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Paul Young's Young @ Heart

Preventing Gridlock: The
"Principal" Traffic Cop's Job

The job of a principal is not all that different from the job of a traffic cop. When gridlock forms in our schools, it is the principal -- the school's traffic controller -- who must make the quick decisions that drive achievement and remove barriers to improvement.

Have you ever driven through a city where the traffic lights seem to be out of sync? Your car inches along, barely moving with each signal change from green to yellow to red. Soon cars are stuck in the middle of intersections, and gridlock ensues. You swear you can see the needle on your gas gauge moving down, down, down. Maybe tempers flare. And you wonder who the heck is in charge and why traffic flow seems to be so poorly managed.

In an ideal world, the gridlock is short-lived. An alert traffic cop arrives on the scene, evaluates the situation, makes some quick decisions -- and soon the congestion has eased, drivers' nerves have been calmed, and traffic flows smoothly again.


The business of public schools can be as susceptible to gridlock as traffic on city streets. And, as principal, you can often find yourself stuck in the middle of that gridlock. Because you're a middle manager in your district's bureaucracy, you don't have control over every problem -- or opportunity -- that arises. Yet, as often as not, you can make things happen. You can fall victim to the gridlock, or you can respond like a traffic cop who is able to maintain an even flow of traffic at a busy intersection. You can positively affect customer service at the school level just as that traffic cop does on the street. You can make quick decisions and keep things moving. You can provide clear direction that is responsive to your constituencies. And, if things are not working, you can re-evaluate a situation, adjust, and quickly redirect. You can even enlist capable individuals to assist, then delegate and empower them to follow through with assigned tasks.

Or you can procrastinate, bringing movement and productivity to a standstill.

When you are unresponsive and unable to make decisions, your staff stops knowing what to do or even how to do their jobs. As they wait for direction, answers to their questions, and fixes for their problems, frustration builds. Tempers might even flare. Time gets wasted. Student learning suffers. You have school-wide gridlock.


Away from the busy intersection of the principal's office, a feeling of gridlock can also develop when staff members ineffectively perform their jobs. Just as a traffic cop must deal with stalled cars, principals need to seize and tow their deadbeat staffers. Doing so creates opportunities and frees the flow for those who are able to get the job done.

As the chief traffic cop in your school, you have to make quick decisions about what to do with broken-down teachers who can impact the flow of student learning and achievement, the smooth workings of a teaching team, and even the morale of the entire school. You have the power to impound those teachers who have given up and deserted their students. You have the power to get traffic and morale back on track. But you must possess the desire to do that.

At the same time, you can provide fuel for those in need and recharge those whose batteries might be faltering.

Or you can pass the blame along to someone up the district chain of command.


It's not easy to make things happen in a busy school. There is always stress. There is always the fear and the possibility that there will be a breakdown. But the teachers and others in your school who are driving achievement shouldn't have to tolerate problem build-up. When you establish positive structures, provide clear signals, and clear the way for unobstructed movement, you have created a school environment where good drivers are free to do their jobs.

Busy schools can work when you -- the chief of traffic control in your school -- make sure the traffic lights are synchronized. When you constantly monitor progress, remain ever alert to potential problems, and remove barriers that might impede progress, you are paving the road to student achievement and teacher commitment and contentment.

Article by Paul Young
Copyright © 2007 Education World®