October is a meaningful month for me. It is fall, my favorite season-football, family, better weather, the beginning of a new school year.
However, it was on October 4th when, as a twenty-one year old African American male, I could have very easily become a statistic. Five months after graduating from IUP in rural Pennsylvania, I was shot and left for dead on Bartram High School’s football field in southwest Philadelphia. I wrote about that experience here.
Many people struggle to recover from such an experience, and I am blessed to have a community that rallied around me and refused to let me succumb to the trauma that could have easily overwhelmed me. Instead, I was led to become a career changer, transitioning from counseling adjudicated youth to some of the most important careers in the world – being a teacher, assistant principal, and principal.
Lastly, October is also National Principals Month, and, with that, I can’t help but to reflect upon what led me into the principalship.
Two Principals had a very significant impact on me
As a teacher leader, my principal, Charles D’Alfonso, supported and encouraged me to take on responsibilities that many teacher leaders throughout Philly’s schools do.
He guided me, connected me with other mentors (like Yvonne Savior, who would serve as my new teacher coach and new principal coach years later), and provided me with various resources to spur my growth and success. And, although I viewed myself as a leader of middle school students, my principal saw me as a leader of a school community.
Today, I make it part of my mission to encourage all my peers to mentor the brave, humble, and up-and-coming leaders in the principal pipeline. We need to do this to strengthen our profession and to ensure that there is a higher level of diversity in the principalship. By expanding leadership opportunities for women and minorities, we acknowledge the diversity of the students we serve.
By harnessing the unique and life-impacting experiences and perceptions of culturally distinct principals, we will help to strengthen students’ outcomes – including and especially for the most vulnerable students in our communities. We will impact these students in ways that equip the next generation to master the incredible challenges and seize the incredible opportunities of our time.
Shout out to principals who are multipliers
It’s said that Albert Einstein, the scientist and philosopher, believed that one of the most powerful forces in the universe is the effect of compound interest in finance. I’m not sure if this attribution is true, but I do know that – like the power of earning “interest on interest,” – a great principal is a force that elevates, amplifies, and supports the great work of teachers and other school staff. That’s a mighty force! In my experience of observing great principals, it’s certainly one that moves mountains, uplifts and empowers communities, and accelerates student achievement.
In 2013, Jill Levine, Rachel Skerritt, and I were selected to participate in the U.S. Department of Education’s inaugural Principal Ambassador Fellowship. We used our time to visit cities and schools, and we engaged with over 1000 principals.
Research is clear about the tremendous lever that principals represent in school improvement efforts. Our conversations with our colleagues around the nation affirm the research below.
- Principals’ actions have influence on why 70 percent of our best teachers leave the classroom.
- There are 90,000 principals for 98,706 schools, employing 3 million teachers, all of which serve the 55 million students in American public schools. On average, then, each principal impacts 611 students, each day, of each year, over their life at a school.
- Principals account for 25 percent of a school’s total impact on student achievement, second only to teachers.
- Principals can have enormous impact on all students because principals ensure effective instruction year to year across the entire school.
I am humbled and inspired daily by the work that we do and the impact that we have. As principals, we must continue to identify and develop those leaders in our buildings. Some may be inspired to join the mission of the principalship – just as Charles D’Alfonso did for me twenty-four years ago.
So, at some point this month, thank a principal or two. They don’t do their work as multipliers for recognition, but their success can have a significant impact on our city.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.