Augustine Emuwa and Justine González

Co-authors and former Chicago Public Schools administrators, Augustine Emuwa and Justine González.  

“An antiracist treats and remembers individuals as individuals,” states Ibram X. Kendi in his 2019 New York Times bestseller, “How to Be an Antiracist.”

 We are on this journey. This journey named 2020. Despite the challenges existing in the institution that is education — there are opportunities. I decided to write about what it means to be a school principal in this multi-part series so if you missed part one, you can read it here, where I posed this question: How does it look to be an administrator during COVID-19 and what is the actual role of the school administrator in 2020?

In the United States, we have become very keen on grouping people. Creating blanket statements around gender, race, political parties and professions alike. Amidst the hum of excitement and anxiety around the first weeks of school, there exist numerous obstacles for school leaders intertwined with two existing pandemics: COVID-19 and systemic racism.

Lack of focus happens often with the role of a school principal, and I personally believe it can be one of the most misunderstood roles in our current education system structure. I put out a question to some of my administrator network (vice principals, principals and superintendents). I asked colleagues to share what they believe is the job of a principal:

  • The curriculum leader.
  • Be an example of love and compassion and grower of people both big and small.
  • Build a school community where all are welcome to learn and grow together.
  • Be the leader of learning while cultivating a positive school culture for emerging leaders (staff and students alike).
  • Be an influencer.
  • Leader and model for the school; doing all they can for the success of their students.
  • Instructional leader of the school.
  • Servant leader.
  • Instructional leader — he or she needs to always remember that leadership is working with and through others to achieve organizational goals.

The last input shared is helpful for all of us to consider. Many principals who I coach were simply not trained to lead — but rather to manage. Further, their districts do not necessarily see them as individuals and therefore, they do not see their teaching staff as individuals. Can you guess how teachers then treat the students? In fact, I find that many principals are grappling with their own identities as we all redefine and reimagine what school can and should look like — especially for marginalized communities.

Are school leaders given autonomy to make decisions for their school without the permission (and trust) to actually make decisions? What many community stakeholders (including parents and teachers) perceive is that a principal has power, when in fact, they are often becoming frustrated middle managers tasked with delivering district mandates to their respective communities and mastering the art of keeping their immediate building students and staff happy while also appeasing those they report to at central office.

I also spent some time discussing this phenomenon of the oft misunderstood principal role with Augustine “Augie” Emuwa, a Chicago Public Schools colleague and my co-author on a current project (you can connect with him on LinkedIn here):  "Permission versus autonomy is a concept that I lived throughout my career as a turnaround principal in urban America. It means that leaders thrive when they are permitted to exercise decision-making in response to the hard and soft data they collect on a daily basis. When you take the leadership plunge, and it's still a plunge in many cases, you're given accountability and responsibility by default, but have you been given permission as a middle management lead to take the right risks to move your school and teams to the next level?"  

Stay tuned for part three where we will dive deeper into Kendi’s quote and the cultural implications for better defining school leadership roles.

En Comunidad is a column that aims to unify communities through showcasing the power of human stories that share the heartbeat of leadership legacies in Indianapolis and the Midwest. For experiential learning resources related to culture, equity, and inclusion, subscribe to EducatorAide’s resource kits here

Justine González is an Indiana native and first-generation college grad having served in both Chicago Public and Indianapolis Public Schools. Her consulting firm, EducatorAide, partners with organizations to help create culturally connected, equitable, and inclusive environments.

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