How to Fire a Bad Principal
When it comes time to terminate, former Westborough (MA) Superintendent Stephen Dlott channels Harry Truman.
SA's First Read
Surviving and Thriving as a Superintendent of Schools: Leadership Lessons from Modern American Presidents
By Stephen Dlott
Published by Rowman & Littlefield, 2006
“I’m doing it for the kids. I’m doing it for the kids.” Reminiscent of a Buddhist monk, I recite this mantra repeatedly in my mind whenever I decide not to renew the contract of a principal in my district. Let’s face it: In school administration jargon, nonrenewal is a euphemism for dismissal, as the principal has little recourse except to look for a position in another school system. Personally, I find it disheartening when I am compelled to terminate the employment of a loyal, decent human being who is doing his or her best, and I hope I never find this task easy. However, to paraphrase an old maxim, a superintendent has got to do what a superintendent has got to do. Like you, my first responsibility is to the students in the school system. Ineffective administrators must either improve or be replaced.
There are lessons superintendents can learn from the manner in which America’s 33rd president, Harry Truman, eventually relieved General Douglas MacArthur from command during the Korean War. The conflict began on June 25, 1950, when the North Korean Army attacked South Korea. President Harry Truman quickly decided that he could not allow this outright act of aggression to go unchallenged by the United States, or else all countries in Asia would be at risk of attack. While contemplating a course of action, Truman received advice to replace America’s Far Eastern military commander, the 70-year-old MacArthur. The aging general was viewed by many highly placed people in Washington as too difficult to work with due to his abrasive and egotistical manner. However, Truman was too smart to succumb to this pressure. To ax the still-competent MacArthur would have created a firestorm in the country. Douglas MacArthur was not just another military officer. In the minds of most Americans, he was a legitimate American hero.
President Truman made the decision to work with MacArthur rather than to immediately recall or demote him. A president plays to a national audience, and by giving the distinguished general the opportunity to again lead American forces, Truman not only kept a still very capable general in charge during a critical period, but he also made an astute move politically.
My Douglas MacArthur was a portly, 6-foot, middle school principal named Michael Swift. We hired Mike through the traditional route of an interview, with a screening committee composed of teachers, parents, and administrators, followed by a site visit and reference checks, before confirmation by me. “Steve, this guy has a clear vision of what a middle school should be,” gushed the chair of the screening committee. The rest of the committee nodded enthusiastically. “He can definitely provide the leadership that we need in Westborough.”
I couldn’t wait to meet this middle school messiah. Westborough’s recent transition from a traditional two-year junior high school to a three-year, child-centered middle school had been very contentious, with reluctance on the part of some teachers and a retiring principal to embrace the new model. Some of the older staff blamed overprotective parents for pushing the middle school concept to promote a more nurturing environment. These teachers complained that this new child-centered approach would compromise academic standards. However, the message from the school board and the community, which I supported enthusiastically, was, “Build us a quality middle school—now.”
Mike’s interview with me was equally impressive. He used all the right terms: child-centered environment, heterogeneous grouping, adviser-advisee, interdisciplinary study, enhanced parent communication, and the prominence of the team as the backbone of a middle school. I could not have orchestrated better responses. In addition, he came from a highly performing school district in suburban Hartford, Connecticut. To me, that was a huge plus. I view people coming from a high-achieving system as an asset to Westborough, as they frequently bring new ideas.
I always remember the words of famed Boston Celtics basketball coach Red Auerbach, who said that he liked to draft players from winning college teams because they know what it takes to win. Mike Swift was also an active member of the New England League of Middle Schools and served on many of its committees. Surely his circle of contacts would translate into speakers for the faculty and possibly grants for the district. Mike appeared to me to be the perfect candidate to unite the faculty. Little did I realize that they would later unite in a revolution against his leadership.
Administrators usually get a brief honeymoon following their appointment as people try to cooperate at the outset to make the system work. Mike’s honeymoon period proved short-lived. At the opening-day meeting with the faculty, Mike Swift came on too strong with his commitment to a middle school philosophy. He told the faculty that they were fine, dedicated teachers but were being too resistant to change. He emphasized that to make the middle school work effectively, they must make a philosophical conversion to adopt a less rigid and more humanistic approach in order to address the needs of the whole child. Michael Swift was not wrong in many of the things he was saying. Certain middle school staff members did need to demonstrate more flexibility in their approach with students. However, the faculty understood the message to be, “Lighten up on the academic rigor to placate the parents."
A lot of things improved in that first year. We finally had a visible principal, committed to middle school, who was literally all over the building, working with students and teachers. He was also very approachable and would demonstrate sensitivity to staff in one-on-one situations. The parents and students appeared to like him, in spite of an undercurrent of faculty criticism.
I, too, was pleased with the direction of the school. Our middle school teams were becoming stronger, and the new interdisciplinary units were impressive. In fact, after only his second year, we were invited to the New England League of Middle Schools Conference to present our programs. I took pride in describing to the school board how well the transition to middle school was progressing. At these meetings, I would announce the names of other Massachusetts schools that were visiting us as they developed their own middle schools.
Of course, I did hear some criticism of Mike’s management style from the staff. My attitude was, Hey, let a few negative teachers grouse; positive things were happening. It was in groups that Mike encountered his greatest difficulty. He would advocate collective decision-making but would react defensively when suggestions were made. Mike defined consensus as everyone agreeing with him. It became so contentious that he would storm out of meetings, saying to people, “You don’t understand.” The faculty first found this disconcerting but eventually came to view it as comical. I was approached by some of the senior members of the faculty with the message that this principal was not a good match for our school.
In spite of their opposition, I supported the beleaguered principal. My attitude was that my job is to work with the principal and support change. I felt it would be wrong for me to order a retreat as soon as a principal began to take a risk. Also, quickly reining in an enthusiastic principal would send a chilling message to the other administrators in the district.
MacArthur and Mike
What would President Truman have done? He certainly worked hard with General MacArthur to keep communications open. Truman’s greatest concern at the outset of the Korean War was that the hostilities would expand from a small regional war into a large-scale global conflict. America had only recently finished participating in World War II, and Truman was not interested in another huge confrontation.
What made the situation even more dangerous was that nuclear weapons were now a reality in the American and Russian military arsenals. In order to make it clear to MacArthur that he did not want the conflict to escalate into World War III, Truman sent his special envoy, W. Averell Harriman, to Japan with a message for MacArthur. The message set forth two diplomatic goals:
1. Avoid any action that might provoke a third world war.
2. Do not antagonize the Chinese Communist government by publicly supporting Chiang Kai-Shek, the leader of the Nationalist Chinese.
Although MacArthur agreed to be a good soldier and to follow the president’s wishes, he actually did the opposite. One week after Harriman’s visit, MacArthur wrote a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in which he stated that the United States should not appease the Chinese Communists, and we should certainly stand behind Chiang Kai-Shek and defend Formosa in the event of an attack by the Chinese Communists. MacArthur was being MacArthur, independent and difficult.
Goal setting also appeared to me to be a reasonable strategy to assist an embattled principal. After all, this approach had worked well for me in the past with principals who were encountering difficulty. However, like Truman, I found out that this strategy is not always successful. Sometimes administrators are too strong-minded to work with their supervisors.
“Let’s keep it simple,” I said to Mike. “You have only two goals for the upcoming school year: Engage the faculty in productive dialogue about the direction of the middle school and listen to their suggestions, and continue to develop a quality middle school.”
“Mike you just can’t do this alone,” I told him. “You must work with the faculty to develop a collective vision so everyone feels a part of the process.” Mike smiled and said, “I’m with you on this one, boss. No more unilateral decisions.” As he said it, all I could think of was the lyric of the old song that went, “Your lips tell me no, no, but there is yes, yes in your eyes.”
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