Last night I had a dream that I was asked to take a principal’s job, and I was wondering where in the world I should start. In my dream I kept promising myself that I would be highly visible. I would not be confined to my office finishing paperwork, but instead continuously drop in and out of classrooms to actively participate with teachers, interact with students, and make mental notes about what was going on in the school. I think that’s probably pretty good advice. I think leaders should show up — at the buses, at lunch, during class changes, during instruction, and after school to get a realistic sense of what is going on as well as to build trust and relationships, and be engaged when doing so. While doing so, I would listen carefully to students, parents, teachers and staff and ask a lot of questions.
Lyn Sharratt outlines the concepts nicely as Shared Beliefs and Understandings that:
- All students can learn given time and support;
- All teachers can teach given the right assistance (leaders learning alongside in collaborative environment);
- We all have high expectations and offer early and ongoing interventions (all teachers and leaders know how to intervene with all students);
- Leaders and teachers can clearly articulate why they do what they do every day for every student (to anyone who asks – parents, trustees, etc). This means understanding/articulating how Assessment “for” and “as” Learning drives Differentiated Instruction to meet the needs of each student, K-12.
For how that would look on a daily basis, I collected so many great tips from Corwin authors:
- Be sure that learners have a voice in their learning—whether students or adults! Listen deeply; it is the tone and non-verbals that truly shape a conversation. Listening goes beyond the words. When listening, do not be tempted to formulate an immediate response to questions. Just listen and give people time to think and reflect. Engage with the students. Ask them what they are learning and why they are learning it. For context, maybe ask what was learned yesterday and how today is related. I often ask students to explain things and if I find a struggling student, see if I can decipher why. All of this helps with rich and meaningful feedback to teachers regarding methodology and pedagogy.
- Ask lots of open-ended questions of both staff and students: What are your plans for meeting the learning needs of all of your students? How will you know that all of your students have mastered the goals for your social studies unit? In what ways are you helping your students connect science strategies with real-life problem solving skills.
- For students: How did you solve that math problem/What steps did you follow and how else might you solve the problem? What is the most important/exciting/surprising thing you learned so far today (and why)?
- Never underestimate the power of conversation. Instructional leadership is not reserved for observation pre & post-conferences. Conversations about pedagogy should be continuous. Use them as an opportunity to learn, invest in your people, and provoke new ideas. Simple questions can have a lasting impact. “How might we further amplify students’ voices?” How might we connect kids to their world or increase how this leaning experience is relevant to them?” Etc.
- Look through your parent lens: When I visit classrooms, I always think about the experience and how I would respond if my own child were in the class. In other words: is this how I would like my child to learn or is this the experience I want for my child? The lens of perspective is one of whether or not we are meeting customer requirements.
- You get more of what you celebrate. Take time to recognize the small successes every chance you can. People like to know that they are doing what will make a difference with students and appreciate a very simple “Thank You.” School leaders should be cognizant of the needs of their most effective, high-octane teachers as well; being sure to provide ideas and refinements to help them continue to grow. (Our most effective teachers are looking for more than compliments and affirmation…this of course, can be a challenge because they are impressive/inspiring.) We’ve got to be able to support and challenge them to grow as well.
- Be a lifelong learner and reward lifelong learners in your school. Instructional leaders need to stay updated on what is going on in the curriculum in every area that is taught in their particular schools. That means reading in the content areas, attending conferences and workshops with teachers, and keeping an intellectual curiosity about all venues of instruction going on in the school. Teachers want a leader who can converse knowledgeably about what best works for students. It is also easier to “raise the bar” for every teacher (weak and strong) if the leader can speak from a place of genuine understanding of the best practices for that particular area.
- Admit mistakes quickly. The best leaders own their mistakes, pivot, regroup, and move forward quickly with new wisdom. Powerful lessons are learned by making inadvertent mistakes. Leadership is not just a job – it goes beyond that. It is getting people to know how we do things in our school community and creating a culture that is purposeful and task-oriented.
- Trust your teachers! They are highly-educated, dedicated individuals with either a lot of experience or a lot of enthusiasm or both. If they’ve been beaten down or allowed themselves to become stale, work on helping them by asking their opinions, using their expertise in professional learning, having faith in their decisions and building teamwork wherever you can.
- I would add the importance of not going it alone. Take your teams with you- use your in-house experts. There is so much to be gained by investing in your teacher teams and leadership teams. You can’t carry all of the water alone. Connecting people to productive and purposeful teams can multiply the effect and progress at any school.
- Tune up your communication systems. Be clear with communication to all stakeholders especially in the area of feedback. Take time to examine how people get their information and where the gaps may be.
- Modeling effective instruction is essential. There cannot be a disconnect between high-quality classroom instruction and what staff experience during professional development, school assemblies, office communications, etc. For example, we cannot expect teachers to tap into the transformative capabilities of technology without doing the same thing in our leadership roles. School leaders must model current-best-practice, innovation, and learning.
And finally, Debbie Silver noted, “What I would love to see in the future is leaders who fight for teachers to have allotted time unencumbered by student contact to observe one another, give each other clinical feedback, discuss larger ideas, plan together, and work together on professional development (during the school day). Teachers need to be led to become more interactive, more team oriented, and less like ‘islands in the ocean of mediocrity.’”