I am a lifelong Tennessean, product of Tennessee public schools, daughter of a Tennessee public school teacher. I have a master’s in school leadership from Harvard University and a license to serve as a school principal in Massachusetts.
Yet, I cannot become a licensed principal in Tennessee.
Unfortunately, my home state of Tennessee has enacted a principal licensure policy that prevents quality leaders from becoming licensed to serve in our schools.
My dad has been a public school teacher for more than 35 years and I have always known that I would pursue a career in education. When I graduated from Vanderbilt University in 2008, I immediately began teaching in Nashville. Here, I have experienced incredible levels of support and mentoring, which have been invaluable in my development as a teacher leader.
After five years of teaching, I knew I was ready to gain a greater perspective and began contemplating my next steps. One of my mentors was persistent in recommending that I study to become a school principal. We discussed how I was uninterested in doing work that would take me away from children and families. The relationships I build with them are my favorite part of the job. This is also the part that I believe has the most impact. As a school principal, I could work with hundreds of students and families.
My search for the right principal preparation program began in the fall of 2013. I wanted an out-of state program that lasted no longer than one year and included a school-based internship component. In the end, these criteria narrowed my search down to three graduate schools. I took the GRE, asked for recommendations, and submitted applications.
It was during this time after application, but before acceptance, that I discovered Tennessee’s principal licensure policy. The policy went into effect in 2011 and states that all candidates seeking principal licensure in Tennessee must have either the recommendation of an in-state approved program or three years of successful experience as a school leader in another state. At the time, I felt certain there was a way around this policy; it would just be a matter of talking to the right person.
You Don’t Say No to Harvard
I was accepted to all of the graduate programs to which I applied, and chose to attend the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Throughout my time at Harvard, I called people in the Tennessee Office of Teacher Licensing, contacted my state board members, and told anyone who would listen about Tennessee’s principal licensure policy.
For many months, I kept searching for the person who could help me obtain a principal’s license in my home state. I even called Vanderbilt, where I completed my undergraduate work, to ask for its help. Even its program isn’t one of the nineteen approved programs in the state.
Everyone I spoke with suggested that I reach out to the universities on the list to see what I would need to do to obtain their recommendation for licensure. While I got a wide variety of answers, the most common was that I should take a slate of additional classes. So far, no university has been willing to recommend me for licensure without completing (and paying for) at least 12 additional hours of graduate study at their institutions.
As someone who is dedicated to the education of Tennessee’s students, this is an extremely frustrating situation. I am proud of the strides our state has made, and I want to continue being a part of this important work in my home state.
Steps in the Right Direction
The Tennessee State Board of Education has stated it wants to “expand recruitment and supports for districts to hire effective principals” as a key priority. Yet, its current policies do not align with this goal.
In the past couple of weeks, legislation has been introduced that would help address some of these restrictions and unintended consequences of the principal licensure process. There is also talk that this policy will be up for amendment at the next state Board of Education meeting. It is my hope that this policy will change soon to allow qualified candidates from great programs, in or out of Tennessee, to become licensed principals in our state.
I agree that we need to evaluate our principal preparation programs to ensure that the best and the brightest are leading our schools. But insulating ourselves from expertise outside of our state is not the way to go.