It happens to every superintendent. A regularly scheduled, monthly meeting with administrative staff, including building principals, takes place, and most of the time is spent addressing administrative details and minutiae. I cover my list of items, as do the others with items to share. On occasion, district-wide goals and objectives might be discussed. Colleagues take notes, share a few comments and nod in agreement before heading back to their offices.
A month later, when we next gather, I realize not much has changed. I thought the message was perfectly clear. So what happened?
John C. Walker
A Shared Experience
Shortly after I became superintendent of Amherst County Public Schools in central Virginia, my colleagues and I concluded that making sure school leaders receive the same message, adopt the appropriate focus and follow through effectively would require sustained communication on priority issues.
To that end, we established the principal’s checklist to provide multiple opportunities to communicate districtwide priorities. We wanted the principal’s checklist to improve communication, bring focus to professional development for administrators and increase accountability.
The checklist began to take form at the administrative staff and principals meeting last spring, where we determined professional development needs for the upcoming year. Next, a schedule of meeting dates and topics for monthly administrators’ meetings was disseminated in July for the upcoming year for planning and scheduling purposes.
Each administrative meeting was devoted solely to professional development tied to our mission, vision and goals. We discarded the mind-numbing practice of multiple individuals presenting their lists of agenda items. Instead, to address administrative issues, e-mails pertaining to such routine matters were sent whenever appropriate, allowing for matters to be addressed in a more timely fashion. Suggestions and clarifications were sent to the administrator of the original question with the answer copied to all administrators.
Now administrator meetings were focused on professional development linked to mutually developed priorities. At the conclusion of each meeting, I would handle the minutes and share them electronically within a week with all stakeholders: school board members and advisory groups. This approach fostered openness and transparency among all of our constituents.
Within two weeks of the administrators’ meeting, I would designate the individual responsible for preparing a list of questions related to the topic of the next meeting. I did this based on which colleague had the greatest expertise on the particular topic.
Some examples of questions are
• What are the implications of the topic, and how will you use the information at your school?
• What resources do you need to implement the strategies from the meeting?
• What ideas do you have for implementing the strategies shared?
Often a question or two from a prior meeting is included to further monitor and stress the importance of previous professional development.
The principals were assigned to prepare answers and to discuss the subject during the checklist meeting.
About two weeks after distributing the questions, teams of central-office administrators went to assigned schools to discuss the questions and answers. This allowed us to clarify questions, increase the presence of central-office staff in buildings they might not visit routinely and gather feedback to share with all our administrators. Additionally, these meetings were an opportunity for the principals to offer suggestions, ask questions and share concerns they wanted addressed that were not related to the professional development topic.
One representative from each visiting team was assigned the task of being the recorder, and following the school visits, I would meet with the recorders to compile and distribute answers to questions, suggestions and any pertinent information. This helped clarify matters and keep the professional development efforts at the forefront and applicable to each school.
Checklist in Action
An administrators’ meeting in November focused on supervision and evaluation of teachers and their classroom instruction. The principal’s checklist questions supported the professional development and required reviewing the completed teacher observations with examples of effective teachers and teachers in need of improvement.
Additionally, we examined the evaluations to identify specific written language and to ensure language was not contradictory in the written evaluations. Also, principals were asked to identify teachers with areas of strength and to discuss how they were using those teachers to assist colleagues in need of support.
At the end of the first semester, the January administrators’ meeting and the principal’s checklist focused on addressing best practices to prepare students for the Standards of Learning assessments, Virginia’s annual assessments for accountability. We focused professional development and discussion on the use of pacing, curriculum and framework guides, teacher-made and division benchmark assessments, and data analysis.
Colleagues viewed the principals’ checklist process as an effective way to prevent professional development from being a “one-and-done” affair. While communication is never perfect, the checklist helped lessen what Paul Newman’s character heard uttered by the captain of the prison guards, the widely remembered line from “Cool Hand Luke”: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate!”
John Walker, a former superintendent, is an associate professor of educational leadership at Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Va. E-mail: walker.JC@lynchburg.edu