Two Ways to Support Principals as Instructional Leaders
The current wave of education reform places the teacher in the spotlight … But how do we ensure that their instructional leaders, the principals, are equipped to support them in their quest to improve student outcomes?
When it comes to improving student outcomes, teachers are the air, food, and water needed to foster student growth. With the adoption of the Common Core as our state standards in Massachusetts, there has been a huge focus on ensuring that our teachers are equipped to facilitate CCSS focused lessons and activities. The current wave of education reform places the teacher in the spotlight. It demands that we have the best teachers with our neediest students. It demands that we empower teachers to make the necessary decisions in the classroom to most effectively nurture student growth. Countless professional development opportunities and resources have surfaced to support teachers in their transition to CCSS. Teachers deserve this focus. I support the notion that teachers are the key lever in child’s school experience wholeheartedly. A fundamental principle of my school is that “without great teachers, nothing else matters.”
But how do we ensure that their instructional leaders, the principals, are equipped to support them in their quest to improve student outcomes? The principal’s fundamental role is to support instruction. In other words, the principal must ensure that the teacher is able to sustain students with air, food, and water with minimal obstacles to overcome. Twenty years ago this simply meant providing clear schedules, overseeing building maintenance, and dealing with disenchanted families. In 2015 this means doing all of this and actively supporting and coaching teachers as they develop in their craft and hone their content and teaching expertise. Principals, like teachers, can take advantage of professional development opportunities to unpack the standards and can ensure that they have a strong foundation in content expertise to support CCSS focused curriculum. But there are institutional steps that can be done to support them as well. At our school we champion two ways to support our principals.
Turn the role into a team sport.
The role of principal, by design, is an isolating one. There is typically one “principal” per building, with the majority of employees reporting to him or her. While principal leadership teams, made up of department heads who coach and support teachers, are quite common, these teams often place the principal in a different managerial role—the principal manages the department chairs rather than work alongside of them. Instructional leadership must be a team sport; there cannot be one “go to” person in the building for a particular content or skill. Rather, the team of instructional “go to’s” must work in lockstep with each other. Teachers will benefit from and appreciate working with an individual coach. However, the coach’s messaging and methods of support must be replicated by others in the building. Frequent observations and feedback that is relevant and specific to a teacher’s student and/or professional learning goal is going to be most effective when support is universal and not wedded to a particular staff member.
At BCCS we accomplish this through our Instructional Leadership team. The team consists of three principals (5/6, 7/8, and 9-12), two Directors of Instruction, and Director of Student Support. A teacher in each part of the school may be coached by one member, but can count on and depend upon curricular and instructional support by all members. While we have long had Department Chairs, we have yet to utilize their content expertise beyond occasional coaching and meeting facilitation for vertical alignment. We are on the cusp of authentically expanding our core team and including the voices of more of our staff members into this team sport. The 2015-2016 school year will further lead us away from isolated moves, to team-coordinated endeavors.
Make peer coaching the norm
The perk of making the role of instructional leader into a team sport goes far beyond consistent and widespread support for the teaching staff. It makes peer coaching possible. Instructional leaders must be able to bounce their ideas, strategies, and concerns regarding student achievement off of others. No one has all of the answers. Teaching and student achievement are personal and intricate matters. Multiple lenses are needed at times to provide clarity to complex matters. Principals, Directors, and teacher leaders must use each other to manage powerful dilemmas and action plan on instructional initiatives. We make this possible at BCCS with purposeful meeting design. Peer coaching may happen organically. A quick brainstorm with a colleague may provide the new perspective one needs to manage a dilemma. However, purposeful meeting design, active sharing of individual and group action plans, and ample time to allow for 1:1 or small group brainstorming allows for peer coaching to become the norm rather than a pleasant surprise. Ninety minutes each week is held sacred for this work, making it central to our functioning and culture.
Abolishing the notion of the principal as the sole instructional leader, purposefully expanding their team, and including designated time each week to allow for peer coaching and support creates a viable instructional and curricular support culture for a school. There are many, many improvements to be made at BCCS; our approach is far from perfect. However, the tenants of instructional leadership are strong, the vision is clear, and the quest to support teachers as they work to improve student outcomes is one that we do together.