Principals in Mexico: The Importance of Proactive Leaders with Strong Socioemotional Abilities

Dr. Carmen Celina Torres-Arcadia has a PhD. in Educational Innovation and a master degree in Information Technology Management. She has been the coordinator of the Research Network on Educational Management (RIGE being its acronym in Spanish) and the Mexico coordinator of the ISSPP (International Successful School Principalship Project) since 2009. She is a member of the Mexican Council for Educational Research (COMIE) and conducts research on educational management and leadership. She is currently a Research Professor in the Leadership and Management Department at Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico.

My path to a career in educational leadership research had a few twists and turns at the beginning. I studied my Bachelor’s degree in Information Systems and then decided to pursue a Master’s in Information Systems Management at the Tecnológico de Monterrey where I began to work with Dr. Carlos Scheel on research about curricular economies and industrial clusters. At the time, almost twenty years ago, he was a pioneer on these innovative topics. Through this work, I discovered that I was very interested in information systems, but I thought it was necessary to connect it with other areas, and I was drawn to business strategy. After my Master’s program, I started to work at the Center for Strategic Studies as a consultant on strategic planning projects for municipal, state and federal governments in Mexico, Central America, and South America. I found this work fascinating, however, I realized that strategic planning was not sufficient to achieve the desired results and that education was key to create change within a society.

From this experience, I was inspired to return to school to pursue a Ph.D. in Education Innovation in order to understand the connection between education and development. During my doctoral studies, I had the fortune to meet researchers who inspired me, such as Dr. Eduardo Flores-Kastanis (R.I.P.) at the Tec de Monterrey and Dr. Christopher Day at the University of Nottingham. They invited me to become involved with the International Successful School Principals Project (ISSPP), and soon after, I started coordinating the project in Mexico. This research documents how school principals serve as an important force for change within schools. I have been inspired to continue researching educational leadership since, specifically leadership for social justice and the creation of ethical schools.

A 2017 Meeting of ISSP in Puerto Rico

Through this project, we were able to compare the cases of successful principals in Mexico with principals around the world (here are some of our Publications). We used three criteria to identify successful schools: student performance, schools where the principal held the position for at least 5 years, and where principals have been recognized by the community and peers as positive leaders for change. Through our research, we found many similarities among successful principals from different countries, such as the common interest in supporting the wellbeing of students above academic performance. Depending on the culture, some principals felt it was necessary to increase the involvement of families or other members of the communities. As part of the project, I worked to create a digital database that documented best practices across Latin America. 

We have also been curious why some principals have worked very hard but have been unable to make changes in their schools. After additional analysis, our research identified that school principals’ socioemotional abilities are key in creating more just schools. We created and tested a model that broke down the components of socioemotional abilities. Principals must be capable of identifying situations of injustice, communicating about the situations, and coming up with solutions to resolve them. One example we found of this leadership was in a rural secondary school where children attend school in the afternoons because they work with their families in the field in the mornings. These children often stop attending school or attend infrequently during the seasons where work in the field is more intense, which means that it takes them longer to finish their studies. The principal of the school supported the students by accepting them past the age limit for secondary school in order to ensure their educational completion, instead of applying the educational policy as it was laid out in the books. Right now, Sergio Nava, a Ph.D. student in Educational Innovation at the Tec de Monterrey, will be continuing this work in 3 to 5 public schools at the basic level (K-8) in the south of Mexico to identify additional examples.

Compared with principals in other countries we have studied, Mexican principals demonstrated key differences related to culture and the schools’ conditions. First of all, successful principals in Mexico are proactive in searching for opportunities to improve their school. They do not expect that someone else in the system will resolve the problems. Most of our principals have very good connections with universities, consulates, and other government entities, and they are always on the lookout to find resources that compensate the school’s disadvantages. Based on these cases, I edited a book, School Principals in Mexico: Cases of Leadership Success with Norma Guadalupe Pesqueira from Red de Investigación en Gestión Educativa (RIGE) and Elizabeth T. Murakami from the University of North Texas

One challenge that we have continued to see through our research in Mexican schools is that Mexican principals do not receive any specific training to prepare them for this educational leadership role and most of them learn by doing. Typically, the role has been assigned based on seniority. The 2013 educational reform instituted a test for principals, which was at least a first step to creating a training process but insufficient to prepare them for the role. This led young teachers to take the test and become principals, many of whom had not been educators previously. However, the new government that came into office in 2018 undid this reform and seniority is once again the criteria for assigning these roles. Mexico still needs to come up with a way to more systematically train principals for leadership roles and provide them with socioemotional support. That is why right now I am working with principals in Altamira la Campana, a poorer area of Monterrey, as part of an initiative to economically revive that part of the city. One of the goals is to improve education, so I am helping to train preschool, elementary and secondary school principals. Bringing the principals together for training sessions has supported them in working with one another to address shared challenges. 

Mural in Campana

Since the onset of the pandemic in March, public schools in Mexico have remained closed for in-person classes. Principals have been doing all that they can at a distance to support both teachers and students in accessing education at a distance. This has required the principals to have strong socioemotional abilities, be proactive, and come up with creative solutions. While we are uncertain of how long schools will remain closed, understanding principals and their leadership during these times and ensuring appropriate support is critical to ensure educational quality and leadership success.

Thank you Dr. Torres Arcadia for sharing your experiences with us. We look forward to learning more about your work in school leadership in Mexico. To continue to follow her work please visit her google scholar page