We want Pearl Jam and not Nirvana. A hypothesis about six year principals

The twentieth anniversaries of Pearl Jam’s creation and Nirvana’s Nevermind have a lot to tell us about school leadership.  Seriously.

These two bands  (Substitute Tupac and Jay Z if you want the hip-hop analogue) illustrate two possible paths for schools and for their leaders.

Nirvana’s story is classic rock and roll fall from grace tale.  This might be tabloid sexy but it’s heartbreaking for music.

Pearl Jam is in its twentieth year together as a band.  While their first album may be the most iconic their latest is every bit as good and having seen them live in year two and year fifteen they are far better songwriters and musicians now (even if Eddie Vedder would need a stepladder and Ben Gay to swing from the rafters the way he once did).

Other than a catchy analogy (at least catchy for a very small demographic of thirty-somethings in education) are the Pearl Jam and Nirvana lessons for school leadership?  What does it take to transform founders into six year principals?  What do we avoid?  Here are is one hypothesis.

Can the leader transform youthful fire into craftsmanship?

Many young school leaders lead with the same kind of fire that made Eddie Vedder and Kurt Cobain captivating wild child performers.  Teachers, students, and parents are inspired (and occasionally terrified) by the leader’s willingness to do whatever it takes.  Whether it’s marathon whole school lessons in the cafeteria or a slew of three a.m. emails the leader is a sprinter who everyone chases after.

As I wrote about in an earlier post all too soon the school reaches a point where managing others is the primary lever for the school leader to reach kids.  The school leader’s personal skills with building relationships or rigorous planning mean little if he or she can’t help the other 30 adults in the building develop these skills.

Pearl Jam has spent the last twenty years playing music.  I am sure the sum total far of their practice and performance far exceeds the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice  mark.  Many principals exceed ten thousand hours of work in a few years but the ones who who deliberately practice and experiment with the craft of management, school design, and instructional leadership start to see their schools improve in small and consistent ways.  When the leader starts to see the craft in the work and not just the energy expenditure, longevity is possible.

One very positive sign is that our newest round of KIPP school founders have much stronger training in managing others than prehistoric KIPP leaders like myself.   In our recent school climate survey 100% of the staff at our new high school  strongly agreed with the statements that “my leader cares about me as a person” and “I have opportunities to grow and develop.”

The Six Year Principal Project research is off to a fascinating start.  With guidance from David Maxfield and the good folks at Vital Smarts we collected stories from 80+ current and former KIPP Principals to figure out the vital behaviors that led to some folks staying in the role and thriving and others burning out.  It’s early in the analysis stage but I look forward to sharing what we think we figure out.


6 Responses to “We want Pearl Jam and not Nirvana. A hypothesis about six year principals”

  1. Tom Hoffman Says:

    Nirvana is like an alternative program for at-risk kids that gets great results and press but then has no mechanism to keep out a bunch of middle class applicants which inevitably drag the school away from its original mission, leading its staff to leave and its founding principal to marry a heroin addicted harpy and commit suicide.

    Pearl Jam is like a successful suburban district high school with a pleasant hippy/progressive edge.

    KIPP is not like a rock band at all.

  2. Charles Says:

    I think this goes to the trade-off between passion and stability; it reminds me of something Bon Jovi said about Axl Rose in an interview: “That motherf**ker hasn’t made a record in 13 years and he gets all that attention. You know what I’ve done in 13 years? A lot.”

    A gradual shift toward stability will bring you…a bunch of Bon Jovis.

  3. Charles Says:

    That said, it is clear that a professionalization of the pathway to principalship, with a heavy emphasis on retention, is much needed. I just don’t think Ten is anywhere near as good as Nevermind.

    • mrdolan Says:

      The Bon Jovi comment is deeply disturbing 🙂 and I have to agree that Nevermind does blow Ten away. . Perhaps I should have used Springsteen instead of grunge to create an inarguable icon of longevity rocking.

  4. Laura Lensgraf Says:

    At the end of your Six Year study, that there are x number of habits that sustained a great principal, if these habits cross over and are the same habits of a great teacher.

    Something to think about.

    • mrdolan Says:

      Definitely. The follow up to this project is likely to be the 10 year teacher project. 🙂 We also were torn from the beginning about whether to focus on teachers or leaders. We started with leaders believing that there would be a ripple effect in the school if principals stayed longer that would help teachers teach longer.

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