7 principals dish on changing roles, responsibilities
Here's what leading principals have to say about making time for supporting teachers, observing classrooms and getting out from behind their desks
Principals’ roles are changing. Most are now expected to spend a greater portion of their time focusing on instructional issues and supporting and observing teachers.
More than 79% of principals who responded to the 2018 National Association of Elementary School Principals’ survey, for example, said there has been a moderate to large increase in the time they spend on areas such as using assessment data for instructional planning, developing the school as a professional learning community and ensuring teachers are using effective instructional practices.
In order to be strong instructional leaders, however, administrators might have to let go of some non-instructional tasks. After all, there’s really no such thing as a “superstar” principal, said Scott Thompson, the former deputy chief for innovation and school design with the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), during a forum earlier this year sponsored by New America.
“Those people just don’t exist, and they can’t do that work for 100 hours a week for 10 years,” he said.
Some districts have created new administrative roles, such as a director of school operations within DCPS, and school business managers within Atlanta Public Schools. And in other districts, teachers are taking on school leadership responsibilities and adopting hybrid roles — which can also allow principals to be more involved in issues related to teaching and learning.
We asked seven leading principals across the country this question: Given the increasing focus on instruction in principals' roles nationwide, how have responsibilities been redistributed in your building, and has this facilitated more bottom-up leadership opportunities? Here are their answers.
Bridgette Bellows — Abraham Lincoln High School, Council Bluffs, Iowa
As a high school principal in Council Bluffs, I am fortunate to be a part of the National School Administrative Managers (SAM) Innovation Project. Our SAMs are completely dedicated to taking on the management responsibilities of the building and freeing up principals' time for instruction. Some of the major things that my SAM handles are transportation, evaluation of classified staff, all building maintenance issues, our 1:1 initiative and many others.
I am also fortunate to work with someone who is very skilled, which makes it easier for me to concentrate on getting into classrooms and providing teachers with feedback. I work with roughly 80 teachers and have set the goal of providing each of them face to face feedback at least once every three weeks. Having a SAM who is completely capable of handling the management side of things has allowed me to reach my goal, which has been very motivating for me. I love working with teachers and students and am hoping that my feedback is having a positive impact on classroom practice.
Kemi Husbands — Langdon Elementary School, Washington, D.C.
At Langdon Elementary School, having a manager of school logistics (MSL) has allowed me to be more focused, intentional and reflective about our school's instructional practices. I know almost every student by name because I have more time to spend in classrooms, and I have more time to provide ongoing feedback and direction for my administrative team. The administrative team is made up of an assistant principal, instructional coach, the MSL, grade-level leads, the dean, the community partnership lead, a social worker and the front office lead. These leaders and I work to provide professional development, support and feedback to our dedicated educators aligned to our school initiatives and goals.
Last year, we saw a 22.8% increase in students scoring a four or five on PARCC in English Language Arts, and a 9.3% increase in math. With more time to focus on instruction and to provide leadership direction, I’m able to look beyond the data and work with individual staff at all levels to identify their strengths and growth areas, and to implement new instructional models. For example, instead of ensuring the building is ready for student arrival in the morning, I am able to host and/or peer observe morning professional development that is led by an administrative lead with teachers/staff, have one-on-one meetings with staff members and work to increase buy-in from our staff.
Empowering our MSL to lead on everything from building maintenance to substitute coverage gives me more time to engage our students, families and staff. As a result, everyone at Langdon knows that they are an instrumental part of the District of Columbia Public Schools' vision to ensure every student feels loved, challenged and prepared to positively influence society and thrive in life.
Amy Scruton — Willard Intermediate School, Santa Ana, California
I calendar classroom time every day to make sure it happens. There is always work that can be done, but only certain hours you can see students in classrooms. I make myself get up and leave my office several times a day to walk classrooms.
We have set very high instructional goals and everyone is part of the solution. So, for example, in math, my teachers recognize that student mathematical discourse is important. Using improvement science, they study the problem as a group. First they determine what they want to improve, then they determine what they think they could change to improve it. From there they test it out in the classroom and get data from the students. The teachers look at the data and tweak things again to see if they get better results.
This cycle continues as they continue to study and learn solutions to improvement. By teachers taking ownership, my job as an administrator is to support them with professional development and time to work on the problem. My district still requires an enormous amount of paperwork, but we work hard to strategically think about who is best to work on each area. Together we can accomplish more.
Dave Wick — Columbia Falls Junior High, Columbia Falls, Montana
As a school principal for the past 24 years, the role of the principal has certainly changed in a variety of ways. The increasing focus on instruction and achievement has been one area that has altered the role. Since teachers are the direct actors in terms of student achievement, my role is obviously to create a growth mindset with the faculty.
Through daily informal walkthroughs and discussion of the craft of teaching, the principal’s role is to inspire the teachers to examine their strengths and weaknesses, capitalizing on their strengths and shoring up their weaker skills. Thorough evaluation practices assist with this process, but a deeper, richer process is developed through strong relationships between the principal and teachers. Management tasks (athletic scheduling, discipline, facilities management, i.e.) have been delegated, with the expectation that the most important element for the principal is to be in classrooms with students and teachers.
Teacher leaders are developed in a number of ways, both instructionally and outside the classroom. Division of responsibilities is an ever-changing dynamic, and teachers within a positive school climate are always seeking ways to contribute. Leadership develops through our professional learning community process, as teachers work together for higher student achievement. We have an extensive mentoring program to assist our newer faculty. Teacher leaders facilitate book studies that enhance our school’s mission and vision.
Odelphia Pierre — John H. Finley PS/MS 129, New York City
With the increased focus on instruction, and with the same challenging operational and regulatory responsibilities, I made instruction a daily priority by creating and monitoring a school culture in which the first 30 minutes of the school day all students are engaged in instruction, which includes a do-now activity and daily positive affirmations, followed by a class meeting.
Teacher teams are focused on specific targeted areas, such as looking at data, creating standards based rubrics, peer-to-peer walkthroughs. The ongoing professional development and conversations are making it easier to implement the instructional strategies needed in the classroom.
I am able to get into every classroom at least three times per week and not have to worry about missing a parent meeting or a teacher team meeting because every hour is scheduled. We have seen a very positive change in school tone, and teachers and support staff are bringing ideas to the table as we have increased opportunities to look at instruction from different perspectives.
Sah Brown — Eastern High School, Washington, D.C.
With the increased focus on instruction, I know the majority of my time needs to be devoted to creating a vision of academic success in order to ensure our students receive a quality education. I've prioritized developing instructional leadership in others, such as my department chairs and assistant principals, and spend more time informally observing classrooms to gauge student learning across the building.
I've afforded myself this additional time to focus on instruction by adding both a director of strategy and logistics and a manager of strategy and logistics to our staff. Our director is the first point of contact on all facility and school climate issues. This role ensures that Eastern remains an inviting and safe space for students, staff and guests. Our manager addresses all financial and communication needs while enhancing our operational systems.
By staffing these roles with individuals who are familiar with the demands of a large comprehensive high school, they have each spearheaded initiatives that resulted in positive outcomes. For example, our director adjusted our morning arrival procedures, which resulted in students entering the building quickly and efficiently thus reducing the number of tardies to first period. Our manager has increased our social media presence. This has helped keep various stakeholders, like our feeder schools, informed about our academic and extracurricular programs and has contributed to our increase in enrollment.
Richard Gordon IV — Paul Robeson High School, Philadelphia
Part our turnaround story revolved around facilitating an environment based on servant leadership and distributive leadership. We are here to serve and share in the heavy lifting, so I created subject specific teacher-leader positions (subject specific academic and operation coaches). I leveraged the budget to create a Literacy Coach for English/Social Studies/Technical Subjects, a STEM Coach (Science & Math) and Dean of Students (Data Coach/Climate Specialist).
All three positions have been added to my leadership team, along with my school counselor, my special education coordinator and my building union teacher representative. So, I expanded the leadership team and distributed the instructional responsibilities in the building. My coaches are also afforded the opportunity to lead instructional professional development, conduct classroom observations and organize peer-to-peer classroom visits, so they are a part of providing feedback to teachers and to one another about the instruction in our school.
Thus, teachers then begin to identify their strengths and weaknesses, and they share their strengths leading professional development, and participate in professional development and/or peer collaborations to address areas of improvement. Teachers also lead collegial collaboration across academic departments in order to create a cross-referencing of skill-building in our classrooms.
I also created committees for teachers to sign up for (Data, Academic Success, Climate & Culture). They were not assigned, they volunteered. This allows for the teachers to lead many of the activities in school that enhance and impact the instruction in our classrooms. Thus, everything does not flow from the principal's office.