The Six Year Principal Project (an ongoing series)

This man should be a legend.

Dan Caesar (Head of Schools in KIPP Houston, founder, and former principal of KIPP 3D is the longest serving principal in the history of KIPP.  He had an as yet unparalleled nine and half year run.  He is the proverbial outlier.

Why does this matter?  We don’t know what a ten year, fifteen, or twenty year KIPP Principal is capable of because we haven’t had one yet.   We don’t know how good our schools could really be.

As with teachers there are multiple forces limiting principal’s lifespan.  The job is hard.  It’s particularly hard emotionally.   My current role as Executive Director is much easier this way.  Direct work with kids, families, and teachers is put your heart on the table work laced with joy and disappointment.  I wrote about this in an earlier post; the gist  was “as a principal there are no perfect days.”

The job  (as currently conceived) is also deeply inflexible.    The principal’s work can’t be done remotely.  As an executive director I can arrive at the office late after daycare drop-off  or exit early to take a call on the commute home.  The principal has no such luxury since the opening and closing of school are the high points of the day for parent interactions, urgent teacher questions, and logistical snafus.

We are working with David Maxfield of Vital Smarts to figure out how to double the lifespan of our principals.  Maxfield and his colleagues are responsible for the research behind books like Crucial Confrontations and now the Influencer and Change Anything.

Maxfield’s latest work presents a clear and accessible way to approach solving problems that are “persistent” “resistant” to change through identifying and enabling a few “vital behaviors”.   This approach to change resonates with how our kids, schools, and families have often successfully tackled giant opportunity gaps.   In a later post I’ll try to show how we are using the Influencer model to tackle other problems in our schools but  now I’ll try to apply one of Maxfield’s research ideas to the principal lifespan dilemma.

In order to figure out what vital behaviors need to change Maxfield urged us to create a process map in order to identify the “failure moments” that lead to the negative outcomes.  There’s a powerful example of this research in the book that shows how researchers at the Carter center used this process map to figure out how and when  sub-Saharan villagers were becoming infected with the Guniea worm and by architecting a few behavioral changes they eliminated this painful parasite.

What is would the process map of a principal’s life look like?  What are the failure moments that lead to short stays in the job and churn in a school’s leadership?

This is my rough draft attempt at a process map of founding principal’s journey to a six year principal.

The Founding Years:  The founding years of a school (at least I experienced them) were amazingly _____________.  Literally any superlative could fit in the blank.  The consuming focus of founding, the magic of not only knowing every person but seemingly ever happening in the school, the intensity of the connection with the people you work with.

The Mariana Trench*:  Every school leader I know went through some type of trial in the early years, a genuine crisis.   A slew of kids from our founding class left in the second year of the school and we spent months wondering if the whole school would collapse like a cheap lawn chair.   Many other leaders I know experienced the trench when a few poor hires resulted in fires and suddenly the leader and everyone else was teaching every moment of the day.  This happened to us too, so perhaps there are multiple trenches in a school’s life.  I am sure surviving the trench has some connection to grit or optimism.  In my case  starting each day listening to “99 Problems” was the key to survival.

The Big Shift:  The Big Shift occurs when the school and its leader must change the way they operate in order to create sustainable excellence.    This often happens when a few of the founding staff who feel essential to the school’s identity move on.  In Gaston the Big Shift probably occurred when my co-founder moved up to start the high school.  As a leader I had to develop people and create systems rather than rely on individual talent.  Thankfully our leadership training has improved greatly and most new school leaders enter with this mindset.  Even with more enlightened leaders, the Big Shift will still occur in most schools when they come to a cross roads and realize a need to change something major such as curriculum, discipline, or staffing.

The Teenage School: The school is fully enrolled (like a teenager at his adult height after a growth spurt) but still operates like a start-up.   Perhaps one of the hardest evolutions  in my personal six year principal project was moving from intimacy to detachment as we moved out of the founding years.  Even if I could turn something around through sheer force of will (which was increasingly unlikely as the school grew), my effort and energy could no longer be so directed after the founding years.

The Institution:  A full generation of teachers and students have moved through.  Some students and teachers follow the norms without question.   There’s a sense of calcification and the challenge as a leaders becomes:  How do I keep the place hungry?  How do I know what to preserve and what to blow up?

I’d love to know if these thoughts about the life cycle of a school and its leader resonate.  We hope to have some findings about our principals to share in February that will help create a slew of Dan Caesars.


7 Responses to “The Six Year Principal Project (an ongoing series)”

  1. Michael Goldstein Says:

    Yes. This resonates.

  2. Remainders: After living school reform, suggesting new tactics | GothamSchools Says:

    […] burn out in high-intensity charter schools, just like teachers. (Mr. Dolan via Mike […]

  3. Online Education in America » Blog Archive » Remainders: After living school reform, suggesting new tactics Says:

    […] burn out in high-intensity charter schools, just like teachers. (Mr. Dolan via Mike […]

  4. Eli Says:


  5. Ed Fuller Says:

    I have been doing research in this area for the past five years and one reason for the extraordinary high turnover is the working conditions of principals–some of which you have touched upon. But, in a survey of principals, principals actually said the relationship with their immediate supervisor was the key working condition. KIPP school principals are lucky in that their immediate supervisors have been KIPP principals. In public schools, the immediate supervisor rarely has been a principal in anything other than a high-performing school. So, they don’t know how to assist the principal in a low-performing school.But much more work needs to be done in the area. But I can tell you from my research that helping principals through Vital Smarts can make some difference, but it is unlikely to double the life span of a principal because the issues addressed are only a subset of the issues that cause principals to quit.

  6. strongschoolcultureCG Says:

    It’s amazing and sad to know that many charter school principals don’t always last. As a founding team member of a charter school, the founding process I know is extremely stressful. Working a job and trying to complete a charter is no easy task. Especially if your not single.

    Even when you start up and the school is finally running – you realize it’s not running the way you had planned or hoped for. So now you’re spending long nights trying to make sure you’re setting up systems correctly, having board and staff meetings, helping struggling teachers, helping struggling students and more. All the while, having longer days and a longer year than a district public school.

    If possible, one thing that should be considered in the process mapping is the strength of the charter school board. If the board is strong and provides strong leadership and guidance, they should be able to notice principal burn out and look for ways to support the principal with training, good compensation, and a support team. However if the board is weak, it makes the principals job twice as hard and may lead to principals bowing out earlier than anticipated.

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