Filmmaker Interview

POV: How did you find Kerry Purcell and Tresa Dunbar, the two women you follow in The Principal Story?

Tod Lending: Tresa Dunbar was recommended to us by a person who trains principals — a former principal I knew from another film. We probably interviewed a total of about 25 different principals to choose subjects for the film, and we were really impressed with Tresa's passion and interested in her situation.

She was a new principal in her second year at a really difficult school. Her school had been on probation for 12 years, with five different principals going in and out of the school over the course of a few years. So Tresa was in a very challenging situation. Also, as we talked to Tresa, one of the things that impressed us the most was her passion, her heart for the work. She was so clearly committed to doing the best job possible, and it was obviously going to be a really tough job taking over a school that had been on probation for 12 years. It was also kind of a make-or-break situation for her. If she wasn't able to elevate those test scores during the year that we were following her, the school was going to face closure. So that's how we selected Tresa.

The Principal Story: Directors Tod Lending (l.) and David Mrazek with principal of the Henry H. Nash Elementary School, Tresa Dunbar (center)

Directors Tod Lending (l.) and David Mrazek with principal of the Henry H. Nash Elementary School, Tresa Dunbar (center)

Kerry Purcell was recommended to us by the former superintendent of the Springfield, Ill. area schools. Kerry offered an interesting contrast to Tresa, because Kerry was a veteran who was in her sixth year as principal. She had taken over a school similar to Tresa's. When she had taken over six years earlier, the test scores were in the gutter, as she says in the film. Over that six-year period, Kerry brought the school up, so that by the time we met her, her school had met the AYP (annual yearly progress), which is a standard set by the state. Her school was also on the Illinois honor roll. Kerry had made incredible strides in changing that school and turning it around. She also had what Tresa had — passion and commitment. Kerry worked incredibly long hours to keep that school going. Despite improvements in the school, the job wasn't finished when we met Kerry. The level of the school was something that had to be maintained. Kerry was a data hound. She had charts up throughout the school. She got kids involved in monitoring the progress of their classrooms and monitoring their own progress. We had never seen anything like her use of data: You'd walk down the hall and you'd see a first-grader checking on a chart to see how his or her classroom was doing in math, or how it was doing in English. That was incredible!

POV: Based on your experiences and observations from The Principal Story, what does it take to be an effective leader in today's public school system?

David Mrazek: It takes so many skills. You've got to be a visionary. You have to be able to articulate a vision and bring people on board. You have to be a team builder and a team leader, but you also have to empower your teachers and respect them. You've got to be part social worker, part therapist. You've got to be a politician working a central office. You've got to be able to manage a budget. You've got to be able to deal with irate parents. You've got to do so many things and every day you have to do something different. It takes an extraordinary person.

Lending: To be an effective leader in a public school today, especially in one where the vast majority of students are low-income and are coming to school with all kinds of issues, I'd say the most important thing is that you have to have incredible heart. You have to have incredible passion, because you are going to be tested every single day. You might be tested by a student whose parent was just thrown into prison, or was just picked up on drug charges, or by a parent who comes in irate because his or her kid didn't make it to school. You might also be tested by teachers who are starting to buckle under the pressure and need help themselves. Or, because some of the buildings are so old, there may be pipes bursting in the school building. So, first and foremost, you have to have heart and you have to have passion. You have to have the skill set to deal with all the things that might happen. You have to be able to relate to a lot of different people on a lot of different levels — so you have to be a great communicator.

You have to be able to embrace data, because that is what the states are demanding. They want measurements; they want to know how your school is doing in terms of testing; they want to know about the percentages of this group and that group. You also have to be able to deal with budgets. You have to be good with money. You have to be good at dealing with paperwork. You have to be good at dealing with the unions. If you have a teacher who's not working out, you have to have a system in place to try to support that teacher and give that teacher the best chance possible. And then, at a certain point you may have to pull the plug on that teacher, and you have to decide when it is the right time to do that.

So a principal has to be a jack-of-all-trades. A principal has to have a remarkable skill set in order to be an effective leader.

POV: It's a big risk to open yourself up and allow your career to be filmed and shown to an audience. How did you convince Tresa and Kerry to participate in the film?

Mrazek: Both Tresa and Kerry were aware that the average American has no idea what it takes to be the principal of a public school, and especially what it takes to deal with the challenges of a public school with a low-income student population. So when we told them that we wanted to bring this story to both the general public and policymakers, to get them all to see some of the issues and challenges principals face, they agreed to participate. They want people to know what it's really like to be a principal and to realize the importance of good training for principals and overall leadership in the schools.

POV: Kerry and Tresa both have very close relationships with their students. Can you tell us more about their approach to students?

Lending: Both Kerry and Tresa have very maternal relationships with their kids. It was interesting for me to think about how things might have been different if these principals were men. Because I can tell you, as women they were able to have a lot of physical contact with their kids. It's something I really noticed and I thought, if this were a male principal, there's no way he would be putting this kid on his lap, or hugging any of the girls. But as women, Kerry and Tresa were able to rely on maternal instinct and, literally and figuratively, embrace the kids. They were very good at tending to the social and emotional needs of their kids. They were also very good at having boundaries. As close as they got to the kids, they were also very good at saying, "Now it's time to get back to work. How are you doing with your grades, and how are you doing with your work?" They focused their mothering skills on making the kids productive. So it was very interesting to see how they worked with the kids.

POV: Can you talk more about the political landscape that these teachers are navigating? Do you see that changing under the Obama administration?

The Principal Story: Directors Tod Lending (l.) and David Mrazek

Directors Tod Lending (l.) and David Mrazek

Mrazek: I think it's definitely changing with this administration. When we started this film, there was one administration (the Bush administration), and when we finished it, there was a whole new administration (the Obama administration). The superintendent of the Chicago public schools, Arne Duncan, whom we interviewed, is now the secretary of education. He's seen first hand what it takes to get effective principals in the schools.

So we feel optimistic about the current administration: The people in this administration get what needs to be done. But it's still such a challenge, and every school district is different. Each city and each district has particular challenges, but more effective principals can definitely make a difference.

Lending: In terms of the political landscape that the principals have to navigate, we didn't focus our camera on the issues of No Child Left Behind. We really were staying focused on what it takes to lead, what qualities effective leaders have and what hurdles principals face. Certainly, No Child Left Behind is one of the big issues that principals face in terms of getting their kids geared up for standardized testing, and it affects whether they keep their schools open. If they don't make a certain amount of progress every year, progress that's measured through standardized testing, their schools face cutbacks in funding, or closure.

So No Child Left Behind was definitely part of the ongoing pressure bearing down on the principals. The biggest amount of pressure came from the fact that no one wants to teach to the test; they want to do individualized teaching. You want to give attention to students and teach them in a language and in a way that will make it possible for them to learn and absorb the information. And yet at the same time they have to meet these marks. So there was a Catch-22 in those terms. How do we individuate learning so that we address the individual needs of students who learn differently? We don't all learn the same way — all educators know that — and yet at the same time, we have to have some measurements. So testing is an ongoing pressure.

Another piece of the political landscape is the relationship between a principal and central office. This was something that was interesting to us, and we were hoping to capture very positive relationships between the principals and the central office, where the principals were getting support. Well, to be honest, that was a troubled area for our principals. We did not really see a very positive relationship between central office and the principals. There was a disconnect between the central office and what was going on in the trenches. I hope that policymakers and superintendents who see this film will really think about how to build better relationships with principals and how to support principals.

POV: What compelled you to tackle this subject?

Lending: The Wallace Foundation put out a request for proposals and sent it out to 16 filmmakers across the country. We submitted a proposal, and we were fortunate enough to win this project. The topic is something that David and I were extremely interested in.

For me, this was a natural development. I've done films that followed families and films that looked at issues of welfare and public housing, issues of addiction and issues of incarceration. So for this film I went into schools in low-income communities to see what happens to the kids. It made me look at the challenges of educating kids from broken families, dysfunctional families and blighted communities. And for me, it was a real eye-opener.

POV: Was there a particular mission behind the Wallace Foundation grant in terms of what the foundation wanted to highlight?

Lending: The mission of the grant was to highlight principal leadership. We were assigned to focus specifically on the principal and to look at what it takes to make a good leader. We purposely went out to look for principals who were doing a good job, or seemed to be on the right track to doing a good job, who were well trained, who saw being instructional leaders as part of their job, who saw using data as part of their job. So we had specific things to look for, and we focused on that.

Mrazek: It's been an interesting journey with the Wallace Foundation, because this was not a typical film born out of the passion of the filmmakers. This was a funded project that had an agenda: to show the importance of principal leadership and the importance of training. So there was kind of a balancing act in the filming process. First and foremost we wanted to tell a good story and capture the reality of what it is to be a principal. But the Wallace Foundation also had reasons for funding it. Fortunately, just through the act of following up on our own goal of telling a good story, we brought to light good instructional leadership, as well as team building and empowering teachers.

There's a really ambitious outreach project partnered with this film. There are grants being given to public television stations to have town meetings around screenings of the film, to bring local education officials and principals and teachers together to talk about local issues. And there were separate, shorter videos produced about different programs around the country funded by the Wallace Foundation that have shown some effectiveness.

POV: What are some of the lessons about making the educational system better that we can learn from this film?

Lending: One of the most important things we can gain from watching this story is to gain an appreciation for what being a principal is all about. I would hope that if people gain an appreciation for that, there will be more public support for educational funding and more funding going into schools that are dealing with low-income students and low-income communities. I hope people can get a much better sense of why it's so hard to educate kids who come from broken homes in blighted communities – it's a tough job.

If we were to recognize what a tough job it is to educate the members of a large population in our country who are growing up in very tough situations and we were to decide that we need to invest in that population in its early stages, through elementary schools, then that would be significant. If there's any lesson to be learned, it's that if we really want to change our society and we want to have fewer people going to prison, if we want to have fewer people who are drug addicted, fewer people who are unemployed, fewer people who are disenfranchised, we've got to invest in our schools.