The Principles of Effective Principals

A great mentor is one who asks you a question you never thought to ask yourself.  Here is a reflection on her question about what it is like to work with school principals (a work in progress).


My mentor Judith had us over for conversation and dinner a few months ago.  A question she asked me pierced our conversations of recent travels and ponderings of summer plans.  She asked what my experiences were like working with principals.  Judith has a gift for asking questions that perforate fronts, latch onto beliefs, and suck out the marrow of your truth.  My instant answer was recounting negative experiences I had with two principals while working at my previous job.  I went right into the “Woes is me” narrative of how difficult their intolerance and unkindness made it daunting and at times disheartening to do authentic work with their teachers and schools.  She listened patiently and then redirected, “I did not ask you that,” explaining the heart of her question was getting at what was I learning from working with principals.  The impact of not correctly answering the question, and the question itself, lingers.  Months later, an answer is evolving.

Now working two new consulting positions, Judith’s question has me thinking about the principles of these principals.   Looking back over the past school year, what am I learning about what principals value?  What am I learning about their standards, ethics, and the sources of both?  Veterans and newcomers, they have afforded an inner sanctum for me to study and train.  They give access to themselves.   They ask profound questions.  They are responsive as both professionals and as people.  They empower me as part of an evolving equation they are trying to create and solve.

Time together is valued.  The principals I now work with build into my schedule time for us to do extensive debriefs and have collaborative discussions.  They make sacrifices, whether it is part of the school day, or afterwards on a Friday afternoon.  There is a sense of urgency and importance about our relationship that they make the time for us to meet and talk.  Our meetings transcend my divulging observations and strategic support provided.  They are spent asking questions of each other, conferring or challenging observations, disclosing concerns, and intimating hopes for staff, students, and school.   I honor such assembly.  Time is at a premium for principals, but these have made exceptions for us to invest in one another that impress and enthrall me.

These school leaders are candidly transparent about their dilemmas.   While their skin is Teflon, it is not so tough so that they don’t allow vulnerabilities to surface.  They are leaders with vision and victory for their students as the vanguard of their leadership, and are so open to asking for input on how best to achieve the best for students.  They ask “deep questions.”  Their inquiries are driven less by checking on teacher compliance or to augmenting documentation to excess “bad” ones.  Their questions hover less around “Did the teachers do what I told them?”  More so around the premise “How can we support them as they support students?”   Their questions revolve in constellations of density and complexity.  They span issues of culturally relevant pedagogy, systems-based approaches to improving school culture, and empowering teachers as agents of change.  I am asked a lot about how can teacher disposition be shifted from a deficit-based orientation of urban students to one that is empowerment-driven.   How best can the connection between disposition and instruction be revealed and improved?  How can they as administrators support staff to build and create effective routines in classrooms and systems in schools?

These leaders allow and provide access to a high level of intimacy with their staff and themselves.   Building trusting relationships where people share themselves, their triumphs and trials, is rewarding albeit risky work.  I am sure it is not easy for principals to have their teachers’ classrooms and schools “put on blast,” exposed to what needs intervention and improvement.   But it is this trusting of me by principals to build relationships with teachers, and sharing the process of how I do that with them, that lends itself to building an intimate relationship invested in and shared between them as school leaders and me as consultant.  They learn from me that my goal is not to judge, but to understand.  Not to condemn, but to collaborate.  Not to enervate, but invigorate and shore up to innovate.  This orientation is for both their teachers and themselves as leaders.  And this orientation to working with them becomes the pipeline for principals and me to connect as professionals and as people.  It becomes the bridge to exchange detailed knowledge, build familiarity, share confidence in one another.

These principals situate school progress as an evolving equation.    This approach to consulting and coaching in schools does not have me working on the periphery (with the hope of access), but as an integrated variable in achieving a solution.  Previously, I have experienced waiting several hours onsite before the principal “sent” me to work with teachers, a principal allowing teachers to “blow off” scheduled coaching if they had something more important to do, and a host of other racial and professional indignities.  When shared with my superiors, their response was “Well, just go back and coach more.”  Currently, these leaders are trying to understand the variables at play, their relationship with one another, and what outcomes are possible based on the best configuration.  It is fascinating work.  At one school site, I worked specifically with the 10th grade teachers in improving classroom management.  The principal (newly installed this year) and I collaborated on how best to coach them, and together, situated the coaching where my weekly coaching would consist of 1) rotating observations and providing feedback to teachers, 2) doing inter-visitations with one struggling second-year teacher, 3) weekly PD meetings with the teachers as a team, 4) sharing out best practices of the team members.  Then, she asked for us to think of 1) how to share out what the 10th grade teachers learned, 2) how we could build the other grade levels to similar capacity, 3) empower grade level teams in behavioral management such that all discipline issues did not fall on the single dean, and 4) what support I could provide to achieve these goals.  In another school site, the principal and two Assistant Principals have involved me in their inquiry around how to understand teacher disposition and its impact on rigor and instruction, and what I could do to support such development and application.

What I begin to understand from these principals are some fundamental principles about working with people.  We make time for what we value.  Being vulnerable and inquisitive signals to others help needed in answering questions.  Intimacy is both a gift and a tool.  An invitation into solving bigger equations confirms peoples’ recognition of your skills and your capacity to both enhance and innovate.

Truths that I thank Judith for forcing me to ponder.


The Makings of a Bad Teacher


As prep for a state exam, the teacher created a lesson to review the cause and effects of WWII by having students view an amateur cartoon on YouTube, and then fill out answers to previous state exam questions.  On a different occasion, a teacher was reviewing geometric concepts in prep for the next day’s in-class exam.  However, students were listening to electronic devices, texting, holding side conversations about best lyricists, some had heads down on desks, and one exclaimed after a previously heated exchange with the teacher, “Don’t you sometimes feel like slapping the shit out of_____?”  In a third instance, students were sitting in groups, and then asked to do a do-now of answering questions followed by textbook reading and answering more questions.  The teacher spoke only to give announcements of what to complete in the textbook.

As  a witness to such classrooms, while not pleased and genuinely concerned about the delivery of instruction and the management of classroom dynamics not matching a path leading toward successful evidential learning outcomes, my job is to support teachers where they are into the best they can be.  Consequently, this work does not match the recent outcries of terminating bad teachers.  In this vortex of disconnect, two questions emanate.  Given these examples (and many like them) is this evidence of bad teachers or bad teaching moments?  Going further, is there such a thing as a bad teacher or bad teaching?  Having been a high school teacher and now an educational coach, I am trying to broaden my territory of investigation and support.  But, in the fury of media and politics advocating the eradication of bad teachers, I also have to start asking more clarifying questions.

The problem, in part, is “badness” is collapsed and universalized.  A teacher who chooses not to lesson plan is equated to one diligently struggling in writing and delivering effective lessons.  A teacher who is indifferent to whether all students learn is equated to one genuinely trying to figure out how to manage a class and differentiate instruction (which could be addressed through familiarizing the teacher with different strategies in both classroom management and instructional approaches and modeling them).  A teacher who is trying to practice students collaborating in groups in creating bridges of social interaction and practicing the use of them (as required in the world) is collapsed into the same category of those disinterested in such enterprise.  The point of these examples is that one could see similar outcomes–disengaged disgruntled students, poor instructional delivery, below par student performance–without taking into account the “badness” within context.  Training our eyes less to demonize a person, sharpening them to ascertain other factors in play such as skill and context, can better help us improve the educative experiences struggling teachers can give, and therefore (ideally) improve the learning possibilities of our students.

Perhaps what is needed during this moment of reform amidst calls to fire “bad” teachers based on student test scores, institute merit-based pay, and eliminate  hard-earned tenure–all of these responses to aftershock–is (1) a reexamination of the criteria for defining a “bad teacher,” (2) distinguishing “a bad teacher” from “bad teaching,”  (3) learning and understanding the context and situations that such teaching occurs, and (4) what reform initiatives  match outcomes for improving teaching and learning.  The most immediate solution is to lessen the rhetoric.  The over-sweeping judgments, placements of blame, and generalizations are rampant and fuel hysteria.  They focus our energy and efforts less around understanding the situations and contexts within which some teachers are struggling, and our duty to provide targeted support.  The next is to start asking questions.  What are a teacher’s goals for students, how are they matched with the teacher’s skill set, what is the evidence of effectiveness, and what are places where there is weakness that support can ameliorate?