Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Brother and Sisterhood of the Principalship

I recently attended my daughter’s probate which was the culminating ceremony for her induction into a sorority which she worked really hard to become a member of.  She is now a part of a national / international sisterhood of sorors. As I watched the probate, I couldn’t help but think about the principalship. Yes, I drew a connection between the broad sisterhood of sororities and the broad brotherhood of fraternities to the “fraternity” of the principalship. Sororities and fraternities are the embodiment of vast lifelong bonds rooted in a commonality of membership, belongingness, commitment, sisterhood / brotherhood and purpose. As I stood there and watched the ceremony, I thought the exact same thoughts for the principalship.

I served as a principal for fourteen years. I remember vividly and dearly the “blood, sweat and tears” of principal leadership. As much as I loved it and as rewarding (and enjoyable) as it was, I will never conclude that it was easy work. It was quite challenging to say the least. The principalship is constant “heavy-lifting.” So when I see other principals in action, I instantaneously relate to them, identify with them, “feel their pain,” “feel their successes,” and in many cases, feel a kinship to them. We as principals are also a “fraternity” of sorts. There’s a bond there that the non-principal may never really understand.

I will be the first to admit that the principalship is not for everyone (just as being a member of a sorority or fraternity is not for everyone). It is a special position that not everyone is built for. It requires so, so much of an individual on so, so many levels. Following are a hand full of examples (that by no means are meant to be exhaustive).

The principal wears countless hats in the span of any given 30-minute block of time throughout the course of a school day…and the principal is expected to “wear each of those hats” quite well simultaneously.

The principal is expected to have immediate answers and solutions for every issue that arises in a school. And although this expectation isn’t realistic, there are staff, students, parents, central office personnel and community members who expect immediate answers and solutions nevertheless.

Everything that could possibly happen or go wrong at any given moment in a school falls directly on the shoulders of the principal. As the leader of the school, the buck stops with the principal. Regardless of whether or not the principal is directly responsible for an occurrence that took place in the school for example, the principal is held accountable.

On top of all of the principal's numerous responsibilities, the principal is expected to be the instructional leader of the building. Student achievement is a direct reflection of the principal. Instructional leadership is therefore the principal’s primary responsibility and must therefore be made his / her number one priority (outside of school safety) and given maximum attention.

The principal is expected to be an expert in school law, school finance and the school curriculum. The principal cannot lead optimally if he / she lacks an expertise in each of the aforementioned.

The existing school climate and culture are a reflection of the principal too. What you “see, hear, feel and experience” in a school are a direct reflection of the principal’s leadership,

The principal must also be able to effectively navigate the politics of the school, the district, and the city / town in which the school is located....which is not always an easy endeavor….and definitely not taught in grad school, but another area that the principal must be truly adept.

Theoretically, the principal would like to please everyone but in all actuality, cannot. Someone somewhere will always be displeased. In fact, the principal will probably not be “loved” by EVERYONE. If the principal has a need to be loved by everyone, he / she is probably in the wrong business. The principal must therefore have and maintain “tough skin.”

Principals have families too but they devote so much of their time and energy to their schools that they sometimes (and for some often time) neglect their own families for the betterment of their students. They are constantly striving to strike a balance between school and life outside of school.

I could actually write forever about the role and challenges of the principal but I will stop here...(more coming soon in my next book, The ASPIRING Principal 50: Critical Questions for New and Future School Leaders – May, 2019) but I will end it with this...as mentioned above, the principalship isn’t only a job, profession, career or even a mission…it’s a “fraternity of school leadership”…a brotherhood…a sisterhood. In that vein, I promise you that as principals continue to seek ways to maximize their “membership” in this powerful “fraternity” of school leaders, the translation is a “win-win” for the students, staff, parents and communities that they lead.

For further Principal Kafele resources, visit PrincipalKafele.com.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Race, Equity and the Classroom Teacher

Looking back on my years as a classroom teacher in the 80s and 90’s, I recall vividly the “equitable practices” that were an inherent part of my teaching repertoire, but I had no language to attach to them such as “equity.” During that era, there was no “buzz” in the education community around “equity” in the classroom and instituting equitable classroom teaching practices. That is not to say that equitable practices didn’t exist however. It is to say that there was no category called “equity” to place these practices under. The closest thing to “equity” was differentiated instruction and personalized learning which I will call the “cousins” of equity but I certainly do not consider them to be synonymous with equity. I therefore engaged in equitable practices because in my thinking, this was just the right thing to do. It was “who I was” as a classroom teacher. In other words, I identified that children were in different “places” in my classroom with vastly different experiential backgrounds, realities, challenges, obstacles, needs, interests, goals, aspirations, ambitions, learning styles, ability levels, etc. This meant that I couldn’t afford to be the same person to all 25 of my students all the time. I had to be someone different to all of them if I was serious about meeting the unique set of needs of all of the learners in my classroom. Some years later, this word “equity” came on the scene with a vengeance which confirmed for me that I must have been doing something right all along.

The word “equality” on the other hand was not on my radar. I knew instinctively that if I treated my students equally…if I was the same person for all of them, I was doing the majority of them a grave disservice and injustice. Treating them equally would be the easy way out relative to planning and preparation each week. Heck, I could write generic, “one size fits all” lesson plans that theoretically covered every learner in the classroom but in reality, that would boil down to a lesson plan that took no individual student into consideration as the plan was being developed. Equality therefore had no place in my classroom. Equality was reserved for a “museum reality” in all actuality. It was all about equity for me. Moreover, differences in children can be quite vast and thereby pose a rather a daunting challenge for any teacher to address them all. How we performed as teachers in the 20th Century where “equality” may have been a goal simply will not measure up to needs of the 21st Century learner. Teaching the 21st Century learner requires an elevated focus on equity in all we do.

As a presenter, I have learned over the years that the topic of equity at the classroom level can be a rather difficult and uncomfortable dialogue to have with an audience when it addresses race, ethnicity or class. If the conversation is generic and addresses areas such as: student experiential backgrounds, their realities, challenges, obstacles, needs, interests, goals, aspirations, ambitions, learning styles, ability levels, language differences and children with disabilities, it can be a very rich and rewarding dialogue. The problem I find as a presenter is when the dialogue on equity is centered around race and I happen to be one of the few persons of color in the entire room. In too many cases, it converts into a tension-filled dialogue that makes a lot of people in the room feel unnecessarily uncomfortable, uneasy and / or offended…when this should not and CANNOT be the case.  As educators, we cannot afford to shy away from the equity dialogue that addresses race when it makes us uncomfortable however. Instead, we must embrace this dialogue because our learners of color of historically oppressed populations in particular are dependent upon its outcomes. In other words, if the data points out that our children of color are on the wrong side of the achievement gap, the equity conversation on race is unavoidable. The will, the drive, the determination, the passion to engage in this dialogue as a staff must be more than evident.

In schools  where the student body is racially diverse, or predominantly learners of color of historically oppressed populations, or even just a small fraction of the students are learners of color, it is absolutely imperative that school leaders, teachers and support staff are not only comfortable with the dialogue on racial equity in the classroom but they openly embrace it without personalizing the discussion. The intent is to meet the needs of the learners while simultaneously meeting them where they are so the dialogue is consequently necessary and unavoidable. School personnel must therefore be committed to creating a building-wide culture amongst staff of mutual respect and understanding of one another’s positions, toward all staff ultimately evolving to a “place” where we can put our personal differences, political differences and biases aside while simultaneously maintaining an openness about understanding the life experiences of our students of color of historically oppressed populations to the point that we can actually see them through THEIR lenses toward meeting their academic, social and emotional needs. Toward doing so though, staff must evolve to a point where everyone in the room feels comfortable in the dialogue and can embrace the dialogue around racial equity in the classroom without anyone in the room feeling offended. This is absolutely healthy and productive for the school, and it’s a win-win for your students of color.

For further Principal Kafele resources, please visit PrincipalKafele.com.

Monday, March 11, 2019


The age old question in schools is “How do we get parents involved?” Stated differently, “How do we engage the parents of our students?” No matter where I travel in the U.S., I am confronted with this question almost 100% of time; particularly in urban and rural schools. The premise is that if parents were fully and actively involved and engaged, the probability for student classroom success would increase exponentially which includes improvement in classroom behavior and other intended outcomes. For the past thirty-plus years I have examined this question with a rather keen eye and I have come up with a variety of different conclusions. I will share a few here.

We Can’t Assume Anything
Typically when we ask how we can engage or involve parents, there is an underlying assumption that they are either not involved in their children’s lives academically or they don’t care. I have learned over the years that this is an invalid assumption and far from the truth with most of the parents out there, regardless of the life challenges that they may currently be contending with. They love their children and they want to be involved in their children’s lives. This I believe wholeheartedly. But I also believe that with many parents out there, their intentions are sound, but they simply don’t know what to do. They are unclear of their roles as facilitators of the educational process at home. They want to do what is necessary but may lack the right information or even the wherewithal. An informed parent for example might understand fully the power and the potency in reading to her child throughout the formative years of his life. The parent therefore reads to the child with a high level of intentionality daily. The uninformed parent for example may not understand nor realize the power and the potency of reading to her child daily for the simple reason that the parent didn’t experience being read to as a child and was never informed of its benefits as a parent. This doesn’t translate into the parent not wanting to be involved nor being a bad parent. It simply means that the parent is uninformed. If at the school level, we make the assumption that the parent is not involved because she doesn’t care, in this scenario, our assumption is misplaced and invalid.

Looked at differently, the parent may have had bad experiences in school as a child and now as an adult, is nowhere near walking in her life’s passion or purpose. This parent is now consequently disenchanted with the school…or the educational process for her child…not because of anything her child’s school has done but because of her own bad experience with school when she was a youngster. This parent may feel that “education didn’t do much for me so why would I expect it will do much for my child. Case in point – my “story” is widely known. I had “issues” as a high school student which resulted in me attending four different high schools over five years and graduating in my fifth year with a 1.5 GPA. I didn’t see the correlation between effort at school and success later on in my adult life so I did close to nothing in those four schools AND NO TEACHER, COUNSELOR OR ADMINISTRATOR CONNECTED WITH ME NOR MADE THE ATTEMPT TO RESCUE ME FROM MYSELF. I subsequently went on to junior college just to spend five additional years at this two-year institution as a full time student and never graduating…I seldom went to class because I still didn’t see the correlation between effort at the school and success later on in my adult life. I never recovered from my high school experience and it spilled right into my junior college experience. Ten years wasted! I subsequently enrolled in a four year college and graduated Summa Cum Laude over the two years that I was there….I had a complete shift in attitude. My point, when I later became a parent of three children, I was an involved and engaged parent but I viewed their schools with suspicion. Here I was a successful teacher (NJ Teacher of the Year finalist), a successful principal (turnaround principal) but I lacked trust in the schools that my children attended BECAUSE of my own personal experience as a school-aged student.

I am arguing here that there are many parents who carry the same suspicion toward their children’s schools because of their own less than favorable experiences as students when they were children. In their eyes, “school failed me so what is it going to do for my child.” The parent therefore distances himself from the school and it appears that the parent doesn’t care when in reality, the parent wholehearted cares but it just isn’t blatantly apparent to school personnel.

What can you do?
As the teacher, administrator, counselor, etc., it is imperative that as thoroughly as you possibly can, put yourself in the shoes of your students’ parents. Similarly to the classroom where you must strive to always be culturally-responsive, culturally-relevant, culturally-sensitive and equitable toward your students, the same intent must apply to your students’ parents. Your students cannot afford for you to make assumptions about their parents intentions without further exploring the “why?’ There could be very valid reasons why a parent is not coming to meetings or inaccessible for example. As teacher, you have to want to know why. Culturally speaking, you have to ask yourself if you are looking at the parent through your own lens (which may be biased culturally) or are you meeting parents where they are and looking at their situation through THEIR lens. There’s a difference and it is dramatic.

Is parental involvement / engagement a school-wide priority?
When I am consulting at a school; particularly in an urban or rural school, it is typical to hear teachers and administrators express concern about a lack of parental involvement / engagement, but you hear it in pockets. For certain teachers it is simply not an issue. They have figured out how to stay connected to parents. For other teachers, it is a significant issue that is yet to be resolved. I then begin to probe to determine to what extent, the goal of parental involvement is a school-wide priority. Let me say that again: A school-wide priority. When I say a school-wide priority, I mean that it moves to the top of the agenda relative to all of the other building-wide priorities. Beginning with the leadership, the intent in this school is to “change the narrative” and instead of talking about what parents aren’t doing, now the discussion is on strategies that staff will collectively implement to get and keep parents involved. This might include weaving parental involvement into the fabric of the mission statement. Parental involvement consequently becomes an inherent part of the mission of the school for example.

Parents can and will be involved when school personnel put themselves in the shoes of parents and dare to look at the school through their lens. In order to understand anyone, you have to put yourself in their shoes…empathy. This requires then that not only are we culturally-responsive in the classroom with children, but we strive to be culturally-responsive with our children’s parents as well.

For more Principal Kafele resources, visit principalkafele.com.

Reflecting on 4 Years of the AP & New Principals Academy

  It’s practically surreal that a project I started on May 2, 2020 in the midst of a global pandemic is still going strong 4 years later and...