“The more leaders focus their influence, their learning, and their relationships with teachers on the core business of teaching and learning, the greater their likely influence on student outcomes” (Robinson, 2008, p. 636).
Teachers have the greatest influence on student achievement, yet often are subject to administrator monologues at the beginning of a school year and being “talked at.” A flood of information consisting of school improvement plans, district policies, school logistics, and new initiatives, sometimes created without teacher input, pours into the classroom. Well-intended information to share with teachers, but building administrators should also consider beginning the school year by scheduling a private meeting with each teacher to listen.
A small investment of a principal’s time at the beginning of a school year can reap great benefits. Imagine discovering the following when privately meeting with teachers at the beginning of the year:
- Learning that, in a teacher’s words, her “…spirit was crushed,” when she received a poor score on her formal observation and after more than a decade of teaching, questioned whether she should leave the district and/or the profession.
- That a teacher was not the same person last year as in the past, because she reported, “…I was having troubles at home; I felt alone, and I brought that feeling to school.”
- That there was universal agreement between teachers and their evaluators in regard to areas of instructional improvement. Independently of their evaluator, teachers knew exactly where they needed to improve their practice and wanted to do so.
Why wouldn’t a principal know the heartache her teachers were experiencing professionally or personally? Why wouldn’t a principal know the ideas of individual faculty members? Simple–because the teachers were never asked!
It’s not too late to check-in with teachers. Consider the following 3-step process:
Step 1: The Invite
Announce your intentions at a staff meeting and schedule a meeting via email. People will hear the purpose of the meeting and then read about the intent of the meeting in an email. The two-fold approach strengthens communication. Very few people like to be called to “the principal’s office” without knowing the purpose. Also, be sure to note the duration of the meeting. A suggested time length for the meeting is approximately 15-20 minutes. Sharing the time frame with teachers in advance will help keep a predictable schedule and participants will understand when the meeting comes to a close. An effectively run meeting can yield a lot of information in a very short time.
If applicable, invite the teacher’s evaluator to the check-in. When asking for feedback and listening to an individual’s goals, it is important that the direct supervisor know how she can best support the teacher in addition to the principal. Having the direct supervisor in attendance symbolizes everyone is working together, and it is important the supervisor hears the feedback and individual’s goals to know how to best support the teacher and the principal.
NOTE: Do not schedule the meeting during a teacher’s prep period. It sends the message that prep time is not valued. Try to schedule the meeting during duty periods, data teams, before or after school during contractual time frames, etc… Work within the framework of existing bargaining unit agreements. Not only does it respect preexisting agreements, it’s the right thing to do.
Step 2: The Meeting
Frame The Purpose
Here’s an example of how you might begin the meeting:
“Thank you for meeting with me today. As I mentioned in the staff meeting and in the email invite, there are two focus areas to this meeting. One, for me to understand where you would like to improve instructionally this year in order to increase the effect you have on student achievement in the classroom. Two, to listen to your thoughts on what practices you think, as a school, we should stop, start, or refine. Or, share anything you think I should know…think of the meeting as an ‘open mic.’”
I Mean You No Harm
I also want you to know that our meeting is not part of the evaluation process and that areas you identify to improve will not be used against you. For example, I remember a time when I was in a conference at the end of a school year and my evaluator asked me to share areas where I felt I could improve. I remember pouring my heart out, only to discover later that what I disclosed was used against me on my final evaluation. This is not that type of meeting. The last thing I want to do is stifle collaboration. I want to understand how I can help you and learn from you.”
Principals often feel the need to interject and “say something.” Please limit comments. The best way to lead in this moment is to listen. It is an opportunity to learn how to best support the teacher. If administrators and teachers collectively are focused on student growth, then student achievement will improve.
Step 3: Honor self-disclosure by providing support.
Provide teachers varied opportunities to meet their goals. There is no “one size-fits all” approach. For example, if a teacher shares that she would like to improve her instruction in a specific area, an administrator could offer the following:
- Visit another teacher’s class
- Watch a video of a teacher within the school using the technique
- Read about the technique
- Develop a strategy to increase awareness
Sometimes improvement is not about a lack of knowledge, but awareness. Sometimes teachers know how and what to do pedagogically, they just need a reminder or to be cognizant of how to meet the desired performance expectation. For example, a teacher in one school who struggled with checking for understanding created slides in her PowerPoint and titled them “Checking for Understanding.” The slides served as placeholders for the teacher, a reminder to ask key questions of all students during parts of the lesson. She knew how to check for understanding; she just needed to create a system that reminded her to do so.
Administrators are extremely busy–perhaps this is a reason why most administrators do not meet directly with the teachers they serve. Leaders who believe teachers make a difference and that together they can influence student achievement must demonstrate their belief through actions. My friends and colleagues, Jenni Donohoo and Peter DeWitt, write extensively on the marriage between collective efficacy and collaborative leadership. Donohoo writes in Collective Efficacy: How Educators’ Beliefs Impact Student Learning, “Amazing things happen when a school staff shares the belief that they are able to achieve collaborative goals and overcome challenges to impact student achievement.” Amazing indeed! Professor John Hattie, the author of Visible Learning, who compiled 500,000+ studies on student achievement, ranked collective efficacy at the top of all influences on student achievement. Peter DeWitt, author of Collaborative Leadership: Six Influences That Matter Most, examines the role of administrators in building efficacious environments and underscores the idea that collective efficacy does not happen by chance, but design.
The first step toward collective efficacy is coming together. Checking-in with teachers at the beginning of the year can open doors, literally! One administrator recently reported that a teacher asked her to come to her classroom because the teacher was having trouble with classroom management. “I couldn’t believe it,” said the administrator. “Before the check-in, this teacher rarely spoke to me, never mind invite me into her classroom and disclose that she was struggling and needed help!” A brief meeting was enough to open the door.
DeWitt, Peter. Collaborative leadership: Six influences that matter most. 2016. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Donohoo, Jenni. Collective Efficacy: How Educators’ Beliefs Impact Student Learning. 2017. Print.
Robinson, Viviane, “The impact of leadership on student outcomes: Making sense of the evidence” (2007). https://research.acer.edu.au/research_conference_2007/5