Use the Law to Empower Leadership

Spring is the season for personnel decisions and legislative advocacy.

Topics: Advocacy and Legislation

It’s spring—or at least that’s the lie we tell ourselves in New England, where I live. Here, the winter weather lingers until suddenly, one day, it is summer. But while the weather is still iffy, it’s a good time to start planting your vegetable garden to reap the rewards in summer.

This season is a busy one for school principals. But it offers plenty of opportunities to empower your leadership by making personnel decisions in accordance with the law, as well as advance broader goals through state-level advocacy.

Evaluation and Personnel

Right now, you’re likely completing staff evaluations. You’ve completed or are completing classroom observations, are looking at data, and are making determinations about personnel.

As part of this process, you might be preparing to meet with teachers to formalize future goals based on information from the latest round of evaluations. In some cases, you might also be making critical—and tough—employment decisions involving nonrenewal or termination. This is especially true for decisions surrounding probationary or early career teachers.

When I practiced law, I emphasized to clients how critical this time was for principals to make decisions, especially those involving nonrenewal of teachers. My advice was straightforward and compliance-driven: Follow the applicable state regulations or laws, collective bargaining agreements, and district policies as you evaluate performance and, in certain cases, make nonrenewal decisions.

Times Have Changed

Today, there’s a labor shortage. Teachers are leaving the education profession, questioning the support they have and the quality of their working conditions. In many cases, they feel undervalued, undersupported, and underpaid.

How do these facts influence my advice with respect to evaluation? In some ways, they don’t. If you have a poor-performing teacher who is not a good fit, you don’t want the teacher in the classroom and would follow standard nonrenewal processes accordingly.

But in the great majority of cases, you can use evaluation tools to support teachers and help them believe in themselves. In other words, you can address their thirst for professionalism and perhaps use the evaluative feedback loop to address some of teachers’ negative feelings.

Perhaps you and a teacher mutually identify an area of growth for that teacher—a common point that excites the teacher’s professional inquiry. Maybe it’s a third-grade teacher who has an interest in developing their skills in reading assessment. Work with them to give them the ownership and support they need to develop their skills.

In planning for the year ahead, build in mechanisms to help that teacher reach their goals. And don’t just find one area that excites the teacher; find several, and build evaluation and planning going forward around similar points of contact that align with your school’s goals.

Evaluation and excitement are two words that we don’t often use together, but my point is to use the evaluation tools at your disposal to develop the professionalism of your staff and continue to spark it.

You are probably already doing this as a matter of best practice. But hopefully, I’ve underscored the value of the evaluation process and highlighted at least one tool for you to move the proverbial needle under the law.

Policymaking Impact

While you’re having a busy spring in your school, elected officials are also busy. In state capitals, legislatures are reviewing and voting on numerous bills and budgets that will impact you and your school in the fall.

It all might appear distant and inaccessible—and in many cases, it is. But the political process is not invitation-​only. You can and should be involved. Don’t wait for an invitation. Be active in the issues that you care about and those that impact your work as a school leader.

What can you do? First, use your voice. While the First Amendment limits protections for your speech as a public employee, it does not foreclose it. As a general rule, if you are speaking about a matter of public concern and your speech outside of school does not represent a material disruption to the school, your speech is protected.

Of course, there are limits. You can’t use the principal’s pulpit to take a political position. Making a political speech or an advocacy argument on a hot-button issue at a parent-​teacher conference or schoolwide assembly is not wise and won’t be protected under the Constitution or state law.

What kind of speech might be helpful? How about writing or calling your legislator to express your views on a particular bill that’s currently winding its way through the legislature? Reach out to groups such as the state elementary or middle-level association, and express your opinion there.

Many bills are in the works that will impact your work if they become law; they seek to expand vouchers, arm teachers, ban books, and satisfy other goals. You are uniquely positioned to offer an opinion and perhaps testify about the merits or drawbacks of these proposed bills as an expert in education. You’ll also have the responsibility to implement these bills in the fall if they are passed and go into effect.

Many external variables impact your work, including laws made far away. But there are ways you can impact the law and apply your expertise.

Mark Paige is associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, a former school law attorney, and a board member of the Education Law Association.