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What Superheroes can tell us about Principals

Article by Patrick Kobler August 8, 2012 //   5 minute read

It has been the summer of superheroes.  From Iron Man to Batman, otherworldly or just humanly extraordinary, superheroes never cease to inspire and excite audiences.  Americans line up for hours to watch their stories, buy their action figures and even insert their villainous rivals into modern political debates.

Perhaps what we love most about superheroes is that they often begin as seemingly regular people.  Yet, propelled by a drive for good and equipped with the necessary tools, they are able to triumph against all odds.  It is how Bruce Wayne beat The Joker and why Tony Stark saves the day.  For this reason, the superhero archetype can be used to inform the current educational landscape and provide a guide for reforming the principalship.

Superhero stories follow a similar plot: A once prosperous city becomes complacent and morally void.  The resulting stagnation allows for a villain to take control, placing citizens in hazard.  Void of competent leadership, societal structures such as law, security and the economy crumble.  Chaos ensues. The citizenry, now regretting its complacency, is compelled to recruit a hero – a normal individual with an uncommon penance for leadership, who is given the tools necessary to turn a passion for justice into a powerful force for the common good.  Now labeled a “superhero,” he perseveres in the face of what many would label impossible, ultimately defeating the villain, saving countless individuals in the process.  Crowds cheer, institutions are rebuilt and prosperity begins to once again slowly bud.  A simple, yet, iconic story that brings joy to millions.

Though fictional and often outside (intelligent) national policy discussions, the superhero’s story can shed light on the importance of the principal in public education. Think about it this way: America’s public school systems, especially those in low-income areas, have largely become complacent, increasingly void of accountability.  The resulting stagnation has allowed villains - violence, low academic standards and wavering responsibility – to take over, placing students in long-term hazard. Void of quality leadership, school structures crumble.  Chaos ensues. For many schools and for too large a number of students, this is where the story ends.  Not joy, but a resulting tragedy brought to the millions of students populating America’s underperforming schools. These children truly are waiting for Superman.

But the story does not have to end here.  Hope does not yet have to fade away.  Tragedy can be avoided. America’s students can be saved from the villains that plague their public schools in much the same way a superhero saves a city in peril.  And it starts by recruiting individuals with the drive and leadership necessary to serve as principals.  Those who can bring together communities, teachers, staff and families in an effort to reinstate accountability and expectations to make professional developments meaningful and, ultimately, bolster student achievement. Individuals who will persevere in the face of certain defeat, taking the helm of a “dropout factory” or failing school and doing what is necessary to turn it around.  They can rebuild the crumbled structures of a school and properly develop the teachers who interact with our Nation’s children on a daily basis.

America must recruit these individuals.  Like Bruce Wayne before he became Batman, they are out there – in graduate programs, office buildings, at the front of classrooms and in chairs of board rooms – waiting for us to call upon them.  We must place these individuals in the schools that need them most, so they can fend off the villainous bigotry of low-expectations, void accountability, waived responsibility and stagnant student performance.  And once placed in schools, America’s districts and states must empower these principals with the autonomy necessary to be successful. There is no difference between the dramatic cries for help witnessed in superhero movies and the silenced pleas for a quality education withheld from millions of students.  A superhero can save a city.  A principal can turnaround a school.

A principal alone cannot resolve America’s education crisis, but our schools will be much better positioned to succeed if quality leaders are at their helms.

This post was written by Patrick Kobler, Program Coordinator for The Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) at the George W. Bush Institute.  Patrick is a Teach For America alumnus and former student body president of Southern Methodist University.