In this paper, we describe the impact of COVID-19 on principals and their work. Drawing on prior research undertaken prior to the onset of the pandemic, we describe how principals were already grappling with difficult tensions associated with their expertise, autonomy, normative orientation and rewards that may have real implications for their work moving forward and how, in the current context of uncertainty and change we believe the issue of principal professionalism requires our collective attention and action.
Over the last year, we undertook a multistate qualitative study of 17 school leaders to explore how principals working in traditional public schools conceptualize the principal profession and their role within it. Briefly, we found that the principalship is an “emergent profession” characterized by shared but individually determined knowledge and skills; a normative orientation of service; confused notions of external expectations and rewards and ongoing tensions among all of these elements.
Professionalism may be a surprising lever for improving the capacity of school leadership. Through our research, we identified that little is known about professionalism as it relates to the unique work of school leaders, but that understanding more about it could lead to greater knowledge of how to encourage and retain them. In the current context of uncertainty, chaos and change, the pressure on leaders to stay in the role and to succeed has never been greater. Thus, it is critical that principals have the capacity to exert professionalism over their work and to have greater say in elements of it, recognizing that some decisions must be made at district, state and federal levels.
While many studies investigate how teachers of various backgrounds and in different contexts think about teaching as a profession (e.g. Anderson and Cohen, 2015; Stone-Johnson, 2014b; Torres and Weiner, 2018; Hall and McGinty, 2015), we had difficulty identifying studies focused on principals and using frameworks of professionalism to understand how these activities reflect larger shifts in the profession itself. This is despite the changing nature of principals' work, which, like the work of teachers, has been and continues to be largely influenced by the increasing role of neoliberal principles and policies in education. The public nature of the work of school leadership and the potential to support students, families and the communities in which they live brings in sharp focus the necessity of greater understanding of it during the COVID-19 crisis.
Stone-Johnson, C. and Miles Weiner, J. (2020), "Principal professionalism in the time of COVID-19", Journal of Professional Capital and Community, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/JPCC-05-2020-0020Download as .RIS
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Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 90% of young people around the world no longer attend physical school (UNESCO, 2020). Yet in many places, particularly within the United States where our research is centered, students and educators continue to find ways to engage in formal schooling . Many principals maintain much of their prior efforts while also meeting the unprecedented challenges the pandemic has created for their staff, families and students. Principals serve as essential, frontline workers, handing out food to families, bringing laptops and tablets to students, keeping up the morale of students through email blasts, parades through students' neighborhoods and continuous messaging and communication to parents. Principals have found new ways to keep cherished school traditions such as prom, graduations and awards ceremonies alive. The focus on doing what is best for kids may never have been more apparent.
Some of their work still falls within the bounds of their former roles as follows: supervising teaching, analyzing curriculum and being the public face to parents and community members. Other aspects are new: handing out food to families in the community, working with telecommunications companies to provide Internet to students and serving as tech support with newly distributed computers and tablets. Moreover, the pandemic has put the many inequities and gaps in the educational system and their impacts in stark relief, placing new pressures on school leaders and educators to engage in triage from afar.
Given the uncharted nature of the pandemic and the safety risks it pose, it made sense for districts and/or states to initially centralize decision-making such as closures and create or adapt policies for delivering instruction to meet statutory requirements. However, as we transition to planning for the future and a shift away from mere delivery to deep learning, it may be important to consider principals' role in this process. On one hand, principals have long had to operate in increasingly uncertain environments under tremendous pressure with limited resources (Weiner and Holder, 2018; Cosner and Jones, 2016), with many finding ways to innovate and produce better and more equitable opportunities for students and teachers alike. On the other hand, some of what we know about principals' work and the profession more broadly suggests current structures and systems may fail to elevate, and may even suppress, principals' ability to move their schools to meet the challenges awaiting them. Indeed, recent research shows principals report higher levels of dissatisfaction and burnout (Federici and Skaalvik, 2012) as well as a diminished sense of autonomy (Chang et al., 2015; Weiner and Woulfin, 2017; West et al., 2014) via the role.
Together, such findings point toward a need to consider the so far understudied issue of principal professionalism, and specifically, how principals' work is organized and controlled (Evetts, 2011). Our work prior to the pandemic found principals were already grappling with difficult tensions associated with aspects of the profession (i.e. expertise, autonomy, normative orientation and rewards) that may have real implications for their work moving forward. For example, though enhancing equity and student learning drove the principals we interviewed to enter the profession, their limited decision-making autonomy and ability to use their expertise to directly influence these outcomes decreased their job satisfaction and associated rewards from the work. Even before the pandemic hit, this caused a general feeling of weariness. Thus, in the current context of uncertainty and change, we argue principal professionalism requires our collective attention and action.
To make the case for this assertion, we define our conception of professionalism and how it might be currently understood for school principals. While there are different uses of the term professionalism (Evetts, 2011; Sachs, 2001), our work focuses on how work is organized and controlled (Evetts, 2011). We discuss “traditional” or “occupational” forms of professionalism.
We had difficulty identifying studies focused on principals and using frameworks of professionalism to understand how these activities reflect larger shifts in the profession itself, even though many studies investigate how teachers think about teaching as a profession (e.g. Anderson and Cohen, 2015; Hall and McGinty, 2015; Stone-Johnson, 2014a, 2016), This is despite the changing nature of principals' work, which, like the work of teachers, has been and continues to be largely influenced by the increasing role of neoliberal principles and policies in education.
Our study of professionalism is guided by the work of Gorman and Sandefur (2011) describing the four characteristics of a “true” (i.e. occupational) profession.
Friedson (1988) argues that a profession has its own knowledge which is unique to those in the profession and exclusive only to its members. Frequently, and as is the case with school leadership, additional certifications or educational experiences separate the work of those within and those outside the profession. In this way, professional bodies and their key actors serve as gatekeepers to determine what counts as “knowledge” and how it is developed and assessed (Gorman and Sandefur, 2011), often replicating discriminatory results (see Weiner, 2020 for a review).
In occupational professionalism, individuals are granted increased autonomy and individual discretion based on a collectively determined and monitored expertise. In the context of school leaders, this would mean that principals would be afforded decision-making authority over school policies and procedures related to teaching and learning. Districts and others would trust that principal training and affiliated professional networks and associations would work to ensure that leaders adhere and uphold shared concepts of best practice over time.
Normative orientation and community
Related to the points above, within occupational professions, individuals share common norms regarding the purpose of the work and its guiding values (e.g. kids first, social justice, etc.) and share experiences of training, socialization and conditions of work (i.e. normative orientation) that then shape their professional identities and how they understand they should engage in their work.
Status, income and rewards
Just as public trust is a key aspect of the other characteristics of an occupational profession, it also impacts perceptions of status and respect for the profession. These in turn bring both monetary and psychic rewards (Lortie, 1975) to professionals (Mehta, 2013). As principal salary is a strong predictor of retention (Yan, 2020), money clearly matters for principals. Though, as Pijanowski and Brady (2009) point out, it may not be enough to draw folks into the role given current conditions. Similarly, while principals are afforded a high level of trust and respect relative to other leaders such as military and religious leaders and elected officials (Gecewicz and Rainie, 2019), principals with whom we have worked express feeling some of this respect has eroded, putting strain on them and their sense of satisfaction in the role.
Many argue professionalism is shifting from the aforementioned occupational form to a more organizational one as a direct result of ubiquitous neoliberal educational policies (see the Education Policy Analysis Archives, 2015 special issue on this topic). Organizational professionalism is characterized by managerial control, standardization, competition and a focus on assessment (Evetts, 2009, 2011). As a result, professional discretion has narrowed, while expectations for performance have increased (Anderson and Cohen, 2015), potentially further threatening a sense of connectedness among those in the profession (Evetts, 2011). While these frameworks have not been applied to principals specifically, these shifts may feel salient given the increased scrutiny of principals' work (Grissom et al., 2018). What many describe as an untenable workload (Weiner and Woulfin, 2018) and school leaders' perceptions of ultimate responsibility for all that occurs or fails to occur in schools (Peck et al., 2013) adds to principals' strain.
The current study
Our desire to learn more about principals and professionalism grew out of a shared interest in the concept of professionalism more broadly. For many years, we have looked both at professionalism and teachers' work. In talking together, we realized that virtually no conversation exists about principals' work as a profession. Thus, we set about to explore the nature of principal professionalism and its potential impact on how school leaders understand and enact their role. Over the last year, we undertook a multistate qualitative study of 17 school leaders to explore how principals working in traditional public schools conceptualize the principal profession and their role within it. Briefly, we found the principalship is an “emergent profession” characterized by (1) shared but individually determined knowledge and skills, (2) a normative orientation of service, (3) confused notions of external expectations and rewards and (4) ongoing tensions among all of these elements (Stone-Johnson and Weiner, 2019).
What we generated is especially relevant for the current context of leaders' work. For example, although principals reported feeling a sense of autonomy regarding school-level decisions, they often felt limited in making decisions about curriculum, budgeting, hiring and firing. Beyond a general sense of being micromanaged, for many, this lack of autonomy made the role less rewarding. Aligned with our previous findings (Stone-Johnson, 2014b, 2017; Weiner and Woulfin, 2017), principals in this study were primarily driven to become leaders to enhance equity and to ensure students were receiving the best opportunities to grow and learn. Therefore, limiting principals' autonomy to make decisions, which they saw as critical to achieving these goals (e.g. choosing particular reading programs, removing ineffective teachers, etc.), diminished their feelings of efficacy and satisfaction. Decreased rewards and increased feelings of fatigue resulted – feelings we argue will have real implications for principals' ability to productively engage during the difficult times ahead.
Principals and professionalism in the time of COVID-19
The impact of COVID-19 has potentially powerful implications for principals as members of an emergent profession and how they view their work moving forward. In some realms, principals may have more opportunities to display professionalism, while in others the outsized role of district, state and federal authorities may have adverse effects. Below, we quickly discuss some of these issues with the hope of inspiring more questions and drawing greater interest and attention to this important topic.
First, the pandemic has further exposed the limits of professionalism in two areas as follows: expert knowledge and autonomy. In both instances, the urgency and the uncertainty of COVID-19's impact constrain the work of principal professionalism. The decision to shutter schools in a timely manner was not made by individual school leaders or even individual school districts. Arguably, individual school leaders and districts should not have made this decision due to the severity of the crisis and the need for quick and strong centralized decision-making in such times. Of course, this view assumes states generally acted responsibly regarding this issue. In the US, this seemed to have been the case as all but four states, D.C. and territories shuttered their schoolhouses in mid-March (the others by April 1) whether or not other forms of regulations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were deployed.
Perhaps this level of centralization was necessary and appropriate at that juncture. As communities return to school, we must attend to the best future role for school leaders and what schooling will look like, after pandemic. Given that principals feel their autonomy is constrained and their judgment is not adequately respected and implemented, we argue a simple return to business as usual will be problematic and will hinder change. We need purposeful and thoughtful conversations between district and school leaders deciding and committing to mutually agreed upon parameters of principal authority.
This process will undoubtedly raise questions about the true role of the principals and how they should utilize their expertise and autonomy going forward. These will certainly be difficult conversations without clear answers, but without them, we risk further undermining principals' expertise and autonomy in the aftermath of this crisis. What happens in environmental catastrophes? Political unrest? Opening further the door to handing over decision-making about schools to experts outside education (e.g. health experts, politicians, etc.) can have devastating effects on principals' expertise and autonomy.
Fulfilling normative ideals
As principals lead during this pandemic, the norm of service has been both more clearly defined and perhaps even expanded. Principals' efforts attending to the further exposed inequities and needs of educators, families and students due to the pandemic may align with and thus bolster principals' normative orientation toward their work. In our study, we found all principals defined the motivation for their work by “what is best for kids.” This service orientation extended to hiring, instruction, professional development and other decisions individual principals made regarding school policy and practice.
Likewise, the status and rewards of school leadership have also been highlighted and perhaps even reshaped, both positively and negatively. On the positive side, knowing that every action taken during this pandemic was oriented toward helping teachers and students succeed may serve to bolster feelings of efficacy and psychic rewards associated with it and living one's values. While traditional policy definitions of success such as standardized test scores may be momentarily “out the door,” it will be up to those on the ground to temporarily define success on their own terms.
On the negative side, recent press in some of the larger districts in the US (e.g. New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, etc.) suggest responses to the crisis will be a doubling down on what have been oft-deployed but largely ineffective (e.g. Apple, 2006; Lakes and Carter, 2011) neoliberal reforms aimed at “reinventing” public education by pushing forward market-based solutions and standardized curriculum and instruction (e.g. the new Gates Foundation work to “reimagine” schools in New York). Besides the harm such policies may inflict on students, they may also serve to diminish principals' sense of purpose and rewards, and the positive effects associated with these feelings.
Moving forward with professionalism at the center
It may feel forced to consider the role of professionalism in the work and lives of school principals at the moment, given the numerous other challenges facing them. But professionalism is neither an abstract concept nor an independent one. Indeed, it may be a surprising lever for improving the capacity of school leadership. Through our research, we identified that little is known about professionalism as it relates to the unique work of school leaders but that understanding more about it could lead to greater knowledge of how to encourage and retain them. In the current context of uncertainty, chaos and change, the pressure on leaders to stay in the role and to succeed has never been greater. Thus, it is critical that principals have the capacity to exert professionalism over their work and to have greater say in elements of it, recognizing that some decisions must be made at district, state and federal levels.
First, at the immediate level, and as described above, principals are the face of their school. While our research showed that this role brings high levels of stress, the current moment highlights the specific power of this position. Principals can decide for themselves how to enact the public nature of their work. Anecdotal data suggest this public role is essential to school communities. The tension between presenting a brave face and experiencing the fear inherent in schools at the moment surely will impact leaders, but the potential to bring communities together, to find new ways to work together and build relationships in the service of better educating young people, deserves recognition. Second, the current moment underscores the importance of autonomy and expertise in principals' work; while state mandates may dictate the terms of closure and reopening, they do not – nor should not – dictate the terms of principals' interpersonal and instructional work.
The deep relationships principals have with their communities provide an opportunity to control the terms of what schoolwork looks like: grading policies, school communication, teacher support and parent engagement should be indicators of professionalism and determined by principals' knowledge of their school. Finally, this moment, perhaps more than any other, allows the norm of service to shine through. Principals, who we found define themselves as educators first and foremost, can define what is best for kids in the pandemic. Decoupled from many state-level accountability measures, principals can emphasize what matters: community, relationships, health and safety. While it may have taken a devastating disease to shine the light on what is important, the opportunity to ensure that the message continues can and should be led by principals.
The public nature of school leadership work supporting students, families and their communities necessitates our deeper exploration of principal professionalism, as the current context of COVID-19 both bounds and broadens it. Principals may not have much of a voice in whether or how schools should reopen, but they can be loud and clear about what matters in the process. Such work may not only help their school communities; it might ultimately be the cornerstone of building a true profession – valuing expertise, promoting autonomy, developing an ethic of service and rewarding the work of principals.
We use the term “formal schooling” to underscore that although schools are closed, learning and education is not. Children at home experience informal learning which is just as rich and important as that which occurs at school. In this way, we are careful not to take a deficit perspective, rather one that values both the formal schooling that occurs via our traditional education systems and that which exists outside its physical or virtual walls (see Valencia, 2010 for a review).
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