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School principals should teach

Several months ago I participated in a national conference of educators. At the conference I met a former colleague whom I had not seen for many years. We had worked side by side in the old days, and I recalled that he was one of the finest teachers I have known.

I asked him about what I remembered was his great love - teaching.

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''Why, I haven't taught for the last 10 years,'' he responded. And he added sadly: ''I am a school administrator now. I don't think I've stayed in a classroom for more than five minutes at a time in the last couple of years.''

What a waste! Why would this super teacher give up teaching? The answer: to ''get ahead.''

Our public schools say to our teachers something like this: ''If you want to get ahead, get out of the classroom. The bigger salaries and the greater prestige and the more important positions are in administration.''

What is the effect? Good teachers leave the classroom to become principals, counselors, supervisors, and to take on other outside-of-classroom assignments.

Furthermore, in this matter of promotions, who gets recommended? Certainly not those teachers who are doing a poor or mediocre job. Only those who are doing well are approved for upgrading. So in education, many good teachers whose work is exemplary are moved out of the classroom and away from the learners.

Incidentally, not all good teachers become good administrators; some do not. After all, there is no guarantee that a successful and superior classroom teacher will automatically become a successful and superior administrator. Indeed most school systems do little or nothing to train beginning administrators.

What is needed is a fundamental reform: every school principal should teach (and supervisors and counselors, too).

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The head of each school should be a master teacher who, by his or her daily work, exemplifies the whole point and purpose of this institution. What could better demonstrate that the teaching/learning process is at the heart of the total school experience?

If the principal actually taught students a part of every day, I believe it would have the most salutary effect upon the whole program. Teachers and teaching would receive a new appreciation. Scholarship would get a boost. The climate of the school would improve.

The principal's main functions would once again focus upon the teaching/learning process, would once again be tuned in to what is actually going on in the classroom. The principal would become what just about everyone agrees he or she should have been right along - the instructional leader of the school.

With the proposed reform, principal-staff communication and interaction would change drastically. There would no longer be an endless series of: ''Do as I say.'' The communication could well become a new mutual exchange: ''Come and see how I do, and I will go to see how you do. Together we will strive to raise the quality of our children's learning to the highest level.''

Now, there was a time earlier in our history when a teacher was put in charge of a school and became the ''principal-teacher'' - presumably the one who did the most effective job of classroom teaching in the whole school. However, over the years the word ''teacher'' was dropped from the title. The ''principal-teacher'' became the nonteaching ''principal.''

This is the one case where we need to go back to an older, better way. In the social evolutionary process this practice needs to be turned around.

Let's face it. A very large part of work done by principals today could and should be handled by others. In a smaller school one or more members of the staff could be given some free time to prepare schedules and inventories, meet with salespeople, order supplies, and handle other management-type tasks. In a larger school these management-type tasks, along with other duties, could be the responsibility of the assistant principal.

The proposed reform would trigger a whole new motivation. For a new and different message would go forth to classroom teachers. The message: ''If you want to get ahead, make a lifetime career out of improving instruction for children.''

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