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Response: Principals 'Must be Reflective Daily About the Work'

(This is the first post in a two-part series)


Luke Sumich asked:

We know that quality classroom teaching does not automatically mean teachers will be quality leaders or Principals. What skills do aspiring Principals need to make the successful transition to Principalship?

Schools need principals, and great schools need great principals.  Where do they come from, what skills do they need, and how can they be mentored?

In this post, Catherine Beck, Mark Estrada, Bill Sterrett and Ben Fenton share their suggestions. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Catherine and Ted Appel (a frequent contributor to this column) on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In addition, you might be interested in previous posts here on similar topics at Teacher & Administrator Leadership.

Response From Catherine Beck

Catherine Beck is a veteran educator currently working as Assistant Superintendent for Summit County Schools in Breckenridge, CO. She is the co-author of "Easy and Effective Professional Development," and can be found at Twitter @cathypetreebeck or on her blog, cahterinebeckblog.com:

My husband is a master teacher but he would not make a good principal. He would rather work with children than adults. Excellent teachers do not always transfer to excellent administrators. What is needed to make the transition? Aside from the obvious skills like being effective communicators, resourceful, courageous, inspiring, innovative and creative, I think aspiring principals need to check their egos. This might not be considered a skill, but I do think it is of equal importance in regards to being successful in a principal role. By scaling down the ego a principal can truly engage in a shared leadership model. He/she is open to others' ideas. Giving credit to others improves morale and adds gas to the tank of overtaxed teachers. This, in turn, builds trust thus encouraging your teaching staff to give even more in terms of performance.

Principals need to have been master teachers in order to lead others instructionally with authenticity. This would require a sound understanding of effective instruction in order to recognize and model practices for the staff. Problem solving skills are valuable as often these are called upon within the context of a principal's day.  Principals often have to make tough decisions that not everyone is happy about. This requires courage to stand strong with your convictions as to what is right. Flexibility and the ability to think on the fly are valuable skills that a principal needs. Often schedules change, issues pop up and that well planned day looks completely different than you had anticipated. 

Finally, principals need to feel comfortable with public speaking. Often principals have to lead staff meetings, professional development and school wide assemblies. Principals' jobs are multifaceted and to do it well requires a tapestry of talents.

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Response From Mark Estrada

Mark Estrada is the principal of Lockhart Junior High School in Lockhart, Texas. He has experience as a middle school social studies teacher, middle school instructional administrator, and elementary principal. Mr. Estrada is a class of 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader and Doctoral Fellow at The University of Texas--Austin Cooperative Superintendency Program (CSP). Follow Mark on Twitter @22southpaw:

As the campus instructional leader, being a quality classroom teacher is certainly the first step to becoming an effective principal, but leading a campus requires much more. In my experience, those who are successful in the transition focus on the leadership skills necessary to build a collective mission, vision, and goals for the campus and are able to influence others to work toward the mission. The key to influencing others is having an adaptable approach to leading, addressing both technical and responsive skills.

As a leader, new principals must quickly identify their strengths and growth opportunities and become cognizant about which types of tactics are necessary for any given occasion. Knowing how to lead varied types of people is also critical. I often hear principals say, "I treat all of my staff the same." I understand why they say this, but contest that leadership requires more of us. Just as an effective teacher differentiates, principals must differentiate for our teachers and staff based on adult learning theory and the varied characteristics of the situation. Nothing is more insulting to an accomplished and experienced teacher than being treated as rookie and nothing is more overwhelming for a rookie teacher as being treated as a veteran with little support. Although a part of our job is being responsive and flexible a principal must also plan and be reflective daily about the work.

Below are actionable first steps for planning for success, adapted from School Leadership that Works by Robert Marzano, Timothy Waters, and Brian McNulty.

  • Develop a strong leadership team
    • Leading a school is complex and we have to realize that we cannot do it all! The work requires us to build a quality team that will help complete the complex task of leading a school.
    • Include staff from different departments of the school who are eager to volunteer their time and effort and share a culture of commitment regarding the school.
    • Distribute responsibilities clearly throughout the team
    • Focus on the "right" work and prioritize!

Reflection and a commitment to continuous improvement is what I believe will help most with the transition from the classroom to school leadership. I highly recommend "The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence" by Baruti K. Kafele as a resource for the vital questions needed for self reflection on leading a school. Below are a few sample questions to keep in the forefront as a new principal.

  • Do I aim to be intentional about what I do as a leader?
  • Do I regularly reinforce the notion that my students will succeed specifically because they are enrolled in my school?
  • Do I consistently strive to keep my students and teachers fired up about learning and teaching?
  • Do I demonstrate my appreciation of and respect toward staff?
  • Do I spend most of mytime everyday supporting classroom instruction?
  • Do I ensure that I organize my day effectively?
  • Do I strive to empower my staff by engaging them in school-level planning and decision making?
  • Do I make parental and community engagement a priority in my practice as a school leader?

The transition from teacher to principal is a difficult one but it can be accomplished by utilizing strengths and experiences as a classroom teacher and building upon those strengths to develop both technical and adaptive leadership skills, and by committing to a reflection cycle of professional improvement.

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Response From Bill Sterrett

Bill Sterrett is a former principal and middle school science teacher.  He serves as an associate professor and program coordinator at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and is the author of three ASCD books focused on school leadership including  Igniting Teacher Leadership: How do I empower my teachers to lead and learn? Connect on Twitter @billsterrett:

I often advise aspiring principals that many of the best principals often still see themselves as teachers, and they are continually seeking to learn. The principalship is a lot of work.  Maintaining the perspective of teacher is important, because it helps the principal realize the realities of the work. 

So aside from being a teacher, what else is needed to become a great principal?  As a former teacher and principal who works with current and aspiring school leaders, here are eight priorities to consider:

1.)    Teacher leadership experience-From mentoring student teachers to serving as grade level leader or department chair, or stepping into a specialist or coach position, it's important to see perspectives other than your own.   Colleagues will respect the principal who has "been there, done that" in terms of collaborating as a member of a learning team.

2.)    Principal Preparation Program- Prepare and position yourself to be ready when leadership opportunities present themselves.  Don't just wait around to be asked to serve; actively seek opportunities to learn, lead, and grow. 

3.)    Writing- Focus on developing your skills as a reader and as a writer.  From e-mails and newsletters to blog posts and tweets, crafting a thoughtful message is an important skill for principals.

4.)    Work Ethic- The work of a principal can be grueling.  Dealing with long hours, frustrated stakeholders, and limited resources requires ingenuity and a willingness to roll up sleeves. 

5.)    Patience- Balance action with reflection.  Learning to wait and then act can be an acquired trait that prevents the principal from rushing to judgment.

6.)    Listening- Principals must find ways to listen to a diverse range of perspectives.  Don't let the "squeaky wheels" garner all your attention.  From scheduled coffee chats to quick exit slip surveys after a faculty meeting, it's important to listen to stakeholders.

7.)    Focus on teaching and innovation- Spend time in classrooms learning from teachers... and students.  Focus on what students are doing, and find ways to highlight effective strategies.  Keep an "ear to the ground" by staying connected to a professional learning network (PLN) and stay engaged!

8.)    Sense of humor- People need to know that you love your job.  From jumping in as "guest DJ" for a song at the dance to wearing costumes for "Dress Like a Book Character Day," to participating in the school talent show, principals can be role models in the way they live, laugh, and have fun. 

Educators who are willing to lead and learn can greatly impact their school communities.  Who is ready to be a principal?   

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Response From Ben Fenton

Ben Fenton is the Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer of New Leaders. He is the co-author, with New Leaders CEO Jean Desravines and Chief Program Officer Jaime Aquino, of Breakthrough Principals: A Step-by-Step-Guide to Building Stronger Schools:

Great Principals Build Other Leaders

Virtually all great educators share certain attributes that propel their success. These include a deep belief in the potential of all students, openness to feedback, a willingness to hold oneself accountable for student outcomes, and a strong command of curriculum and instruction. What sets successful principals apart is that they not only possess these qualities, but have skills that enable them to translate personal beliefs into school-wide culture and practice.

Teachers often draw inspiration from their daily work with children in the classroom. Effective school leaders are equally dedicated to students' success, but for them, the entire school is their classroom and their charge is to develop the educators who work there. Principals, therefore, must not only have an interest in working intensively with adults, but also the ability to motivate their teams and establish systems that yield continuous improvement.

The skills required to accomplish this are complex and varied, but they can be learned with expert training in the context of real-world school leadership responsibilities. Specifically, aspiring principals must have opportunities to move out of the classroom and lead and coach a team of educators, so they can practice--and receive feedback on--their adult leadership skills.

Our principal preparation program, delivered largely in the context of a yearlong apprenticeship, ensures that participants are capable of implementing key practices that determine school quality: For example, establishing a shared school vision and aligning resources--people, time, money--to that vision; building systems for consistently gathering and using data to inform curriculum and instruction; providing ongoing feedback to teachers that is clear, accurate and actionable; and designing effective professional development.

Enacting all this may sound overwhelming. From 15 years of preparing and observing great school leaders, however, we have learned that transformational principals never achieve dramatic school improvement on their own. Instead, they develop strong and diverse teams, where multiple leaders assume key responsibilities to advance student learning. For this reason, our principal training prioritizes the importance of building other leaders.

New Leaders alumnus David O'Hara--highlighted in our recent report--exemplifies this approach. When he became principal of Brooklyn's Expeditionary Learning School for Community Leaders in 2011, only 2 of 50 seniors were on track to graduate. Three years later, 84 percent of seniors not only graduated, but were college bound.

A thoughtful approach to developing teacher leaders was a cornerstone of the school's turnaround. O'Hara first entrusts aspiring teacher leaders with a small number of leadership duties and provides support. As they grow more skillful, they gradually assume more responsibility. Today, one third of O'Hara's staff is active on the school leadership team, conducting observations, sharing best practices with colleagues, and collaborating to design professional development, curriculum and lesson plans.

Schools like Community Leaders, where principals prioritize leadership development, become vibrant learning communities for students and adults. Just as importantly, with a thriving team in place, the principals' job becomes more sustainable, allowing them to remain at their schools and carry out an ambitious vision for student success.

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Thanks to Catherine, Mark, Bill and Ben for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment  with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected].When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form.  It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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Look for Part Two in a few days.....

 

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