A school principal is not just another employee
By Sufia Azmat
Given the correlation between fidelity to mission and institutional success, one would expect every school to at least try to ensure that there are policies and procedures in place to regularly review its programs to guarantee mission alignment. Research suggests, however, the existence of a gap between believing that a clear mission should be an integral part of an organization and implementing this belief into policy.
What takes place versus what should ideally happen is driven by leadership. This became clear in principal interviews that I conducted during March 2020. Most interviewees acknowledged the mission statement’s importance while also acknowledging that their current school fell short in actualizing it when it came to school governance. Only four of 14 principals described the development and review of their mission statement as being a collaborative process.
A lack of buy-in through stakeholder involvement also became evident as the principals discussed some of the problems they face with parents’ expectations and engagement. Many of them spoke of the disconnect between what parents claim they want versus their support for school policy — a clear indication of detachment from the mission.
Mission and Governance
Not only does understanding and believing in a school’s mission drive engagement, but it can also inspire staff to work together and be creative in finding new ways to achieve said mission. Innovation and creativity are fundamental to bringing about transformation during times of turbulence due to external pressures. A study conducted by Anthony Burrow, a social psychologist at Cornell University, shows that “short-term goals are not enough to motivate employees;” they must be engaged through a greater sense of purpose.
A purpose-driven organization needs a leader who is also guided by purpose (Sandra Petrova, https://adevait.com/). According to Gerald Grace, Catholic schools are facing a dramatic shift from religious to lay personnel, a development that raises the question of “whether or not some Catholic schools are becoming private schools with a religious memory but a secular presence” (Grace, “Faith, Mission and Challenge in Catholic Education,” 2015). Islamic schools need to be wary and proactive lest they face the same predicament.
The board is responsible for hiring a principal who will achieve organizational effectiveness while maintaining mission integrity. Hiring the right principal is the board’s single most important undertaking because a main component of Islamic school mission statements is spiritual formation and Islamic identity. Therefore, this person must be an instructional leader and a faith or spiritual leader.
The same has been affirmed about Catholic school principals for, according to Grace, “there is also an important spiritual dimension to leadership that is apt to be absent from the concerns of public-school administrators. This spirituality is manifest in the language of community that principals use to describe their schools, and in their actions as they work to achieve the goal of community.”
Moreover, the principal is expected to provide moral leadership. Many of the dilemmas principals face arise from a disjuncture between Islam’s moral teachings and contemporary society’s values. Then there are the double standards of parents who expect schools to teach morality but don’t always set the example at home.
The recruitment, selection and formation of leaders is essential to the future of our community’s schools. The principal interviews conducted for this study, however, suggest that their governing bodies are hiring principals without placing enough weight on whether a prospective principal “fits” within the community’ values and beliefs. The critical agents for translating a community’s formal commitments into a lived school experience are, in the view of Bryk & Schneider (“Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement” 2002), the school principals.
Mission and the Hiring Process
A school leader must be able to transmit the sense of mission importance to his or her staff. Staff members’ understanding of the larger impact of their work leads to greater engagement, passionate commitment and motivation. Administrators, teaching and non-teaching staff are more likely to contribute to the school’s success if they understand, agree with and support a shared organizational purpose (mission) and vision. As Grace states, “Individuals or teams that rally around a core purpose with aligned systems will become a ‘purpose-driven’ and ‘built-to-last organization.’”
Mission-appropriate hires are more likely to contribute to greater organizational productivity and accountability because of their understanding, agreement and support for the shared organizational purpose (mission) and vision. Van der Vorm stated in her 2001 article, “Hiring Faculty and Administrators for Mission,” that successful hiring is the result of constantly revisiting the mission statement throughout the search process. Only three of the principals interviewed for this study indicated that this statement played a deliberate role in their hiring process.
The organization’s mission statement helps establish the psychological contract between the organization and new members by indicating what behaviors are expected. This helps socialize the new members into the organizational culture and prevents mission drift, as well as inspires staff, especially new employees, with a sense of purpose.
One of the principals interviewed expressed a thought that epitomizes how schools may experience mission drift. She spoke of the many ways that the mission is a factor in school operations and decision-making. However, when asked if all the examples she gave were transpiring because of a written process or policy or because some of the individuals were currently members of the administration team, she replied that she has been concerned about what will happen if these individuals are no longer in leadership positions. Her response reinforces my theory that individuals, not processes, are driving actions. Her hiring process doesn’t include a discussion about the mission statement and how it may align with the interviewee’s personal mission or values.
Another principal also voiced her concern, stating that she intuitively looks for employees who will align with the mission, but that this isn’t embedded in the school’s policies and onboarding materials. She likewise worries about what will happen when there is a new administration, one that isn’t as appreciative of or aligned with the mission as she and her current colleagues are.
The governing body is ultimately responsible for safeguarding a school’s mission. While administrators and all staff members play a role in achieving the mission, the community must hold the governing body accountable.
The Council of Islamic Schools in North America’s (CISNA) accreditation process addresses these concerns. While communicating high expectations for accredited schools, CISNA’s standards are not prescriptive; rather, they provide a guide to improve schools and a way for school communities to hold themselves accountable for their own missions. To see a list of CISNA-accredited schools, visit https://cisnausa.org/current-members/.
Sufia Azmat (M. Ed., Bayan Islamic Graduate School) is executive director of the Council of Islamic Schools in North America (CISNA) [This article is a follow up to the previously published “Emerging Themes in Islamic School Mission Statements,” Islamic Horizons, March-April 2022, p.36)]
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