“Effective principals…set the tone for the school by reminding people at all levels of their mission, defining lofty goals, articulating expectations, raising standards, rewarding preferred behaviors, and modeling desired actions and attitudes” (Ramsey 2006, 38).
Ramsey’s attributes of effective principals, while not an exhaustive list of characteristics, do point to the key qualities of high-performing school leaders. Some principals (and I am sure you can think of at least one or two) seem to have a mysterious gene that allows them to be naturally gifted in ensuring mission, determining goals, communicating expectations, and increasing standards which are met or exceeded via positive, collaborative, collegial relationships with a myriad of stakeholders. For the rest us, we need to work at being effective; thus, in order to be effective principals must develop a habit of reflective practice.
One approach to reflective practice is a notion that may be described as “thinking on your feet.” Donald Schön, considered by many educators and researchers as the innovator of reflective practice and author of The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, wrote “The practitioner allows himself to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a situation which he finds uncertain or unique. He reflects on the phenomenon before him, and on the prior understandings which have been implicit in his behavior. He carries out an experiment which serves to generate both a new understanding of the phenomenon and a change in the situation” (1983: 68).
Schön’s approach is familiar to every school leader who has addressed the angry parent who shows up at school prior to the start of the school day, who has dealt with a student having an outburst in the classroom, or who has faced any number of “this situation requires my immediate attention” scenarios. Principals are called to directly react to an issue; they read the situation at hand, then they run through potential reactions in their mind, on a piece of paper, or in consultation with another or others, and finally, the principal acts. However, this think-in-action reactive approach, while building mental skills of processing information and decision making, and effective for immediate matters, is not the type or level of reflective practice required of an effective school leader.
Reflective practice is for the benefit of ensuring the development of a positive school culture and for guaranteeing that the big picture, as much as it is for purposefully nurturing day-to-day relationships with each stakeholder and for intentionally paying attention to the details and steps necessary to manifest the big picture. Reflective practice requires dedicated and uninterrupted time (alone or with stakeholders), occurs on a regular and ongoing basis, and is never an exhausted effort. Reflective practice, at a minimum, involves asking two simple questions “what’s working?” and “what’s not working?” followed by asking “why is that (working/not working)?”
For those of us who have to persistently work at our effectiveness and for all of us who are working diligently to improve our schools, regular and intentional reflective practice is necessary. We owe it to our stakeholders – our teachers, students, parents, board members, etc. – and ourselves, as professionals and lifelong learners, to carve out the time in our day or in our week, to stop and close our office door or to stop and go for a walk, and reflect upon the activities of the day or week, determining whether or not those activities and our efforts brought us closer to building or maintaining a positive school culture and manifesting the mission and vision for our school.
Look for Part 2 of this series next month wherein reflective practice will be discussed in the context of action research and school-wide improvement.
Ramsey, Robert D. (2006). Lead, follow, or get out of the way. Corwin Press: Thousand Oaks, CA.
Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner. How professionals think in action. Temple Smith: London.
Dr. Abelein has served as a teacher, principal, diocesan administrator, and consultant in parochial and private Catholic education for twenty years. Prior to her position as Associate Superintendent for Leadership and Recruitment for the Archdiocese of New York, Dr. Abelein served as President and Principal at St. Aloysius in New York, Principal at Verbum Dei in Los Angeles, and Principal of St. Paul of the Cross in La Mirada, California, as well as, a Teacher in Guam and California. Dr. Abelein earned a Ph.D. in Education Policy, Planning and Administration from the University of Southern California, a M.Ed. Leadership from the University of Portland, and a B.A. in English with Secondary Education from the State University of New York at Geneseo. She holds New York State permanent certification in English/Secondary Level and School Admin/Supervision. Dr. Abelein has taught numerous graduate courses at Loyola Marymount University, Fordham University, St. John’s University, and the University of Notre Dame. Dr. Abelein currently serves on the Board of Directors at America Press, Inc. and supports One Home Many Hopes a non-profit whose mission is to “find, rescue, house, love and educate orphaned and abandoned girls in Mtwapa, Kenya and equip them to be the future agents of change in their community.” Dr. Abelein was awarded Fulbright Specialist Scholar roster candidate status in March 2011.