The Principal as a “Compassionate Agitator”

This is my latest guest post. Nate Lischwe is passionate about urban education and educational reform. After serving as a math teacher for six years, he is working full-time as a student in educational leadership. Nate is completing internship hours at Maplewood Richmond Heights Middle School. Please be a part of his mentoring by commenting below.

The K-12 education landscape is currently undergoing rapid change throughout the United States. Change as we see it today has taken many forms, and the urgency of the situation in our education system is increased by the fact that American schoolchildren’s academic underperformance as compared to students in many other nations. With this context in mind, the challenge for today’s school leader is to effect systemic change (being an agitator) while also valuing stakeholders who are working in the system (being compassionate). While I am only starting to explore the education landscape through the
lens of a possible future school leader, my teaching experience has given me insight into this issue.

As a 2005 Teach For America – St. Louis corps member, I am well-acquainted with educational change. Teach For America continues to grow as it works toward its mission of eliminating the achievement gap, but the organization also draws some criticism. I came face to face with many of these criticisms early in my experience as a high school math teacher. Did I have what it takes to successfully teach my students after not studying secondary education as an undergraduate? Did I truly care about the school and the students, or was I going to leave the system as quickly as I could and just use the experience as a resume builder? These questions were legitimate, but I provided answers to these questions over the next six years, by teaching, learning, collaborating, coaching, tutoring, serving, laughing/crying with students, and doing seemingly everything in between. I won the respect of colleagues by simply putting in a hard, honest day’s work and by caring for the students, day in and day out. In addition, my students answered the call by working diligently and consistently posting high academic achievement.

What lessons does my experience hold for school leaders about being a compassionate agitator? First, we must set high expectations for ourselves and for our colleagues, and we must set an example by working honestly and purposefully to achieve those expectations. Second, we must show that we respect and care for our colleagues by trusting them and collaborating with them in achieving goals, not just in their classrooms,but in the school and in the larger context in which the school exists. If we as leaders set the example by practicing these two ideas, we can build a system in which educators join together and successfully effect the change that we all desire: increased academic achievement by our nation’s students.