Dr. Alex Rivera is the proud principal of the George A. Jackson Elementary School in Jericho, NY, where he works with a diverse student population of 480 students. The school is recognized as one of the highest-performing elementary schools in New York State, with proficiency on standardized assessments ranging from 88-93%. Prior to his current position, Dr. Rivera served as a classroom teacher, assistant principal, and principal across the New York City Department of Education, Uniondale, and Valley Stream 30 school districts. Dr. Rivera holds numerous educational degrees in the field of education from SUNY Old Westbury, Stony Brook University, and Hofstra University (where he most recently completed his doctoral studies in 2018).
While the world dealt with a pandemic, schools were doing what they could to keep students educated whether it was in person or online. Teachers made magic happen while facing obstacles like never before. For many schools, they were able to move forward thanks to the hard work and dedication of all stakeholders. Leading the charge were principals who ensured that teachers, students, and families had what they needed to feel comfortable, safe, and connected to the classroom.
Going into my fourteenth year as principal, I have no regrets about the decision to leave the classroom for this role. My journey goes back to my high school days when I was fortunate to have a principal who understood and supported me (even when I was sent to his office for questioning things in the classroom). He took the time to listen and help me see different perspectives. Rather than being angry about being sent to his office, I welcomed our conversations and the insight he offered me about dealing with different people and personalities. His guidance is what ultimately led me to a career in education.
According to a survey from the Rand Corporation, sixteen percent of public school principals retired or quit in the 2021-22 school year. That’s more than double the rate from the year before. With this number comes the need to find individuals willing to take on the challenges of this role. I’ve heard from teachers and administrators who have expressed little to no interest in becoming a principal. They offer reasons such as long hours, difficult parents, lack of funding, and increasing political issues just to name a few. While I can understand this, there are so many other reasons why you should consider this role.
Let us start with relationships. There is no greater joy for me than being able to work directly with over 100 teachers and staff, nearly 480 students, and approximately 350 families on a daily basis. I get a first-hand look at the successes that are happening throughout the entire school. As principal, we get to be a part of key decisions that help shape how our school operates. Working alongside teachers, we play a part in curricular decisions and support them in their own professional growth. We get to interact with all students and families. From being one of the first people they see in the morning to one of the last people they see at the end of the day, our interactions with students and families have the power to transcend the culture of our schools. Fostering positive relationships impacts what happens in the classroom and the type of involvement we see from members of our community. As educators, we know from experience that the more connected our students and families are to the school, the better the outcomes.
In his book, Start With Why, Simon Sinek writes about how great leaders inspire action. He challenges us to start with our why. Why do we do what we do? Why should anyone care? As principals, we have a direct say in shaping the belief of what teaching and learning look like. How many other professions truly have the ability to positively impact the lives of hundreds and thousands of people each year? Rather than run from this, we should be quick to run towards it. For anyone who believes that we can take learning to higher levels, this is the position to be in. Our schools are shaping the next generation of people. We get the privilege of creating environments where our youth thrive and become more than they ever imagined. As principals, we advocate for change, cheer on those in the classrooms doing the work, and collaborate with other administrators to improve the organization as a whole.
You might have heard people say, “Be prepared to roll up your sleeves.” In this position, we roll them up every day. We recognize the role of a team in the overall success of our school and work to maintain the positive systems we have in place while seeking to remove any barriers. As someone who loves sports, I constantly lead through the lens of a team. I often ask myself, “How can we maximize everyone’s talent?” While there will be challenges along the way, principals get to help remove those barriers so that the members of the team can maximize their abilities and see their worth to the organization. As principals, we set the conditions for how our teachers and staff learn. We engage in daily conversations with our team to ensure everyone is where they need to be. When something does not go as planned, we can lean on these people for support and guidance. Our team ultimately becomes our extended family. Conversations are backed with openness and trust. It is environments like this where we often find the most success. We get the privilege of leading people (and not numbers as found in some other professions).
In closing, I share these words with the hope of inspiring fellow educators to consider taking that leap of faith into the role of principal. We need people who value the importance of relationships, seek to inspire others, and are not afraid to roll up their sleeves and make tough decisions. In the words of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, “If you’re true to yourself, you’re going to be true to everyone else.” Our schools need principals who believe in this. If you are reading this, I ask you, “What are you waiting for?”