Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
School PrincipalManaging in Public$

Dan C. Lortie

Print publication date: 2009

Print ISBN-13: 9780226493480

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: February 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226493503.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM CHICAGO SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.chicago.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright University of Chicago Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in CHSO for personal use (for details see http://www.chicago.universitypressscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 17 July 2018

Complications and Complexities

Complications and Complexities

Chapter:
(p.119) 6 Complications and Complexities
Source:
School Principal
Author(s):

Dan C. Lortie

Publisher:
University of Chicago Press
DOI:10.7208/chicago/9780226493503.003.0007

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the complications and problems in the work of elementary school principals in the U.S. It identifies the conditions that complicate the day, tasks that principals dislike, and problems that can arise as they go about doing their work. These include scarcity of time, work interruption, maintenance of order and safety in school, and dealing with parent-teacher conflicts. The result of the analysis indicates that it is not surprising that school principals are not inclined to extol the essential functions and benefits of conflict in organizational life.

Keywords:   elementary school principals, school safety, parent-teacher conflicts, organizational life

What is hard about being an elementary principal? What is the downside? Those are the questions we turn to in this chapter. We will look at conditions that complicate the day, tasks that principals find difficult and/ or dislike, and, finally, trouble that can strike as they go about doing their work. The progression in the discussion is from the least to the most serious challenges elementary principals face; the final section presents a brief examination of conflict.

Complicating Conditions

Certain of the conditions under which principals work make that work more challenging than it might otherwise be. Although no single problem is limited to the principalship, the combination of challenges may well be unique. Some of the conditions we will be looking at have already shown up in the previous chapter; they figured in the factors that made some days less than entirely pleasant.

The Scarcity of Time

“What do you do all day long?” people ask my friend the Chicago principal. The questioners point out that since the children are dispersed among classrooms and supervised by teachers, she must surely have a lot of time on her hands. Perhaps memory plays a part (p.120) in their raising the question; my informal inquiries, including discussion with persons who work in schools, suggest that many have little idea of how their elementary principals spent their time.

There is irony, therefore, in the fact that principals express a lot of anxiety about not having enough time, of feeling constant pressure as they try to complete their work. We mentioned earlier that classroom teachers have designated responsibilities that prevent them from being free to assist the principal in doing organizational jobs. That low “assignability” of staff members contributes to the long list of duties principals have to handle (McPherson, Salley, and Baehr 1975). Empirical studies have pointed out that the principal's day tends to be fractured into numerous activities, which, on average, last only a few minutes (Peterson 1977). This fragmentation of time, although not unique to school managers, is probably exacerbated by the nature of managerial work in schools (Mintzberg 1973). Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that school officials find it difficult to persuade board members and the public at large to spend money on administrative assistance for principals.

What other aspects of the job produce principals' sense of time deprivation? There seem to be several. One is the rigidity of school schedules—the length of the day and number of weeks and the total time schools may operate—are all specified in advance and are extremely resistant to change. Whatever is going to be accomplished has to be done within the rigid parameters of overall schedules set by state authorities and specified by school district authorities. Collective bargaining has added to that rigidity by placing distinct limits on the amount of time that principals can ask teachers to meet outside regular school hours. Other causes grow out of the nature of principal tasks and their definition as public service, both of which limit the amount of time principals can use as they see fit. All compress the working day.

A lack of time flexibility is built into some of the major sets of tasks faced by principals, particularly, for example, in the responsibility to evaluate staff members. This area is highly formalized, an approach that is reinforced by the anxiety of officials to avoid legal action and the need to respect specifics worked out in collective bargaining contracts.1

(p.121) The steps in teacher evaluation illustrate how formalization reduces the control principals have over their time. Although districts differ in their specific requirements (e.g., how many members of the faculty to evaluate each year), the process normally demands many hours. The prescribed steps must be taken in a set order and, once initiated, must proceed at an appropriate pace: delays complicate communication and add anxiety for those being evaluated. Each step takes time—a preparatory conference between the principal and the teacher, observation in the classroom, writing up observations, and a conference to share the evaluation with the teacher. Tension can run high, for the results are entered in the teacher's permanent file. Principals quickly discover how prickly the process can be, leading them to adhere closely to district rules in case teachers who are dissatisfied with their evaluations fault them on procedural grounds (perhaps through the union) or central officials reprimand them for flouting district policies and practices. These rigidly prescribed sequences can stretch over many days during the academic year, particularly in schools with large faculties and/or in districts with particularly stringent procedures. Principals, as we shall see, express numerous doubts about evaluation; some of their dissatisfaction lies in the bureaucratic rigidities involved and the time spent at the expense of activities they consider more important.

On Interruption

Although research on managerial time indicates that interactions tend to come fast and often, there are respects in which principals are probably more vulnerable to interruption than is the case in many other organizational settings.2 Like middle managers in general, it is difficult for principals to resist demands from higher ranked officials; school heads complain that they are sidetracked by sudden deadlines for information and/or requests to attend meetings on matters in which they have little interest. In addition, the norms of public service deny them the right to privacy so prevalent in corporate affairs. Unlike the situation in private sector, it is difficult to erect barriers to limit access from their “customers.” Not for them, for example, are the elaborate, recorded responses (p.122) to telephone calls found in businesses, which constrain access to officers by steering callers to “customer service representatives.” In schools, however, to be seen as unresponsive to parents is a serious matter.3 In addition, many principals maintain an “open door” to teachers, a practice that is consistent with the emphasis we have seen on sustaining the approval and support of faculty members.

One way to underscore the weakness of barriers between principals and the public at large is to consider the scope of potential intervention by “customers” up to and including intervention in the processes of production. There are retail chains (e.g., Sears Roebuck) that control the manufacturing processes of some of the products they sell either through factory ownership or specifications in contracts with suppliers. Such retail firms deal with complaints in a routine fashion, usually by replacing products or refunding the dissatisfied customer's money. They would hardly agree, however, to a retail customer visiting and suggesting changes in the manufacture of, let's say, a washing machine—incredulity would greet any such request. Compare that, however, to the situation of a principal where parents insist that their child be transferred to another class, a demand that penetrates to the core of instructional practice. Granting the request may alienate not only one faculty member but, depending on the circumstances, other teachers as well. Simple rejection of parental requests (“That is none of your business”) is not among the responses available to the principal. In fact, a parent who continues to be dissatisfied can appeal to officials in central office. Similar contrasts can be made, of course, to the ability of surgeons and other high-status professionals to restrict client influence on how they do their work.4

The Maintenance of Order and Safety

The principal is a front-line supervisor with custodial responsibility (in loco parentis) for hundreds of young children. President Harry Truman's placard saying “the buck stops here” would be appropriate on the principal's desk, particularly in regard to maintaining good order and student safety. The principal serves as backup for teachers who need assistance in maintaining control and who refer individual students for final decisions. There are also occasions (p.123) when the principal acts as the immediate supervisor of students, such as in the lunchroom or halls and play areas, which may not be supervised by teachers.5

Outbursts of student misbehavior can be sudden and unpredictable—effective responses may demand immediate attention and allow little time for deliberation. The same applies, of course, to dealing with accidents in which a student is hurt. The risk of legal liability intensifies official concern, particularly if parents become alarmed and are ready to blame the school for injuries sustained by the children. Other tasks, even when interrupting them is costly, must be put aside. Principal work is marked by such unpredictable urgencies.

It is important to bear in mind the behavioral volatility of children, to recall that they are only gradually socialized into complying with the norms of orderly behavior which can usually be taken for granted among adults. Those charged with supervising children learn that lapses in adult control can produce disorder and that keeping order requires the physical presence of adults. That need results in “pinning down” many staff members and by reducing their mobility, also limiting the range of tasks they might otherwise undertake and preventing the formation of a more refined division of labor. It is another factor that affects the “assignability” of those who report to the principal.

Paperwork

The interviews make it clear that principals see various types of desk work as a constant, unremitting pressure on their time, a pressure many detest. If done at the office, it cuts off contact with teachers and students, but if taken home, affects relationships within the family. Some of the tasks result from the principal being the only (official) manager in the school who consequently has responsibility for overseeing the ordering and distribution of supplies, monitoring cash revenues, etc. Superintendents and boards also expect the principal to report on whatever information they consider relevant and urgent at a particular time—in addition, of course, to maintaining regular records such as attendance figures, which affect state revenues to the district. State and federal surveys (p.124) are routinely shunted to principals who see such duties as contributing nothing to the instruction of their students. A small number of suburban principals mentioned that they had secretaries or assistants they could entrust with much of the paperwork; nationwide, there was a similar lack of help.6

There are subjective costs in having to spend considerable amounts of time doing paperwork—tasks that are not only disliked but that block action on other tasks that are felt to be more urgent, important, or interesting. The load of paperwork also intensifies the principals' sense of too little time.

Complex Tasks

One is hard put to think of any occupation that has no difficult or even distasteful tasks that have to be done. They may be difficult to do well or intrinsically complex. When we bear in mind that school management is fundamentally interactive in nature, it is not surprising that the major complexities that emerge focus on relationships with other people. Two questions that provoked talk about such difficulties will be discussed here; the first asked what aspect of the work is most difficult to do well (Q. 20A) and the second inquired into any mistakes the principal had made during the previous year (Q. 55B). We will also explore responses to the question “Which are of the tasks you do are least enjoyable?” (Q. 20C). Unrewarding tasks are difficult in a particular way; dealing with them requires mobilizing energy without the hope of pleasure and at the expense of tasks that are rewarding.

Challenges at the Core

The most frequent responses dealing with difficult tasks focus on the core of the principal's instructional responsibilities—that is, the formal evaluation and supervision of faculty members (table 6.1). Within that large category, we find two central sources of difficulty: the lack of confidence principals have in the evaluative procedures they are required to use and the resistance teachers show to evaluation and to making whatever changes are proposed by the principal. (Less frequent but closely related responses include (p.125)

Table 6.1. Most Difficult Task (Q. 20A)

M

% Total M

A. Evaluation and supervision of teachers

    Weaknesses of evaluation process

31

27%

    Dealing with teacher resistance

22

19%

    Principal dislikes process

5

4%

    Dismissing teachers disturbing

4

4%

    Sustaining teacher morale

2

2%

          Subtotal

64

56%

B. Other tasks

    Paperwork and “administrivia”

12

11%

    Deciding without adequate knowledge

7

6%

    Dealing with parents (resistant, angry)

6

5%

    Resolving conflicts

5

4%

    Living with time constraints

4

4%

    Student discipline

3

3%

    Miscellaneous (1 mention each)

12

11%

          Subtotal

49

44%

    Total mentions (N = 107)

113

100%

dismissing teachers, principal dislike of the evaluative process, and sustaining teacher morale.)

Principals mention several problems in evaluating teachers and using the assessments they make to supervise their work. The process, they say, is “too subjective.” The appropriate criteria are not clear, and/or there is not enough time to visit classrooms and make solid judgments. (“It's hard to define what you are looking for and to get it across” [29B, Male, 52].) Two kinds of uncertainty are evident—“How do I know what is best?” and “Do I have enough information to make a good judgment?” There are issues, then, in regard to the appropriateness of available standards and doubts about the empirical basis for their judgments.

Some principals felt caught between boards and superintendents who wanted corroboration for possible dismissal and teachers who wanted supportive evaluations; the first called for cool and detailed critiques, the second for more generous appraisals. Other principals saw a contradiction between representing evaluation (p.126) as pedagogical assistance while, in fact, using it as the basis for retention or dismissal. Some principals rejected the assumption they perceived in evaluative procedures, namely, that there is only one right way to teach. Others reported that central office required them to use forms with specific and limited choices that constrained the quality of their judgments. Principals may, moreover, be required to state conclusions when unsure of their diagnoses; for example, they may not understand why a teacher is having particular problems and what steps might correct them. Recall, however, that principals, whatever their misgivings, have no choice in this matter—they must complete and submit formal evaluations; private reservations must be set aside and formal procedures carried out.

Given the variety of bases for discomfort mentioned by principals, it appears that being required to do formal evaluations imposes interpersonal and emotional “costs” on a substantial number of principals. Yet no respondent called for serious revision of the process or its elimination; it may be that despite those costs, principals see their evaluative responsibilities as supporting their authority in technical and professional realms. (We recall that evaluation received affirmation in the five dilemmas question discussed in chap. 4.) It concretizes the right of the principal to evaluate teacher behavior and to propose changes in their classroom activity; it underlines the important part played by principals in the district “chain of command.” In a context of many limits on their authority, it remains valued by principals despite the problems it creates; the responses, taken together, point to considerable ambivalence toward the responsibility to evaluate teachers.

A substantial proportion of the principals' responses (19%) referred to the lack of cooperation shown by teachers when told to make changes in their behavior. The word “threatened” appears often in such responses, with principals varying in how broadly they apply the term to teachers—some generalize broadly while others restrict such references to a few. There are times when teacher resistance is portrayed sympathetically and times when it is not. Assisting teachers with some problems may face built-in difficulties, such as helping teachers to develop more control in the classroom.

(p.127) I was against ranking teachers when I was a teacher and I still am. (34B, Male, 35)

The teacher union protects mediocrity. (24C, Male, 61)

The more you intercede the more the children disrespect the teacher. (40B, Female, 50)

Some principals mention the need for tact, the importance of taking teacher sensitivities into account. Whatever the specifics, teachers are not portrayed as welcoming evaluation and the supervision growing out of it. One of the challenges facing principals, therefore, is to exercise their instructional authority in ways that do not alienate the members of their faculties.

You have to keep a positive rapport with the person you are evaluating. Trying to get adults to change is a hell of a lot harder than getting children to change. (33A, Male, 49).7

The other responses to this question point to the variety of difficulties principals associate with their work. They may disdain the seemingly endless paperwork and administrative duties they define as trivial, and they are hard-pressed to maintain the energy to perform tasks that bore them or that seem unimportant. Some regretted their lack of knowledge: ignorance of cleaning techniques hampered one principal in supervising custodians, a former physical education teacher found it hard to cope with the academic curriculum, and another principal who knew little about budget matters had trouble dealing with the central office business manager. It can be taxing to interact with angry parents or those, at another extreme, who show little interest in what is happening to their children. Conflict, time constraints, and discipline problems round out the list of difficult tasks and situations.

What general observations can we derive from these responses? Two appear to be clear. Principals face considerable uncertainty in the course of their daily activities, uncertainty that makes their work harder; they are often unsure about the standards they should use and the reliability or validity of their judgments. The second overall theme is relational complexity. Teachers can and do fail to respond to the professional judgments of the principal. Parents (p.128) produce unpredicted outbursts while students may exhibit puzzling and/or defiant behavior. Complexities around interaction account for a large proportion of the difficulties they mention. If their efforts to resolve problems with parents and subordinates fail, principals may be left with chronically dissatisfied parents and/or embittered faculty members, an unhappy and career-threatening state of affairs. Time and again we see principals emphasize the importance of good working relationships; at the same time, it is also evident that they cannot count on them to prevail.8

Mistakes

Mistakes are, of course, considerably more likely to occur in difficult rather than easy situations; for that reason, they are cited here as another indicator of the particular tasks that principals find difficult to perform. Respondents were asked to talk about any mistakes they had made in the recent past. Seventy-one percent were ready to respond with actions they regretted or actions they wished they had taken and did not (table 6.2).

The responses to this question are, in interesting ways, similar to those we just examined. Respondents ready to concede mistakes link most of them to day-in, day-out relationships; they connected 68% of the mistakes to interactions with others. Of those 61 relational errors, teachers stand out as the major source (32/61 of N = 52%). The latter divide almost equally between employment issues of hiring and firing (M = 14) and problems that arise in the day-to-day management of faculty members (M = 18). The following quotation is a strong instance.

I have one teacher I think is crappy. I say some things, and weigh it. I wish she would take early retirement. I wish it, but I don't say it. I put kids in her classroom every year. Would I put my own kid in her classroom? No. I've been guilty for 22 years of not being able to get rid of bad teachers. (97C, Male, 47)

This respondent is not alone in citing reluctance to let teachers go as a mistake. In nine of fourteen references to teachers, the principals regretted not having arranged their dismissal; the remaining (p.129)

Table 6.2. Types of Mistakes (Q. 55B)

M

% Total M

1. Relational errors

    Teachers

      Managing faculty

18

20

      Hiring and firing

14

16

           Subtotal

32

36

    Noncertified staff

      Hiring and firing

3

3

    Parents

      Public relations

8

9

      Allocation time and energy

2

2

          Subtotal

10

11

    Students

      Helped more

7

8

      Disciplinary action

2

2

         Subtotal

9

10

    Central office

      Pushed harder

4

5

      Avoided anger

2

2

      Informed better

1

1

          Subtotal

7

8

         Subtotal of relational errors

61

68 (r.e.)

2. Other allocations of time and energy

    Instructional program

10

11

    Other

3

3

         Subtotal

13

14

3. Career-related regrets

3

3

4. Miscellaneous (1 mention each)

11

13

Grand Total mentions (N = 80/112: 71%)

88

98 (r.e.)

five principals mentioned hiring teachers who did not work out. (The three mistakes with noncertified employees were also regrets about waiting too long to dismiss them.) Decisions about employment, and particularly the reluctance to dismiss staff members, can produce remorse. The most frequent regrets arise from omissions, (p.130) from not acting rather than from acting too boldly; the others were based on poor predictions about how teachers would perform.

The responses classified under “managing faculty” include a variety of mistakes that can be made in supervising teachers. They must be assigned to particular classes, a process that can and does go wrong. There are issues with no clear answers. How should one use one's scarce resources of time and attention? Should one emphasize better performance from teachers, including more training opportunities, or devote more time and effort to increasing rapport with them? One principal may regret not going along with teacher preferences and another regret not having resisted them more strongly. Some principals may rue expressing anger at an uncooperative teacher where others wished they had not ignored the feelings of, and not helping, a new group of teachers displaced from a school that was closed. The perplexing choices involved in exercising authority, in achieving an effective balance between “consideration” and “thrust,” to quote terms used by Andrew Halpin (Halpin and Croft 1963), are potential sources of remorse.

The mistakes made with parents consist almost entirely of not according them enough attention or not doing well in relating to them. You can be “too confrontational” said one, a sentiment voiced by two others as well who criticized themselves for being too “testy” and “authoritarian” with parents. Others regret mistakes such as being late in providing information about school changes and being slow to defuse the concerns of some parents. One idea summarizes these responses: the wise principal pays close attention to the parents of students and works hard to keep them well-informed and satisfied. Failure to do so can be costly.

Professional consciences are voiced when principals talk about mistakes with students; while two wish they had been somewhat sterner in disciplinary matters, others regretted occasions when they might have done more to help. Examples include the failure to seek outside expertise in a particular case, not fighting to prevent students from having to compete in an unfair (as she saw it) district competition and, in one tragic case, not trying harder to prevent a student from committing suicide. These mistakes exemplify what can be an important aspect of the principal's moral concerns—the (p.131) obligation to serve as the defender of, and advocate for, the students in his or her charge.

Mistakes vis-à-vis central office differ. Some say they should have pushed harder against central office decisions; a few regret occasions when they displayed negative feelings toward superordinates and their decisions.

Finally, 14% of those mentions derive from what principals later see as poor judgments in allocating their own time and energy—mostly, insufficient attention devoted to instructional matters. Principals are exposed continuously to the idea that they should exercise “educational leadership,” an injunction from authorities who do not necessarily accompany it with permission to slight competing obligations. Some look back, it seems, and blame themselves when they have not met whatever time and energy standards they associate with instructional leadership. One principal's regrets were echoed by others as well:

Strengths for me are conferences, public relations, communications. Up to this year I have not concentrated on curriculum as much as I should have, perhaps. I want to mesh the two better. I'm not sure if it can be done, but I would like to. (78C, Female, 40)

To summarize, the responses to our two questions on task difficulties undermine any view of the work of elementary principals as straightforward and uncomplicated. The difficulties they described arose in the central responsibilities laid on them, responsibilities, as we have seen, that included aims and relationships they considered important, for example, the oversight and improvement of instruction provided by faculty members. Substantial numbers doubted their own ability to make solid judgments on the quality of teacher performance; similar numbers found teachers did not respond affirmatively to their direction on how to improve their work.

Asked about mistakes they had made, these principals faulted themselves primarily in their managerial decisions in employment matters and where they chose to focus their attention and energy. They were too slow to dismiss ineffective teachers; they made mistakes in how they organized the work of their subordinates. Some did not, as they see it, do a good job in relating to parents and handling (p.132) their relationship with central office. While none said they put too much emphasis on instructional matters, over a tenth wished they had concentrated more on teaching and learning. Some felt, after the fact, that they had not honored their obligation to take proper care of their students. It seems that recriminations come readily for these men and women—recriminations that grow out of the uncertainties and relational complexities that inhere in their work.

Less Popular Tasks

We turn now to tasks that principals see as undesirable, that is, as “least enjoyable.” Table 6.3 presents those responses; there are few

Table 6.3. Least Enjoyable Tasks (Q. 20C)

M

Subtotals

%M

A. Relational tasks

Parents:

  1. a) Angry and/or complaining

  2. b) Other problems

16

7

23

19

Students:

  1. a) Discipline mentioned

  2. b) Other problems

18

4

22

18

Central office:

  1. a) Meetings called

  2. b) Other

10

3

13

10

Teachers:

  1. a) Resist criticism/suggestions

  2. b) Other problems

7

4

11

9

Mediating conflict:

6

5

Miscellaneous:

8

6

Subtotal relational tasks

83

67%

B. Nonrelational tasks

Paperwork

29

23

“Administrivia”

12

10

Subtotal nonrelational tasks

41

33

Total mentions (N = 107)

124

100%

(p.133) surprises as we see many similarities to issues that have come up in examining difficult aspects of principal work. We see numerous references to core relationships that are basic to their daily round.

We note, however, that such relational references stand at the problematic end, that is, when others with whom they must work have, as they see it, failed to live up to the principals' expectations of how they should behave. Other persons have impeded rather than assisted the principal in mobilizing effort to meet school goals. They occur when students present disciplinary issues, when parents disrupt the principal's day with angry outbursts or vigorous complaints and when teachers resist rather than cooperate with the principal. Principals also include those meetings called by central office that make no or limited contribution to the operation of their schools. (Such meetings may also result in new and, at times, unwelcome tasks for principals.) If we think of districts and schools as distinct organizations, it is probably not surprising that principals normally prefer to spend their time dealing with their organization—the school. (Recall that chap. 5 showed it to be the cathected site.)

Some disliked tasks are not primarily interactive in nature. Twenty-three percent of the mentions go to paperwork and an additional 10% to administrative tasks the principals find distasteful—together they amount to a third (33%) of the mentions of least enjoyed tasks. Paperwork (in particular, forms required by federal and state governments), it is said, wastes the principal's time on activities that do nothing to advance the school's well-being and associated deadlines cramp already constrained work schedules. While compliance with such routines rarely brings recognition, tardiness ignites disfavor and the possibility of negative sanctions. The term “administrivia” is usually applied by those who use the term to refer to office and clerical routines, budget work, lunch programs, building maintenance, and student bussing.

On Trouble

We do not use the word “trouble” to refer to trivial difficulties; it carries starker connotations. Much that happens at work can be irritating or even frustrating, but “trouble” normally implies more (p.134) serious repercussions. It is with such consequences in mind that we asked our respondents to identify and, if possible, give us examples of trouble in their work.

Table 6.4 summarizes the results of our questioning. The headings refer to the source of the trouble identified in the responses and, under each, the number of “stories” told and also the number of simple responses that were given. To be classified as a story, the answer had to have at least some narrative; lacking that, it was classified as a simple statement. Our discussion will rely more heavily on the stories because they tell us more about the dynamics associated with trouble. But first a look at the overall distribution of results.

By far the most frequent source of trouble is associated with adults, not children. Although children may be involved in the events that are described and may be affected by them, the principals rarely cited them as the basic source of the problem. Parents, teachers, central officials, and the principals themselves are mentioned often enough to require distinct categories, whereas children are not. That holds even when the trouble involved injury to a student; such injuries, it seems, are not usually serious. What may turn them into trouble is their potential for legal action by parents against the school district. (Among the miscellaneous responses there are three mentions of trouble linked to students—snowballing, absenteeism, and gang activity.) In these suburban schools, serious difficulties, then, almost always revolved around the actions of grown-ups.

The leading sources of trouble among adults are connected to parents and teachers; together they account for 50% of the mentions of trouble. We begin our discussion by focusing on stories about parents and the way in which they are involved.

Parents

Considering the position of parents in the organizational complex of elementary schools may help us understand why they figure so prominently (29% of mentions) as perceived sources of trouble to principals. They usually have a strong interest in what happens to their children in school; their children spend hundreds of days and thousands of hours there and are much affected by their school (p.135)

Table 6.4. Sources of Trouble (Q. 52 A)

M

Subtotals

%M

1. Parents

    Stories

23

    Statements

12

35

29

2. Teachers

    Stories

19

    Statements

6

25

21

3. Central officials

    Stories

12

    Statements

1

13

11

4. Changes

    Stories

9

    Statements

3

12

10

5. Accidents/injury

    Stories

4

    Statements

5

9

7

6. Self-initiated

    Stories

4

    Statements

1

5

4

7. Other

    Stories

0

    Statements

5 (Strike 3, busses 2)

5

4

8. Miscellaneous

    Stories

0

    Statements

17

17

14

    Total

121

100%

(p.136) experience. Parents of younger, elementary school children, moreover, are more likely than parents of older students to act as advocates for their children, to intervene when they are displeased with events.

Those who govern the schools—board members and superintendents alike—see parents as the foremost clients of the district and its schools; as we have observed in earlier chapters, parental views and actions can have serious repercussions for local schools and those who work there. Principals are expected to respect the concerns of board members and superintendents about parental and public opinion in the community at large. In addition, they need and seek parental assistance to help their schools work effectively with particular students; some districts make serious efforts to have parents participate as volunteers and share in daily tasks and it is modal in our data for principals to say that their superordinates favor parental inclusion (Q. 25B). Generally speaking, suburban administrators work hard to acquire the goodwill of parents and to respond actively and carefully when there are indications that it is threatened.

Parents, however, stand outside the internal normative controls that shape the behavior of others (employees and students) in this social system; nor do they share the formal and informal socialization we find among certified school employees. School people try to influence parental attitudes by urging them to participate in parent-teacher organizations and programs for volunteers. But such attempts do not ensure that most parents will comply with what administrators consider the appropriate times or ways to complain; parents are considerably less constrained by conventions of respect for “observing the chain of command” or other rules of bureaucratic etiquette.

As we saw in chapter 3, parental dissatisfaction can provoke adverse reactions from the superintendent and, when they hear about it, members of the board. Such reactions can reduce the standing of the principal and the trust that superordinates are ready to place in him or her; the scope of the principal's working autonomy may be curtailed and/or chances for promotion diminished. Nor is it easy for a principal to conceal parental complaints; the principal is expected to inform central office when there is any chance that the (p.137) dissatisfaction will escalate.9 It is also true, of course, that when principals respond favorably to parental wishes (depending on the issue), they may violate teacher expectations of support and produce ill feeling among members of the faculty.

Principals described different kinds of problems they encountered with parents. Some are chronic complainers:

I have a couple of parents who always bring trouble, they are always finding problems. And they may go to the board or superintendent. (28B, Male, 51)

When I hear “Mrs. Doppy called”—that's trouble. She's a bitchy parent who has complained all the time since kindergarten. I'd get a bad evaluation if she went to the superintendent. That could affect my autonomy. (32C, Male, 46)

Some parents resist school recommendations and/or decisions to place their child in a special education program:

The parents resisted the special education placement—that is, self-contained learning disabilities. But they wanted special services we didn't have. So the child loses out. The problem is that someone who is not a professional is trying to do a professional's job. (93A, Female, 47)

If there are times (as in the cases above) when parents question the principal's authority, there are other times when parents expect the principal to exercise authority where it does not exist:

Hostile parents. They want me to settle neighborhood squabbles when legally I have no jurisdiction. They expect me to punish the kids. (30A, Female, 32)

Parents may see their children in ways the school personnel do not:

This parent overestimated their child. She said we weren't challenging her. [The parent] is very vocal and is a nuisance. I tried to satisfy her while giving her the facts. She made me uneasy with (p.138) her nitpicking. I had trouble from her group but luckily it is not a powerful group. (41A, Female, 59)

That parents can embarrass a principal is evident in the following story.

One parent complained to a neighbor who is on the board about one incident I had not heard about. Then the board member asked me about the problem and I had to say I did not know. It made me look bad. (44B, Male, 32)

The numerous ways in which parents can complicate life for principals is seen in other situations that are described in the interviews. Domestic difficulties such as divorce can spill over into the school; one principal told how an accidental encounter she had with a student's father who was out with “the other woman” somehow resulted in the mother become enraged with the principal. Principals can become unwittingly involved in family conflicts—and possibly legal action—when a parent picks up a child in violation of the custody terms of a divorce decree. Others parents may overreact to situations which, to the principal, fall far short of disaster; one mentioned the extreme reaction of a parent when head lice showed up in the school. Some parents may organize to take action that is not supported by the principal: one principal had to watch the community (notorious for its racial prejudices) insist that five African-American children be forced to leave his school when parents pressured the employer to transfer the fathers of the minority students to another community. Parents stormed into one principal's office excited by a rumor that a principal who lost his position would be reassigned to a teacher position and displace a local teacher they liked.

Finally, we should note that the number of parents involved in a particular issue is important. More dissatisfied parents not only mean more anxiety in central office but may require considerable time and effort from the principal as he or she works to overcome it:

The parents complained that we were too open with the children, that there was too much individual freedom and not enough direction. (p.139) They said more basic skills were required. The staff and I met with parents at lots of coffee talks and that gave both sides a chance to communicate. (111B, Male, 47)

There are times, however, when such efforts fail:

I recall one time when parents could not be satisfied. They didn't like the school. The previous principal was terrible. We had hours of meetings. There was no solution. (116B, Male, 36)

In short, parents can find a wide variety of matters to displease them. What such complaints have in common, however, is that if the principal is unable to quell the parents' distress and they continue to pursue the issue, the consequences can indeed be “trouble.” It is not only that angry parents can be difficult to face, but also that parents who persist in their dissatisfaction can weaken the principal's relationship to those who stand above him or her in the authority system.

Teachers

Teachers come a close second to parents in terms of the frequency with which the respondents link them to trouble. They differ, however, in the ways in which they can introduce turbulence into the principal's work. While parents are depicted as introducing trouble in a variety of ways, the stories about teachers can be summarized in a few categories. One category dominates—10 of 19 focus on uncontrolled or “erratic” behavior, which violates expectations of parents and school administrators. Here are examples:

It's trouble for me if a teacher physically punishes a youngster. I tell teachers each September in the first faculty meeting that I cannot support corporal punishment and will not. If a teacher is getting to the point of losing control, send the kid out … If a teacher spanks, I see how weak the instructional situation is; there is a deeper problem than just smacking a kid and I have to remediate with the teacher. And I have an angry parent asking why a professional would slap a kid. (109A, Male, 53)

(p.140) Teacher abuse of a child. When a child is punished too severely or incorrectly. [Probe. What happens?] It gets the parents stirred up—they will hear about it. I have a whole mess of conferences to deal with that if it happens. (C81, Male, 58)

A poor teacher, an incompetent teacher making mistakes in the classroom—it bothers me to see poor teachers. Also parents complain to me or the superintendent, it's a pain. The principal is made to iron out someone else's dumb mistake. You have to support your staff at the same time you make the parent feel that they have a right to complain. (8C, Male, 37)

I had a grievance filed by a teacher and threatening letters from an attorney for depriving someone of the right to work. I called her to task on her grading as she was going to fail about 80% of her class, then she changed all the grades to As. I said you can't do that. The union wanted my letter removed from her file. It wasn't. (100A, Male, 36)

Other incidents of erratic behavior included an alcoholic teacher (“this school is so small that there are serious repercussions”), an emotionally disturbed teacher who refused to get help and one whose use of profanity upset parents. One teacher collected money for books early in the year and never delivered them; she was made to reimburse the parents and apologize, but some parents subsequently asked the principal not to assign their children to her room.

The other major sources of trouble with teachers arise when they unite to block a principal's initiative (three mentions) or when internal factions resulting from merged faculties produce factions that make it difficult to attain consensus on school policies and practices (two mentions). In two cases, a teacher sought to foment disunity among faculty members and in one the principal managed to have the teacher transferred to another school.

Looking back on the two major sources of trouble—parents and teachers—we find that the incidents mentioned have consequences not only for the relationship itself but for other important relationships as well. Parent dissatisfaction is feared because it can go to the principal's bosses and endanger the standing of the principal and may produce harmful outcomes. Teachers who create trouble (p.141) may provoke consequences both outside and inside the school; they attract the attention of parents who, in turn, may take their complaints to higher levels in the school hierarchy. When teacher behavior is flagrantly unacceptable, the principal may be forced to take action that upsets and even alienates other faculty members. Angry teachers who file grievances also bring unfavorable attention to the principal; central officials are anything but eager to deal with hostile action from teacher unions. We can define trouble, then, as a problematic event that is intensified by reverberations that spread from one relationship to others which are important in the interactive setting within which the principal works.10

The stories that cite central office as the source of trouble have a similar theme, that is, the action or inaction of the superintendent and staff can hurt the principal's relationship with teachers, students, and parents. Questionable decisions can put the principal in the awkward position of having to deal with a host of problems: John Davidson (interview 11, age 30—all names are, of course, fictitious), for example, had to cope while teachers and students, forced to attend school while the roof was under repair, underwent falling plaster and other discomforts. Jean Craig's (5A, 51) assistant superintendent failed to inform the parents of a child who was assigned to special education classes; the mother was shocked in September when the child was so assigned. A lack of support can complicate relationships with faculty and parents. Tim O̓Brien (83B, 49) lost face when the superintendent did not follow through or help him in dismissing an errant teacher; Walter Jacoby's (87B, 44) superintendent met privately with parents from his school for three months before divulging the content of their discussions to him. In general, a superintendent using authority with a heavy hand can reduce the principal's ability to negotiate with faculty members either collectively or individually; it forces the principal to be hesitant in his or her dealings, to project lack of assurance rather than decisiveness. Restricting the principal's authority over particular in-school functions (e.g., lunch program, special education placement) reduces the principal's ability to resolve issues that come up with parents. The tension between the superintendent and the union that develops during collective bargaining can spill over into the schools; one superintendent refused to allocate (p.142) personnel to adjust salaries after a strike was over, producing fury among teachers, which was expressed at the school level.

We can move through the remaining sources of trouble with dispatch. The kinds of changes that are mentioned as troublesome deal with major issues such as closing a school and reassigning the faculty and students to other locations—a process that many community members find disturbing. Principals, in turn, have to deal with integrating new faculty members and students; conflicts can arise as faculties with different subcultures disagree on instructional practices and policies. Accidents and injuries to students are clearly problematic, and, as we have seen, carry the threat that parents will undertake legal action; one principal cites an instance where that happened and the result was to use up enormous amounts of time. A few principals talked about problems they brought on themselves; in four such instances, the principal was reprimanded for acting without central office clearance.

The statements alluded to in table 6.4 (categories 7 and 8) displayed the variety of unanticipated problems that came up, of contingencies that ranged from arson fires to floods, from the unexpected death of the superintendent to confusion in bus schedules, from tedious bureaucratic routines to the interpersonal strains among teachers that followed strikes. The various ways in which trouble can come up demonstrate once again that managing elementary schools is hardly an uncomplicated affair.

Conflict: The Threat to “Smooth”

We have seen (chap. 5) that principals favor those days that move with sufficient “smoothness” that they are able to work on activities of their own choice rather than responding to urgencies imposed on them by others. Unpredicted and disturbing events undermine the equilibrium and calm they seek. Conflict inside and around the school ranks high among the sources of such potential disturbance—conflict that occurs, according to our respondents, with considerable regularity (Q. 30A, B). Most respondents reported that conflict took place both within the groups with whom they worked and in the interaction between members of those groups. We obtained information on what types of conflict made (p.143) the greatest demands on the attention of the principals and the ways in which they dealt with them.

It comes as no surprise that students clash among themselves; 65% of the principals mentioned that source of conflict. But adults are hardly immune to strife; 64% of principals say that it occurred among the parents of their students and 63% among their faculty members. Student conflict is listed as the largest drain on the principal's time (44%) with teachers not far behind (35%), leaving considerably fewer references to central officials, parents, and fellow principals.

The internal disagreements that threatened the time—and composure—of principals came primarily from students and teachers; as we would expect, principals responded differently to conflict within the two groups. In the case of students, they can punish, impose resolutions, and bring in other authorities such as parents and, when the matter is serious enough, the police. They possess considerably fewer resources to quell battles among their teachers; the main strategy is to mediate as best they can. Given the sensitivity of principals to faculty sentiment, they tread softly through potentially explosive situations. (Imagine the level of tension and possibility for serious schisms when leaders of strong cliques tangle!) Effectiveness as a principal, it seems evident, requires skill in the role of peacekeeper. One might suppose that highly effective principals are not only skilled in resolving conflicts once they have been ignited but have mastered ways to cut down on the frequency of their eruption.

Of the conflicts between groups (Q. 30B), those between parents and teachers dominate; 81% of the principals reported the presence of that particular axis of antagonism. Others were 64% for teacher-central office conflict, 64% for teacher-student conflict, and 57% for conflict between parents and central office. Parent-eacher conflict also dominated the responses to the question asking which kind of conflict demanded the “most attention”; totaling those who cited it both as their first and second choice, it netted 45% of all responses compared with 29% for teacher-student conflict, 13% for teacher-central office conflict, and 12% for conflict between parents and central office. Principals found discord between teachers and parents the most pressing and most distressing.

(p.144) The principal facing conflict between a parent and a teacher (or parents and a teacher) is in a difficult spot. Given the importance of both parties to the principal, the only desirable outcome is that both emerge from the encounter satisfied with the principal's response. Failure, on the other hand, is symbolized by the teacher who angrily denounces the principal to her or his colleagues or the parent who does so to central office. One of the more distracting aspects of these situations is that although out-and-out battles and subsequent failures in resolution may not occur that frequently, there are, in the course of many of these transactions, points where the principal is unsure about the feelings of those involved and/ or is unable to predict what either is likely to do. These events have, in short, a strong potential for distracting the principal due to the uncertainty and associated anxiety they provoke. Principals worry whether a parent is sufficiently aroused to warrant making a call to central office warning them to expect a visit from an angry citizen or whether they will hear from a teacher who is sufficiently provoked to file a formal grievance.

Conflict situations present additional problems for the principal. They are not readily put off, and in fact they can be serious interruptions to the principal's agenda. Effective handling of conflict situations can require considerable time to “establish the facts” of the situation, to gauge the emotions involved, and to find potential bases for resolution. It may be necessary to arrange and conduct a series of conferences with the several parties involved. As in the case of formal evaluation, these steps, having been inaugurated, must be carried through to their conclusion. When the stakes appear high, principals will, of course, devote the time needed, but they are likely to see it as unavoidable maintenance rather than as an investment in school improvement. The rhetoric of educational administrators underscores that view: they often refer to such activities as “fighting fires.” All in all, it is not surprising that school principals, unlike some social theorists, are not inclined to extol the essential functions and benefits of conflict in organizational life.

Notes:

(1.) Another formalized area is special education placement, which is closely regulated by federal and state law. Principals must “sign off” on the disposition of each student involved and must make sure that the proper procedures have been observed; “staffing” involves specialists and others in formal meetings, usually along with the principal. The steps involved are somewhat fewer than in evaluation and come into play as placement issues arise, not as a stipulated number each year. They have the special complexity, however, of requiring the participation of parents who can be extremely sensitive about the classification of the child and the program that it specifies.

(2.) This problem has continued to beset elementary principals. “Fragmentation of my time” was the top “concern” (72%) of respondents in the 1998 NAESP study, leading the second ranked problem (lack of financial resources) by 16%.

(3.) In the question asking respondents to discuss the content of the reputation they wanted with others, being seen as “responsive” led the list vis-à-vis parents with 46% of the mentions (Q. 53C).

(4.) The concern shown by Iowa principals (1980) about interruptions and paperwork is evident in their responses to a question asking them about “occasions when they feel unfulfilled or frustrated in their role.” Interruptions ranked number one and paperwork number two of the eighteen choices offered (see appendix B, Q. 30).

(p.246) (5.) The time spent on discipline figured prominently in the 1998 NAESP report. It received a ranking of third most demanding of twelve possible uses of time.

(6.) NAESP reported in 1978 that 19.5% of the principals had assistants, mainly in the large urban schools. The numbers in the 1998 report were nearly identical.

(7.) Madeline Hunter, a prominent and influential professor at the University of California Los Angeles, was a popular speaker at administrative meetings during the period. In one presentation I heard, she focused on the problem of offsetting teacher resistance to supervision, advising listeners to surround any critical comments with copious supplies of praise.

(8.) The Iowa study asked respondents to rate the difficulty of a list of eight task areas (appendix B, Q. 26); 58% selected the option marked “supervision of instruction/teacher evaluation,” a modal response very close to that seen in table 6.1.

(9.) Respondents were asked how they would advise a new principal on deciding when to talk to central office (Q. 33). A minority of principals (14%) would urge avoiding contact unless it could not be avoided. For example, one said, “Stay away. Go only under unusual circumstances” (103A, Female, 64) Much larger numbers (86%) were ready to approach central office on various issues to get advice before acting. A substantial proportion (46%) emphasized letting central office know if there was a chance that they would become involved, most likely by a parent calling or a teacher initiating a grievance. They emphasized that central office should never be embarrassed, that they should always be prepared for complaints. As one respondent made clear, such notification is a moral obligation, a point reminiscent of Bosk's work on hospital residents and supervising physicians (Bosk 1979). “Problems that have the potential of coming to the attention of central office, such as a difficult conference with a parent or teacher in which I made a decision which they didn't like. Also, any time you goof—being honest and above board is necessary for self-preservation” (13B, Male, 50).

(10.) Such reverberations are more likely in compact social systems where cooperating parties are socially and geographically close to each other, where the words “neighborhood” and even “village” catch the flavor of daily relationships. It may be especially true of elementary schools where children (“the real neighbors”) draw families together, particularly in suburban and other relatively small communities; families are less likely to know each other in cities and their generally larger elementary schools.