave me the encouragement, guidance and courage I needed to handle this difficult problem and, ultimately, remove the teacher from the classroom.
WHAT KEY MESSAGE SHOULD VIEWERS TAKE FROM THE FILM?
The goal of education is not simply to teach a child but to reach a child.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE ASPIRING PRINCIPALS?
Here’s my top 10 list:
- Lead with your head and your heart.
- Shape a culture of learning through establishing routines that foster a sense of safety.
- Build relationships. People don’t care what you know until they know you care.
- Get in classrooms.
- Find a mentor or coach, and meet with that person regularly.
- Use data to advocate for your school.
- Set high expectations for yourself, your staff, students and families, and the community.
- Develop goals and make a plan, but don’t overfill your plate.
- Open the door and communicate. Remember you set the tone for the building.
- You can’t be good to others unless you’re good to yourself. Airlines tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping your neighbor. That’s a great life lesson.