Common Core and the Principal

Leading in a Culture of Change

There are many experiences that can bring your fingers to a keyboard to write an article, but the ones that are most meaningful are those from a personal reflection. This past year I had one such professionally life giving and affirming epiphany.

Beginning in February and ending in mid-May, I had the distinct privilege to work with twelve dedicated and committed elementary school principals from the Diocese of Brooklyn as they took on the challenge of implementing the Common Core.  Their steadfast commitment to the implementation of the Common Core was inspirational. They were the quintessential professionals.leading_in_a_culture_of_change

During these past four months my responsibility was to conduct two full-day one-on-one leadership coaching sessions on the implementation of the Common Core. The focus of the sessions centered on the required leadership skills and the distinctive role of the principal. As a coach in these sessions, it became more and more apparent to me that the principal must be engaged not only in instructional leadership, but also in systemic leadership if any rooted change was to take place. The systemic leadership invariably has to contend with the changing of culture. It fortifies even more profoundly Michael Fullan’s mantra that principals must be leaders in a culture of change.

It is not a new revelation, and research has continually reinforced the premise: that the principal is the single most important individual who figures in the development of a strong school culture. But what if a new principal comes into a situation where the previous culture is embedded with an antithesis towards change? What if the teaching climate of the school is so ensconced in the “Sit and Get” philosophy rather than the “Create and Learn” approach advocated by the Common Core?

For the Common Core to make its full impact, there has to be a transformation of thinking. We cannot introduce new standards and expectations that are so student-centered with the outdated pedagogy of the “Sage on the Stage” mentality. This is where the principal can make the greatest and most significant impact. The principal has to change the climate. The question is how? What does a leader need to do in not only changing a possibly toxic climate into a healthy one?

Much has been written on leadership styles most notably Daniel Coleman (2004) in his Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence. In his work, Coleman identifies six distinct styles: Coercive (“Do what I tell you); Authoritative (“Come with me”);  Affiliative (“People come first”); Democratic (“What do you think”); Pacesetting (Do as I do now”); Coaching (“Try this.”) Some leaders are prone to use a combination of styles, some use only one. One thing is for certain, the more insular the approach, the less the collaboration and receptivity of the faculty. In the coercive style, the people resent and resist; in the pacesetting style people get overwhelmed and burn out. The other four have more positive inclinations.

For a principal to create the climate of change and to get people to accept the vision there must be from the outset the building of relationships. This is especially true when implementing the Common Core. No matter how many in-service days are planned or professional days conducted, if in the scheme of things there is an unbending culture of resistance, then the implementation of the Common Core will not happen. It will take the leadership skill of the principal to create that climate where, in the spirit of collaboration, a new culture can take root.

Be on the lookout for Part II of this blog post for further discussion on how the Principal must set to the tone in order to impact meaningful change.


  1. Susan Abelein, PhD June 14, 2013 Reply

    True, True, True! Common Core is a terrific opportunity for leaders to thoughtfully reflect on their leadership style and determine its effectiveness in relate to communicating, implementing, and supervising the Common Core as it rolls out in their schools. In a combination of the four leadership approaches, an effective leader determines a leadership team, works collaboratively with these teacher leaders, and crafts a long term (3-5 year) implementation plan. Setting a vision for CC clearly communicates the curriculum, instruction, assessment, use of data, resources, and professional development required for the intentional implementation of the CC. Summer (some of it…we all need a rest) is the perfect time for leadership soul searching and planning in order to hit the ground running in the fall.

  2. Terrence Williams June 14, 2013 Reply

    I do believe that for the Common Core to be introduced effectively that a leader must use situational leadership; observing the culture and climate of the school. With some knowledge of the school and its inhabitants, the principal will be able to determine which of Daniel Coleman’s distinct styles of leadership is unique for his/her school.

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