The Principal's Principles

A Middle School Principal, striving to make the world a better place, one day at a time.

Here’s a question

For the first time in a long time, I’m starting the school year in a new place. In a new office, in a new school, in a new district. 

One of my mentors, Dan Hickey, writes “begin planning your opening staff meeting. Do not be last minute on this. Teachers have to prepare at a minimum 15 lessons a week. This is your one lesson and it needs to be done well. This is urgent, get to work!”

He’s spot on. It’s the first day of school, with a room full of professionals, all ready to get to work and all with a list of tasks to complete. I feel an added pressure for this to go well this year, I’m brand new. 

Before I get to the question, two details. 

– I’m working hard this month to meet everyone, my goal is to already know who people are before the first staff meeting. 

– I don’t like long meetings, and neither do teachers. This goal is a meeting that will be less than an hour – meaning some details will be sent to staff before the meeting so they can read the beginning of the year information. 

It is with all this information in mind that I turn to you, my fellow educators. 

Teachers, what do you want to hear from your new principal at the opening staff meeting?

Principals, what did you, or will you say at your opening staff meeting? 

Hey Teachers, let’s talk about evaluations

Dear Pernille,

Judging from the website traffic and comments, our last exchange got people talking, which I saw as one of our goals (helping me grow as the other). With that in mind, I’m hoping we can talk about evaluations. 

As a disclaimer, the following paragraph is for context – I know you have a lot of tasks to complete. This isn’t a statement of “my job is harder,” rather just the requirements of my role. Evaluations are hard work. Last year, I was responsible to evaluate 19 teachers, 3 paraprofessionals, 2 secretaries, 1 counselor and our Assistant Principal. Each requires meetings, documents and timelines. Evaluations don’t happen in a vacuum, I am doing other work while these need to be completed. In every case, I strive to be authentic and make the process meaningful. I want to generate some self-reflection and help people grow as professionals through the evaluation process, which I value. 

This isn’t about state education policies, it’s about a process for me as a principal to help you grow as a teacher and identify areas where you need support that I can help to identify and provide. 

With that in mind, I turn to you as we try to close the gap. Realizing that evaluations are a lot of effort for both of us, what do you want, as a teacher from this process? 

Is evaluations “just one more thing?” 

How often do you want to see me in your classroom?

Looking forward to continuing the conversation, together we’re better. 

Your thought partner,

John

My role is to…

I’ve struggled to find the words. In my recent exchanges on Twitter and through comments left for me here, I’ve  been reflecting a lot on how to properly articulate what I see as my role as an administrator in schools when it comes to working with teachers. I made a clear statement “our jobs are different,” a week ago, but I neglected to make clear what my role is. 

Dan Hickey, the dean of school leadership in our area, calls on administrators to “support, coach and supervise.” He’s right, we need to play all three roles. 

This morning, a video I watched as part of the NASSP/McKinney Group Principal Development program that I am fortunate to participate in this summer also provided clarity. Darren Brehm, from Kraft Foods, made the statement “I am here to be a thought partner, to break down barriers, and to get you what you need. I am not here to give you tactical support on how to do the work on your desk.” 

My role is not to plan, provide instruction, create tasks for learners and to provide feedback to students on their progress. Teachers are professionals, and I need to respect their role and allow them  to do the job they were hired to do. My role is to provide the time, space, resources and opportunity for our staff to do their best work. 

Serving as a “thought partner” to our teachers shapes how evaluations look, what classroom feedback sounds like, and gives  me a clarity on my “why.” 

You can come back from a bad decision, but a bad process….

In an era of reductions in our profession, we’ve seen a number of difficult decisions that must be made that often erode programs that people are passionate about. Repurposing or closing schools, staffing reductions, teacher schedules requiring multiple content areas or preps are all examples of scenarios that all agree are not optimal, but are a product of challenging financial times. 

In these moments, process matters more than ever. Being clear, communicating effectively and operating with intentional inclusivity are critical. As a leader, you can listen and take input, even when the final decision rests in your hands. 

Remember “often, trust arrives on foot and leaves on horseback.” Focusing on process won’t make a painful decision “feel good,” but it will allow you as a leader to maintain trust. Ignoring the process and acting arbitrarily will erode relationships and undermine your effectiveness. 

A Role Reversal

The post I wrote as a companion piece to the work of teacher extraordinaire Pernille Ripp on closing the gap between administators and teachers yesterday was still on my mind this morning when I picked up my newspaper. I saw something in the sports section that may hold promise for some tangible next steps. 

The NBA is in the midst of summer league play. It’s commonplace for the head coach of the team to attend and watch the prospects that are playing, but, the teams are coached by assistant coaches, many who have no head coaching experience. For these coaches, it’s the chance to grow and learn what it means to be the head coach of an NBA team. 

Where are there programs in our schools where teacher leaders can step out and serve as administrators? Are there programs, that do not totally disrupt summer vacations, where teachers can take on roles to see what it’s like to be an administrator, while still retaining their role as classroom teachers? How can we appeal to a wide variety of teachers, beyond those with administrative ambitions AND, where can principals pick up some responsibilities from these teachers leading the program to create the time? 

There’s potential here to not only develop leaders but also to close a gap and help our groups understand one another better. 

If you’re interested, here’s the article from this morning’s paper. 

Dear Teachers, Can We Tear Down the Great Divide?

Dear Pernille,

I saw your post and it made me pause and do some real thinking. I know you are a strong, respected professional who can represent the teacher viewpoint on the issue. Here’s hoping I can speak for administrators here in our corner of the Internet. 

I can still recall the moment and feeling I had when one of the very best in your field, upon telling me she did not agree with a decision I made, looked at me and in anger said “you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a teacher.” To some degree, she was right. While I have taught before, I didn’t know what it was like to work with her students and the mandates she faced that year. 

To some degree, I’d say “you don’t know what it’s like to sit in my chair.” It was a major change when I moved from being a teacher to being an administrator; truly, it was getting a new job. It was my first year of teaching all over again, in front of professionals with expectations of me, some who knew me as a peer a year before. 

A gap exists. It’s there because we have very different jobs. We work in the same place, our goal is the same, but our roles are different. What’s needed (in my view) is an environment where we presume positive intent, which requires a lot of trust. 

“Support” is a two way street. You need me as your administrator to support you and your work. I need the same from you. Each time something is reported to me about a teacher, I cannot rush to judgement and I must remember that there is more than one perspective. I need to trust the teacher, as a professional, and hear what they have to say on the matter. The challenge for you in supporting me lies in the fact that sometimes, I can’t always talk about my side of the issue and the “other perspective” belongs to one of your colleagues. 

Part of the solution requires blind faith. Part of the solution requires more transparency from both of us on our challenges. We both can do a better job of saying “I trust you,” “I respect you,” and “we disagree, but we’re both professionals who want the best for students.” Part calls for some tangible action, like me dealing with some mandates or you sitting in on that tough parent meeting about one of your colleagues. 

I hope we can keep talking. Together we’re better. 

Let’s close the gap,

John

#ISTE2015 attendees, principals need you

Inspired by the sessions I have attended, the teachers I have spoken with, and a post by my friend Pernille Ripp calling on me not to give up on “those” teachers, I sit down to write today with two purposes.

To open, as a principal, I want to foster an environment where professionals feel valued and can grow their skills. I want to eliminate roadblocks so that everyone has the opportunity to do their best work. We work in a system where the state and federal government pass along mandates for our schools. As a principal, I have to ensure we comply with these policies to keep our doors open. I know there is far more to our work than standardized scores and procedures to take attendance. My role requires me to strike a balance, ensuring we follow the law, but also that we have a place where you can be creative and do purposeful work you find engaging.

The above paragraph doesn’t make me special, my views as a principal are common. As administrators, we don’t get up in the morning thinking “how can I stifle my students and staff.” We don’t want you to be frustrated. Sometimes there’s a shortage of resources. Sometimes we’re just not clear on what you’d like to do.

This transitions well into my second point, and that is really more a question than a statement. As I have reflected on the sessions and conversations I have been having, I find myself wondering “what do you want from me?” I wish there were an open forum where teachers could simply speak their minds, giving a national perspective on what teachers, who are doing incredible work, want to see from their administrators. Send me a tweet, respond here, or say something when you pass me on the way to a session.

As a principal, here’s what we need from you. If you feel supported, tell us you feel supported. If you are frustrated but understand, tell us you are frustrated but understand. If we clearly don’t understand your vision of where you want to go, help us understand. Don’t assume that others are telling us we’re doing well, or that we need to do something differently. Speak up!

What we measure, gets better

I’m a big believer in the adage “what we measure, gets better.” Demand for analyzed data is a call for accountability, a demand for metrics, and a statement about your values.

With this in mind, I offer the follow up statement “if what we measure gets better, we had better measure the right things.”

  • Do we measure if a learning target is posted, or if the learners in a classroom know what the learning target is?
  • Do we measure if assignments are turned in, or if our assessments truly measure learning?
  • Do we use our data to inform instruction, or simply to say “we have data” for evaluation purposes?

The difference in outcomes of these and similar questions is critical. If what we measure gets better, we had better measure the right things.

A Letter to @SHendersonFreep on some Ed. Policy

Dear Mr. Henderson,

Before I get to the heart of the matter, I want to open by saying that I’m a big fan of your work. I’m a daily reader of the Detroit Free Press editorial page, I listen to Detroit Today on WDET, and I watch both of your shows on PBS (American Black Journal and MiWeek). What I like most about your work is your willingness to talk about all sectors of education (public schools, charter schools, home schooling). Don’t get me wrong, I like the other topics you take on, but, my profession makes me most interested in the way you grow the conversation around education.

In recent weeks, you’ve talked with legislators and people who report on education. The goal of my letter is to offer some thoughts I have on what many of the pieces you write come back to, literacy. Literacy is critical for college and career readiness. At the secondary and post-secondary level, I’d argue that most classes are simply reading classes. My experience tells me that there are some things that good schools (ours included) are doing that should be considered by policy makers.

1. Pick a measure and stick with it.

Simply put, state tests are in a state of transition, and it will take time for proper piloting to determine how effective the new M-STEP measures student reading progress. There are standardized choices, such as NWEA, iReady, DRA, DIBELS, Fountas & Pinnell, among others. While there are cases to be made for any of them, districts should pick one to use to measure reading fluency (the ability to read with speed, accuracy and proper expression) and reading comprehension (the ability to read a text, process it, and understand the meaning). This should be measured 3 times per year in the fall, winter and spring.

2. Move from “data” to “information.” 

Education is famous for data collection and measurement. We’re not as known for using the data properly. Educators need to spend time in the fall, winter and spring analyzing the data collected by the universal measures mentioned above. This analysis should identify what interventions/remediation is needed and who it is needed for. Keep in mind that interventions are needed for struggling students, as well as those who have test scores far above the target.

3. Require reading.

The only way to improve reading skills is to read. Beyond instruction on phonics, talking about text, or analyzing someone’s approach to books, the act of simply sitting down and reading for a stretch of time will have a positive impact on a student’s ability. During reading units in English Language Arts classes at our middle school, students have 24 minutes to read a day. Elementary students in our district read every day. District policies can, and should require time for students to read.

4. Provide ongoing professional development to teachers and principals.

Teachers need training on the reading assessments selected by districts, as well as on reading instruction. Principals need training on what kinds of questions to ask teachers about reading instruction, and how to offer specific encouragement to teachers around literacy. Another key idea here is what to do with new staff. As new teachers and new principals are hired, training on reading measures, as well as reading instruction must be offered.

5. Make the measures stick.

State law requires educator evaluations to have a student growth component. These standardized reading measures can and should be part of teacher and administrator evaluations. Accountability will make sure the assessments are given with fidelity, and that students are given the proper time to practice reading.

6. Educate parents and community.

Whatever the measure a community chooses for reading, that information should be shared in a user friendly way with parents and with the local library. Uniting all stakeholders with a common vocabulary around reading will empower everyone involved in a child’s education to ensure he/she can read successfully.

In the growing conversation about education in the media, many are calling for “literacy,” but few offer specifics on what schools can do and what stakeholders should be asking for. Here’s hoping the above points can be part of the next wave of thoughts on the nuts and bolts of “what can be done.”

I remain a reader, listener and fan of your work,

John

What’s so special about an Edcamp?

I attended EdcampLO last Saturday, along with about 50 other educators. While I was there, I noted a few things that were special, and are not often seen at traditional conferences. A few examples:

  • There is an energy in the room moments before an Edcamp begins. It’s early on a Saturday, and there’s a buzz in the room about the ideas and upcoming collaboration.
  • The absence of a keynote allows the energy in the room to transfer immediately to sessions based on the interests of those in attendance. 
  • Some sessions and topics are proposed because a participant is looking for an answer, not because “they are an expert.”
  • After the first session on Saturday, a group came into the hallway and asked for some space they could use because “they weren’t done with their conversation.”
  • Almost everyone participates. While someone facilitates and gets the conversation rolling, the absence of formal presentations generates more active engagement.
  • Many stay until the end of the day and the last session of the day sometimes “plays overtime.” That doesn’t happen very often.

EdcampLO was a reminder of what Professional Development can, and should, be. Attend these events, and bring a friend. Put ideas into practice and share what you learned (and where you learned it). Building a critical mass will move these evnts from Saturday to Thursday.

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