My View

Helping Principals Beat the Clock

BY JOAN McROBBIE 

Let’s talk about time. Under new state and federal policies, most high-need schools we work with at the Community Training and Assistance Center are implementing more rigorous approaches to teacher support and evaluation. School districts are equipping principals with specialized training to conduct classroom observations based on evidence, not gut feelings, using standards-based rubrics, not simplistic checklists.

The idea is to conduct a prescribed number of formal observations and informal walkthroughs every year with the goal of improving instruction. At least twice a year, the observations are coupled with meaty conversations, helping teachers reflect on their practice and get feedback on instructional strategies.

When this process is implemented well, principals are not resistant. “It’s kicked observation up to a whole new level,” enthused one principal, reflecting a common sentiment.

These principals believe the process provides them with exactly what they most want — the tools to be instructional leaders. Suddenly they feel better able to know what’s happening in their classrooms, to support individual teachers, and to create a more focused and effective schoolwide instructional approach.

Threat of Overdosing

Yet there’s a catch. Even the best principals admit that parts of the process tend to fall through the cracks. Usually what slips is the pre- or post-observation conference, despite existing policy. Some simply put it off. They may lack confidence in their instructional coaching skills or fear potential conflict. But such problems are exacerbated by the clock. The larger the school, the greater the time challenge, with the squeeze worst in high schools.

“If only I had time to do it all” is the principals’ refrain. Time-consuming observations are up against an inbox full of tasks. These demands come with the job. And when crises arise, a forfeiture of valuable hours, even days, follows.

Given this, when we look at the new observation process, it’s hard not to see a worthy idea whose execution may doom it. The focus is right: Principals should give top priority to instructional improvement. Getting into classrooms more? Talking about instruction with teachers? All good. But some good things will kill you if you overdose.

So we may need to think about adjusting the dosage before we flatten our best principals. For starters, it seems reasonable to ask about targeting their efforts. Does the principal really need to be a hands-on, one-to-one mentor to every teacher in the building? Rather than being in every classroom some of the time, why not be in some classrooms more of the time?

The goal is to have effective teaching schoolwide. Many teachers already are effective. Some are masterful. These teachers don’t need the same support as those with lower skills. They need the principal to orchestrate ways for teachers to connect with and support each other; ways to share ideas and observe in colleagues’ classrooms; ways for the masters to mentor those aspiring to mastery.

The principal’s time then can be spent where his or her expertise is most needed — with struggling teachers. Student success demands that weak teachers rapidly improve or be counseled out. That responsibility starts with the principal. It may require being in some classrooms daily, requiring lesson demonstrations, giving feedback, providing resources and keeping close track.

Schoolwide Choreography

The principal, in short, becomes a strategic leader. Rather than micromanaging every teacher, he or she choreographs a learning environment that attends to every teacher’s instructional growth needs.

This approach helps avoid burning out good principals. Research suggests that by promoting trust and teamwork, the principal bolsters teacher motivation and sets the stage for a powerful impact on student achievement.

This instructional leadership model requires adjusting current policies on teacher evaluation and support. It means keeping a rigorous observation process, while making the numbers less prescriptive and the principal’s role more flexible. Principals still must be accountable for results. That may require providing additional support and mentoring not only to strengthen principals’ coaching capacity, but also to help them master the skills of orchestration.

What we’ve learned is that success is indeed about instructional leadership, but by a smarter definition. It’s about tapping the know-how of teachers, not just principals. It’s about promoting a focused, collaborative, schoolwide dynamic as the pathway to better student results. It’s about fostering a culture where self-assessment is routine — “How are we doing?” “How am I doing?” — and no one thinks twice before asking for help. And for all these things, it’s about time.

Joan McRobbie is senior associate for national school reform with Boston-based Community Training and Assistance Center. E-mail: jmcrobbie@ctacusa.com. Twitter: @joanmcrobbie