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THE CHALKBOARD

In many classrooms, a principal lesson

It's science time in the first-grade class at Plymouth River Elementary School in Hingham, and principal Chuck Cormier, a wiry man in a tie, is peppering kids with questions about why some objects float and others sink.

 

"Michael Nash, what do you think?" Cormier asks a spectacled youth, who offers a plausible theory about some objects being heavier than others.

The float-sink lesson is one in a 16-part science unit Cormier is teaching. Cormier, certified as both a teacher and a principal in grades K-8, also offers extracurricular science courses.

"I've always maintained as a principal it comes down to setting priorities. It may be 40 minutes every other day or 40 minutes a week," said Cormier, a principal for 18 years who said teaching helps him stay connected with staff, students, and his love for education. "It is very easy, on the other hand, to remain cloistered in the office."

Although the title "principal" originated from the role of a principal teacher, fewer principals today have time to teach. Education reform has emphasized principals' dual roles as educational and business leaders in a school, but many say the job has become heavily administrative, leaving less time to instruct teachers or give regular class lessons.

"There is increasing job dissatisfaction among principals. It is hard to find people who want to apply for principalships because the job in many places is far removed from the classroom," said Susan Moore Johnson, Pforzheimer Professor of Teaching and Learning at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

A 2002 University of Massachusetts policy report warned of a principal shortage, spurred in part by an aging principal population (74 percent were 50 or older), but more profoundly by increased work demands. Fifty-six percent of superintendents reported fewer applicants for principal positions as a result of changes to the job.

For example, a 2001 report by the now-defunct Massachusetts Education Reform Review Commission had 91 percent of principals saying state demands amounted to 10 meetings per month. Thirty percent said new curriculum requirements added 10 hours a week to the job while 10 percent said the demands added 20 hours to the workweek.

And yet, Johnson said, principals who can manage to squeeze in time to teach send "a powerful signal about the importance of instruction. You gain credibility if you do the work that you ask teachers to do," she said.

That's one reason Thomas Commeret, head of the Marblehead Community Charter Public School, teaches French to fifth-graders. "I require a huge amount of work from the teachers, including logging lesson plans into an electronic database," he said. Teaching "keeps me very honest. It's easy to give them more work, but I need to know just what that work means," Commeret said.

For Ljuba Marsh, codirector of the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter High School in Hadley, administration and teaching have been combined since the school's inception in 1996. Marsh teaches courses in film and on Greece while her codirector, Bob Brick, teaches sociology and history. Although this can result in 15-hour workdays, Marsh said teaching allows her and Brick to connect with teachers in a very detailed way.

"We understand the issues happening with specific students and can share ideas at a level where teachers can understand we are experiencing the same thing they are," she said. In addition, said Marsh, teaching "nourishes me in a way that nothing else does."

John Ritchie, superintendent and principal at Lincoln-Sudbury High School -- a one-time English teacher at Brookline High -- last year taught a once-a-week lesson in Dan Conti's English class. Ritchie loved diving in to "Huckleberry Finn" and "As I Lay Dying," but found that "I was really rusty. I had to go back and re-think lesson plans and discussions."

Conti, one of the teachers negotiating a new union contract while teaching with Ritchie, said the experience gave him respect for Ritchie's hectic schedule. Likewise, he saw Ritchie recognizing that to teach well, educators have to stay sharp. Such exchanges diffuse the "natural tension" between teachers and administrators, Conti said. "The classroom is the logical place to find common ground," he said.

Despite the benefits of having principals teach, if only occasionally, it is too much for most to juggle, said Nadya Aswad Higgins, executive director of the Massachusetts Elementary School Principals Association in Marlborough. Higgins said economic strains have led to cuts in administrative support even as state and federal legislation are demanding still more reporting and accountability.

"It's been particularly difficult for principals to keep up with it all," said Higgins.

Private schools may not face the same legislative demands, but Steve Clem, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools in New England in Norwell, said other pressures are making it tougher for private school administrators to teach. For example, they are expected to do more fund-raising, Clem said. They are also spending more time responding to parents who have increasingly consumerist attitudes that require more attention, he added.

"More parent demands are prefaced by, `Since I'm paying X thousand dollars, why isn't Mary . . .,' " Clem said.

Still, some do teach, he said, "because it does make an important symbolic statement to the community." In addition, "for those who can manage it, teaching is an extraordinary safety valve," said Clem, a former Michigan school administrator who taught AP French literature.

"If I were essentially a full-time administrator, it would not be as interesting," said William Wharton, head of the Commonwealth School in Boston. He teaches a language and ethics course to ninth-graders and an ethics seminar to seniors, giving him the chance to get to know every student in the small, 145-student independent day school. Having the school principal teach also gives students a fresh view of the school head. During Cormier's science lesson, children were clearly excited by his presence. Michael Nash, 7, noted that "it's fun" having the principal teach, though it shook classmate Courtney Hornstra's sense of order.

"It's kind of different," said Hornstra, 7. "Principals don't really teach. They just sit in their office."

But not at Plymouth River. Even the assistant principal, David Whiting, isn't glued to his desk: He teaches matrix and table logic to fourth-graders.

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