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Column: Managing and Leading Schools: Finding the Right Blend for Principals

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I sat in the back of a second-grade classroom, watching students being offered a choice.

They could respond in two different ways to a text that the whole class had read — a folktale depicting a family’s annual tradition from another culture. Students could write a review of the story or create a how-to essay about an activity they are familiar with. Because the students’ choices were authentic, when they embarked on their writing, every one of them was engaged.

As the school’s principal, I regularly conduct formal observations like these. No matter how good the instruction is, I always try to look for possibilities for professional growth.

In this situation, one literacy choice stood out for its quality and meaningfulness: students could describe in writing their own family traditions. This activity was rife with possibilities. What if the teacher modeled for students the steps for successful memoir writing? Could she demonstrate with a personal family tradition of her own? How might this reading–writing experience connect with social studies and maybe even a deeper study into family traditions from around the world?

During this session, I briefly stopped documenting evidence of instruction and instead started jotting down these ideas and questions on a pad of paper. There was no reason to put this information in the teacher’s observation; I didn’t intend to make these recommendations without an initial conversation about how the teacher thought the lesson went. Our follow-up discussion would take place later that day. The formal observation became the impetus for a conversation about embedding better literacy practices throughout the school day.

This example conveys how important it is that principals have the necessary time, knowledge, and experiences to be the instructional leaders in their schools. It doesn’t happen by accident.

Ensuring that the principal is a constant, effective presence in school demands three essential strategies: identifying school priorities, making classroom visits a habit, and using these visits to guide future professional learning.

Management should not be separate from instructional leadership. They are inseparable and support one another.

The Truth Behind #NoOfficeDays

Old-school thinking when it came to building leadership was clear One could tick off a principal’s duties with the ABCs: attendance, behavior, classroom observations, discipline, evaluation of staff, etc.  Recently, these managerial tasks have been somewhat rejected by school leaders.

Principals are engaging in “no office days”, as evidenced by tweets of their experiences with the hashtag #noofficeday. Sometimes they will shadow a student for a day to gain a learner’s experience. Principals have even become a teacher for the day, giving one of their staff members the day to grade papers and plan for future instruction.

These efforts by building leaders to be more present and visible in their schools are admirable. I’ve tried it myself, participating in a day of independent reading to promote literacy. The reality, however, is that principals don’t get subs.

Unless a building administrator has an assistant principal, there is no one qualified to fill in for us. The less spectacular tasks that are relegated to the office will still be there when we get back. Staff are left covering for us. Making #noofficedays a habit could breed resentment with one group while we try to be more present for another.

I suggest a better approach for being an instructional leader in our schools while still addressing the day-to-day managerial tasks: Find the right blend. This means understanding the context of our school and what needs to get done on the office end, so we are a more consistent presence in the classrooms and on building grounds.

Every school has a unique mix of class size, diversity, climate, needs, and strengths. With this information, we can align our work with a few priorities. Finding the right blend also means scheduling our days so classroom visits are habit instead of an event. A smart integration of management and leadership duties can lead to improved teaching and learning. The following strategies can be applied to any school context.

1. Develop a Priority Plan

We can only focus on a few goals at any one time and still be successful as school leaders. In my school, I am new to the position. That means that building trust is a priority. I’ve done a lot of listening. I’ve asked staff about their thoughts and needs, and ensured I am visible throughout the school day. Our other priority is literacy, specifically around reading comprehension and fluency. The data was clear in this area. Our leadership team has responded with facilitating monthly professional development around authentic reading and writing experiences.

The idea of aligning our actions with our priorities into a plan comes from The Together Leader by Maia Heyck-Merlin. She defines a priority plan as, “a three-month extraction from your yearly goals that names what matters most for you and your team.” I look at my priority plan regularly as I prepare for upcoming work.

Having our priorities laid out and aligned with our goals and objectives accomplishes two things. First, the faculty are clear about what we will support regarding professional development opportunities and teaching resources. Second, it is easier to say no to requests that aren’t aligned with our priorities. It’s not a subjective or personal decision, but based on a clear rationale.

For example, I was recently asked why STEM is not a focus. The response: “It seems like that’s all education talks about.” I listened and then asked this person how literacy might support the STEM areas. We ended up agreeing that if students wanted to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, they had to be literate.

2. Make Classroom Visits a Habit

To ensure a school’s priorities are put into practice, school leaders must make classroom visits a habit. If we are successful in redistributing nonessential tasks to other personnel, this can happen every day. I put classroom visits on my calendar, which is shared with my assistant. The minimum is one hour per day, getting into every classroom for at least a brief time. Staff understand that this is protected time. Any interruptions should be an emergency. (I’ve learned that the term “emergency” also requires conversation to develop a common understanding.)

Being visible in the classrooms daily serves our dual priorities of building trust and increasing effective literacy instruction. To build trust, I make sure my visits are focused on teachers’ strengths, and that I let teachers know what I am noticing. The feedback can be given verbally or in writing. I ordered a stack of professional notepads with my name and school information. I will write down what I notice is going well and leave the note in the teacher’s classroom or mailbox. In addition, I will name the effective practice using common language we have learned together during our literacy-based professional development program.

Trust relies on open communication. This goes for the parents and community as well as the teachers and students. That is why I also use Twitter to post the excellent work happening in classrooms. My school tweets usually consist of a brief description, at least one image of the learning in action, and the hashtag #PointerNation so it shows up on our district’s social media feeds. Using the same process of noticing and naming, I can now recognize and celebrate teaching and learning around literacy in an open forum. An additional benefit is all this information can be archived digitally to document and organize artifacts for our professional evaluation systems.

3. Use Instructional Walks to Reinforce Professional Learning

As trust increases and literacy instruction improves, windows open in which I can start offering feedback about teacher instruction. During my regular classroom visits, I will sometimes sit in for a longer period to write a narrative of what is currently happening. It is noticing what is happening and then naming the practice. These one-page write-ups are referred to as “instructional walks,” in which “the principal notices what’s going well in the classroom—environment, management, engagement, level of student independence, lesson content, grouping arrangements, quality of student work,” writes Regie Routman.  Like the brief notes, the goal is to build on teachers’ strengths and create a relationship in which they are open to future guidance.

Because my walks are habit, I can address our collective instruction instead of conferencing with each teacher individually. The information gleaned from my daily visits is used to inform future professional learning experiences.

What if teachers are not applying the skills learned during professional development into practice? Certainly, I could note this during our formal observations for the state-mandated evaluation system. Yet I find the rubrics and evidence gathering to be limited at best—helpful for teachers in one or more areas, but unnecessary when teachers are already doing well. Formal observations and evaluations can even be detrimental to the daily classroom visit process. Trust can deteriorate when there is too much of a focus on ratings and rubrics. Also, evaluation systems are time-intensive. They used to monopolize my days, which is why I now do the bare minimum in this area.

Instead, as much as I can, I am a learner with staff and students. One way is by asking lots of questions. Whether during an instructional walk or formal observation, I will make inquiries about why teachers are doing what they are doing. For example, instead of leaving a vague, summative statement, such as “This was an effective activity, because…,” I might ask “What about this activity do you feel had the greatest impact on student learning?” Whether the learning experience was excellent or otherwise, the responsibility is now on the teacher to self-assess their instruction. Follow-up probes, such as “Why do you believe that? ,” guide teachers to cite evidence from their lessons to support their rationale.  My wonderings also happen during professional development. Instead of positioning myself as an expert, I might question a belief or a statement as if I were also teaching.

Management and Leadership are Not Mutually Exclusive

During the post-observation conversation with the 2nd grade teacher, I started by asking a series of questions, starting with “How do you think the lesson went?” and “Why do you think that?” Once we affirmed that the lesson was a success, I started to probe with wonderings to unpack what was possible for the future. “Of all the choices, which literacy activity might lead to future learning?” was the inquiry that led to a professional conversation about expanding on the family traditions writing activity. The teacher suggested a personal family tradition that she could use for a writing demonstration. I held off recommending that she tie in social studies with a deeper understanding of the concept of traditions. Knowing that my priorities were in place, that my classroom visits were a habit, and that I had a team to guide faculty in professional learning, I knew that I would have more opportunities in the future.

This is Matt’s seventeenth year in public education. He started as a 5th and 6th grade teacher in a country school outside of Wisconsin Rapids, WI. After seven years of teaching, he served as a dean of students at a junior high, which developed into an assistant principal position and eventually head principal at an elementary school. Now as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District, Matt enjoys the curriculum, instruction and assessment side of education. You can also connect with Matt on Twitter at @ReadByExample and on his website at mattrenwick.com.