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Response: 'Principals Shouldn't Be Lonely'

(This is the third post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is the biggest mistake you've seen an administrator make (or, if you are an administrator, that you've made)?  What should have been done, instead?


Commentaries from Anne Vilen, Marcy Webb, Dr. Jason Kotch, Roxanna Elden, Baruti Kafele, and Dr. Manuel Rustin "kicked off" this five-part series. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Anne, Marcy, and Jason on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Dr. PJ Caposey, Sarah Said, Amy Fast, Andrew Miller, Anthony Kim, and Edward Cosentino shared their observations.

Today, Jen Schwanke, Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin, Harvey Alvy, Michael Haggen, James Erekson, and Michael D. Toth write about their experiences.

Response From Jen Schwanke

Ms. Jen Schwanke has served as a teacher and administrator at the elementary and middle school levels for 20 years. She has established her voice in school leadership by contributing frequently to literacy and leadership publications and has presented at multiple conferences at the state and national level. She is the author of the book, You're the Principal!  Now What?  Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders, published by ASCD:

Someone once told me that being a principal is a lonely job. I believed it, too, for a while. I thought I had to do it alone—to carry the worry and weight, to appear relentlessly strong and brave.  As promised, it was very, very lonely.  

It was also a mistake. Principals shouldn't be lonely. On the contrary, they should feel enclosed within a strong collegial network. Without that support system, it's difficult to be effective. Perspective wanes. We lose our purpose and focus, until it seems everyone is talking about us—and no one is talking with us. That's why I cringe when I hear a principal say they feel alone. This job is too difficult and complicated to navigate alone. Unless we have a solid team of administrators we work with—indeed, even if we have that—we should make it a mission to build a strong network of principal pals and always be on the hunt for ways to grow as a leader.

Here are a few ways we can do it.  

Actively build and bolster that professional learning network.  I used to think the word "networking" meant "meeting people who will someday give you a job."  These days, for me, it means nothing of the sort. Instead, building a professional network means finding a tribe of colleagues who will work with me in a noncompetitive and productive way. It means having people who are reading, thinking, growing, and planning in a direction parallel to mine, so nothing is done in isolation.  

Find professional development in unconventional places. Standard professional-development formats are awesome; attending conferences, workshops, and webinars is a great way to expand big-picture thinking. But casual and sometimes unexpected encounters can provide the most applicable professional development. Twitter, Facebook groups, a conversation with a trusted colleague, podcasts, a BAM! radio broadcast—any of these can offer new ideas, boosts of creativity, and the connectivity we need.

Utilize historians.  Every school has some folks who have been around awhile—people who have seen initiatives fire and fade, who know what has worked, what hasn't, and why. I find that having a reflective conversation with someone who's seen the show before will open up my mind and broaden my view—and offer solidarity with others.

Mentor the new people. Just as historians can be a sounding board, new people can be an inspiration. Being a mentor and guide to new principals and teachers feels good, as giving back always does; at the same time, it delivers renewed energy, fresh ideas, and new ways of thinking. Win-win!  

Don't compete. Here's a quote I think about often: "I am not interested in competing with anyone. I hope we all make it." This sentiment is so fitting to school leaders. If we find ourselves competing with other principals for the best ideas, finest resources, the most innovation, or some other measure of success, we're missing the point. There's no need to hide or hoard ideas. Instead, we should think of the principalship as a big ocean in which we all rise when the tide lifts. Remembering that we are all in this together makes those lonely moments dissipate into a cloud of camaraderie.    

No one likes to feel alone, especially when doing the complicated job of running a school. After all, we truly are better together. And with a little forethought, we can surround ourselves with a vast network of support to help us along.

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Response From Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin

Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin teaches the PostDoc Masterclass at the University of Cambridge but lives most of the year in California writing books for educators like First Aid for Teacher Burnout and Sharing Your Education Expertise with the World. She has a Ph.D. in education and served as an award-winning teacher, school administrator, district administrator, and chief education & research officer. Dr. Rankin has been honored by the White House for her contributions to education:

The biggest mistake I've seen school and district administrators make is to view their role as primarily managerial rather than primarily supportive. Teachers need to juggle a hundred things perfectly and simultaneously to best serve every child. They must function in a climate of increasing demands and under unsustainable working conditions. As a result, teacher burnout is a pandemic that hurts kids, schools, communities, and certainly teachers (heartbreaking stats on damage caused by teacher burnout take up a two-page spread in my book on the topic).

Administrators can help curb teacher burnout while helping students and improving school culture if they regularly ask, "What do my teachers need? How can I make my teachers' jobs easier while also helping them to be more successful in helping kids?" Such a stance can lead administrators to beneficial practices like:

  • Inviting feedback (for example, administrators should involve teachers in decisionmaking and survey teachers on their needs and concerns).
  • Mobilizing parents and community members to relieve teachers of added, after-hours responsibilities (for example, administrators can run a school- or districtwide campaign to increase parental involvement, and they can recruit community members to run after-school homework clubs).
  • Respecting teachers' time (for example, administrators can offer differentiated professional development rather than requiring all staff to attend trainings that some teachers might not need).
  • Working with teachers to reduce unnecessary work volume (for example, the school can collaboratively establish homework limits that reflect the latest research on excessive homework's harm to students, which simultaneously protects teachers from the hassle of creating, grading, and processing too many homework assignments). 

Fortunately, I've also seen administrators who support teachers while helping them grow to be their best (shout-out to my once-principal-extraordinaire Debbie Diaz!). Grooming teachers to be leaders—both at their school sites and beyond—improves school for kids while also actively fighting one of veteran teachers' biggest burnout triggers: tedium. Though it's hard to imagine teachers being bored with all they have to juggle, teachers who perfect their craft can struggle with the monotony of similar years. Administrators who support their teachers also recognize these heroes' potential to share their education expertise with other educators, for the benefit of students everywhere.

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Response From Harvey Alvy

Harvey Alvy, a former NAESP National Distinguished Principal and founding board member of the Principal's Training Center for International Schools, is the author of Fighting for Change in Your School: How to Avoid Fads and Focus on Substance (ASCD, 2017):

Learning While Leading: Focusing on Students Is Not Enough

I became a high school principal after serving as a teacher for 16 years. Teachers focus solely on student success in their classroom learning communities—as they should. I maintained that focus as a first-year principal. Unfortunately, my approach was flawed; I failed to see that schools are also learning communities for adults.

Typically, I would ask teachers about test results, a particular student, or the curriculum. Seldom did I inquire about how they were doing. I rarely asked the teachers about their families or interests, beyond the schoolhouse. To be fair, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the job demands. One quickly learns that the position description inadequately captures the principal's responsibilities (e.g., How does one calibrate the bells after a power outage, create an April schedule for mandated student tests, or handle software glitches when the IT folks are attending a conference?).

A brief comment before our June graduation ceremony helped me grow as a leader. A graduation banner stated, "Congratulations to the Graduating Students!" A teacher entering the auditorium said, "Harvey, the banner should read, 'Congratulations to the teachers of the graduating students!' " Although his comment was a bit tongue-in-cheek, it resonated. After my opening remarks, I added a new wrinkle to the ceremony that became a tradition: I asked all of the teachers and staff to stand up so we could thank them for their dedication, love, and expertise. Their efforts made graduation day possible.

I needed to step up with intention and let teachers and staff know they were appreciated. During the next school year, I thanked teachers and staff at every major gathering with parents and students (e.g., conference evenings, parent coffees, spirit days) and would offer specific examples of success (an engaging science lab, a class debate, a hallway display of student work). During one-on-one adult interactions, I strengthened relationships through conversations and emphasized that I cared about them as individuals. Personally, I was much more comfortable with this approach. Teachers could see my growth as a leader. Moreover, I took a greater interest in teacher professional development, recognizing that if a new student program was being introduced (e.g., initiating showcase and working portfolios), it was equally important to provide related teacher professional learning.

I learned an important leadership lesson as a new principal. Never lose sight of adult learning—a school is a learning community for adults and students. If adults are unsuccessful, students will be unsuccessful. And, by the way, focusing on adult relationships had a positive affect on students—each day students saw personal examples of an adult community that enjoyed working together.

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Response From Michael Haggen

Michael Haggen is chief academic officer for Scholastic Education. In this role, he ensures that Scholastic is a responsive comprehensive literacy partner to Pre-K through grade 12 districts nationwide. In Haggen's 20 years of academic experience, he has served as a teacher, principal, chief academic officer, and direct report to superintendents. His hands-on approach has led to significant change, most recently in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, where he was deputy superintendent:

Being an administrator is a tremendous responsibility. School principals are responsible for not only the quantifiable academic achievement of each and every student but also for supporting the contributions of every member of the school community: teachers, instructional and noninstructional support staff, secretaries, custodians, volunteers, community partners, and families. And for district administrators, these responsibilities are multiplied.

Unfortunately, school- and district-leadership turnover can be very high. It is not unusual for the tenure of a superintendent to be only three years or for principals to change year to year, which is very disruptive to the learning community. Moreover, a new superintendent or principal may bring their own team in order to reduce the learning curve for their leadership style. This high turnover for administrators means that districts and schools have new leadership more often than anyone would like. We call this period of time a transitional administration.

Transitional administration is when an administrator is most likely to make the biggest mistakes. Each administrator brings their own philosophy to their job as it relates to teachers, families, and students. It will be based largely on his or her past experience, research, and learning from peers, among other sources, and it will be a reason this new leader is hired. He or she will have articulated a vision about which everyone is excited and nervous at the same time ... but then it happens: The new administrator starts to make changes to the instructional program or structure through messaging and purchasing that matches their vision but perhaps doesn't take into account what is already working nor how to best prepare teachers and staff for these changes. Frustration then grows when everyone has to start again with yet another new program or initiative. Some will make the best of it and some will decide to just ride it out until the next change in leadership. Either way, an atmosphere of uncertainty and frustration is not an environment in which learning thrives—for the student or the teacher.

Before making these kinds of sweeping changes, the administrator and their new team should do a listening tour. This transitional time is an opportunity to gather information and build relationships with school leadership, teachers, students, community partners, unions, and families. After conducting these conversations, they can go back to the education community and say, "This is what I heard from you. I am looking forward to both building on our strengths and working together in all the areas where we have opportunities for growth." An informed leader will also be able to better express how his or her vision and experience will bring this community forward with its buy-in. If everyone in the education community feels that they are true partners—that everyone has been heard and has the opportunity to be collaborators in learning—then they will be more receptive to and supportive of new suggestions in the future.

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Response From Michael D. Toth

Michael D. Toth is the author of the award-winning book Who Moved My Standards, the co-author with David Sousa of The Power of Student Teams (forthcoming, 2019), and the co-author with Dr. Robert J. Marzano of The Essentials of a Standards-Based Classroom, School Leadership for Results, and Teacher Evaluation That Makes a Difference. Toth founded Learning Sciences International, where he serves as the CEO and leads LSI's Applied Research Center. Toth addresses teachers, school leaders, and superintendents at national conferences, policy forums, and workshops, including past addresses to the U.S. Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

Symptoms vs. Root Causes of School Issues

The misdiagnosis of school issues, or the tendency to treat symptoms rather than root causes, is a mistake we see fairly often—it's a mistake that will almost certainly stall school growth. Low achievement and misbehavior are examples of symptoms; one of the root causes of both symptoms is low-rigor core instruction.

Core Instruction as a Common Root Cause

Core instruction is the predominant type of instruction students experience in the classroom daily: teacher-centered instruction, student-centered instruction, or team-centered instruction.

When core instruction transforms to student-led teaming, not only do students experience academic growth through developing speaking and listening skills, but they also experience social-emotional development through peer coaching and productive struggle to build resilience. This daily, authentic skill-building can lead to increased student engagement, earned self-esteem, and ultimately self-actualization.

What we have found is that once core instruction changes, student behavior changes. Misbehavior is often a result of boredom, so once student engagement ignites through academic tasks which are rigorous, team-centered, and connected to the real world, the negative behaviors decrease and the positive behaviors increase, as illustrated in The Power of Student Teams (Sousa & Toth, in press).

Misdiagnosis to Triumph: Walnut Middle School

Administrators at Walnut Middle School in Grand Island, Neb., for example, identified the symptom of student-behavioral issues as the number-one problem holding the school back. When we walked the school, we saw that the kids were acting out because they were bored with low-rigor instruction.

Walnut Middle School administrators then refocused their vision to the actual root cause of the symptom, so that their top priority became supporting teachers in transforming their classrooms toward team-centered instruction. In a single year of refocusing their efforts on core instruction, Walnut Middle School experienced rapid, significant improvements to student behavior, even though behavior was not the emphasis.

Negative behavior referrals declined by 37 percent in one year, and positive behavior events increased threefold. The principal of Walnut Middle School agreed that core instruction was a root cause and student behavior was a symptom. If Walnut Middle School had made the mistake of continuing to focus on a symptom rather than digging in to discover the root cause of the problem, their student-behavior problems may have endured.

Effective administrators who can identify root causes from symptoms will be able to pull a school out of persistent underperformance and can also make a good school into a great school. If administrators learn to tackle school improvement systematically, by examining root causes and underlying systems, the improvement will be impactful and continuous.

Transforming core instruction is a big commitment—it means changing the roles of teachers and students, the way lessons are planned, and the classroom culture—but once the core instruction improves, the entire school improves.

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Response From James Erekson

James Erekson is the author of Engaging Minds in Social Studies Classrooms: The Surprising Power of Joy (ASCD 2014). He is an associate professor of literacy at the University of Northern Colorado. He has been teaching in the field of languages and literacy for more than 20 years, including eight years in a middle school literacy workshop focused on social studies content:

I have seen administrators disallow social studies from the primary-grades curriculum until testing benchmarks in reading have been achieved. Social studies inquiry is one of the key avenues to reading and writing engagement. The "learn to read, then read to learn" is among the most misused or ill-applied interpretations of reading research we see in K-12 schools. One of my master's students told me a small group of her kindergartners made their greatest reading gains when they were fascinated with Australia and kept begging her for more social-studies-oriented books on the country.

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Thanks to Jen, Jenny, Harvey, Michael, James, and Michael 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.

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

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first seven years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn't include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

This Year's Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

Classroom Management Advice

Best Ways to Begin The School Year

Best Ways to End The School Year

Implementing the Common Core

Student Motivation & Social-Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Using Tech in the Classroom

Parent Engagement in Schools

Teaching English-Language Learners

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues

Student Assessment

Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Advice for New Teachers

Author Interviews

Entering the Teaching Profession

The Inclusive Classroom

Learning & the Brain

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

Relationships in Schools

Professional Development

Instructional Strategies

Best of Classroom Q&A

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

Look for Part Four in a few days.

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