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Administration, Education, Leadership, Teaching

Staying Plugged In

The Office

cc flickr photo by simon dukes

As a school principal, I do my best to stay up to date with current best practices in the education field.  I read, blog and tweet.  I visit classrooms, interact with students, and utilize a shared leadership approach to administrative practice.  I try to create a school environment in which teachers feel comfortable taking appropriate risks — one where innovative practice is encouraged.  I would like to think that I am a forward thinking administrator who makes decisions based upon the best interest of students and staff members.  However, I have recently been struggling to keep my head above the proverbial water level, dealing with a plethora of distractions, and it has led to some rather intense reflection about my role as an administrator — specifically, the ways in which I stay connected to what is happening in the classroom.

I recently wrote a post about my social media practices — What’s the point?  Blogging and tweeting…my two cents.  An admired colleague, Bill Ferriter (@plugusin), left a very poignant response to my post, suggesting that an additional reason for school administrators to participate in social media endeavors is to build credibility with teachers by making their learning transparent.  He supported this statement with the following comments:

You know, the honest truth is that it is hard for us teacher folks to buy into “the principal as instructional leader” label when we rarely see y’all instructing — or even thinking actively about instruction.

And because of the ridiculous demands of your job, it’s hard for y’all to find the time to instruct — or to engage in meaningful conversations with EVERY teacher about instruction.

What an incredibly insightful, and all too often accurate, depiction of school administration.  In light of my recent time management issues, it was like a punch to the gut (in a good way, if that is possible).  A litany of questions began popping into my head.

  • Am I doing enough to be an instructional leader on my campus?
  • What am I doing to stay actively connected with the classroom?
  • How do I relate to my teaching staff — developing a true understanding of their daily challenges?
  • Am I still a teacher?
  • Why would my staff lend credence to what I have to say about classroom instruction?

I obviously don’t have all of the answers to these questions, but I think they deserve careful consideration.  As a school administrator, how do I balance my administrative responsibilities (hiring, paperwork, meetings, budget, etc.) while maintaining relevance and credibility as an instructional leader?  As Bill pointed out in his comment,

When you’re actively making your learning transparent by sharing what you’re reading and by writing about what your reading in social spaces, you have the chance to stand as a thinker in front of anyone who wants to look.

I certainly agree, but I am also thinking that it has to go beyond that.  School administrators have to be diligent and purposeful about staying plugged in to what is happening in classrooms and the challenges faced by their instructional staff.  I guess the essential question in this dilemma, is whether or not that is possible without teaching on a regular basis.  How should the role of the school administrator change in order to ensure the effective practice of instructional leadership?  Should we be required to pack up our offices and teach classes on a regular basis?  Are school administrators necessary, or could this role be assumed by teacher leaders?  As always, your thoughts and suggestions are welcomed.

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About azjd

Junior high principal by day, aspiring difference maker, and Jedi in my own mind. Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly.

Discussion

15 thoughts on “Staying Plugged In

  1. I always felt that when I was at my best that I could feel my school. When that happened – and it usually took a couple of years at each one – everything became easier and the time to do all the administrivia stuff went down, too.

    getting every one the same page and sharing what you are thinking are huge in getting to this point. That’s why I always tell new principals to take some time to figure out why they do what they do before you start rooting around. That means spending time learning about the people at the school. I also tell them not to worry about the paperwork because really – no one at the District Office reads half of what is submitted from school sites anyways.

    Nice work. I look forward to what else you have to say.

    Posted by The Ed Buzz | December 10, 2011, 7:02 pm
  2. Jeff, empathetically, I believe this is a critically important post. I have struggled with the very same issues. Seven of the nine years as principal, I have taught a student course. When I don’t, I have more time to be in others’ classrooms, but when I do teach a student course, I have more confidence that I am one of “them” instead of risking the us-them effect of edu administration.

    More than anything, though, I have found it most beneficial to be in the PLC team meetings. I attend at least 25% of each team’s four weekly meetings. My schedule is full of team learning and planning, and I love it.

    Also, with no arrogance meant, I think we have to see our faculty as our “class.” If we want classrooms to look like X, then our faculty meetings should model X, not Y.

    Thanks for thinking out loud. You are certainly one of my instructional leaders.

    Posted by Bo Adams | December 11, 2011, 4:34 am
    • Thanks Bo…appreciate the comments. You offer some great suggestions for staying connected and modeling. The notion of teaching, in addition to administrative work, is intriguing to me — it just seems like it would provide opportunities to apply what we learn from our PLN. It’s one thing for something to “seem” like a good idea on a blog or via twitter, but another thing to put it into practice.

      What class(es) have you taught?

      Posted by azjd | December 12, 2011, 6:21 pm
  3. Hey Pal,

    All of your questions — as usual — are spot on. What worries me the most as a classroom teacher is that I’m not sure that there are a ton of principals even thinking about that stuff.

    When I push against principals — challenging their assumptions that the title of “instructional leader” is automatic when you become the boss — I get all kinds of interesting responses. Some get really defensive: “Who are YOU to tell me that I’m not the instructional leader?! I have a degree in educational administration!”

    Others seem oblivious to the need to instruct once in a while: “What? Me Teach? I don’t work with kids.” Still others want to be in classrooms instructing, but it truly does seem impossible: “I tried that for a year, but every time I had a class scheduled, some new emergency or responsibility comes up.”

    You don’t have to look far to see the consequences of all of these responses: Here in NC, we have a teacher working conditions survey that asks, “Who do you see as the instructional leader of your school?”

    The principal NEVER places first on the list of choices given. Most of the time, it’s “my colleagues” or “instructional support teachers.”

    Interesting disconnect, isn’t it? Principals see themselves as instructional leaders, but teachers don’t.

    That means if you really want to be seen as the instructional leader, you’re going to have to work at it.

    The best example I’ve ever seen was a buddy of mine who was a middle school teacher working as an AP in an elementary school. He went to the Kindergarden PLC and asked if they’d help him get better at his work with elementary kids. They said yes and helped him to plan and deliver 3 lessons over the course of a school year. After each lesson — all of them were recorded, by the way — he sat with the team and debriefed.

    What was beautiful for my buddy is he only had to find time for 3 lessons and 3 debreifings with his K teachers. That was doable in his schedule.

    More importantly, though, he made himself instructionally vulnerable to his teachers — something we expect teachers to do with each other but that principals NEVER do. That sent an important message about professional learning communities.

    Finally, his teachers got to see him acting as a reflective practitioner. They got to watch him planning and improving his lessons. They got to see him experimenting and risking new things. They got to give him feedback — and watch him accept that feedback as a part of his own growth.

    It was a pretty powerful example of what I think instructional leaders would really — and realistically — be doing each year.

    Any of this make sense?
    Bill

    Posted by Bill Ferriter | December 11, 2011, 6:25 am
    • Wow. That actually sounds like a fantastic model for school administrators to follow. As you mention, that is absolutely something that could be accomplished within the constraints of a principal’s schedule.

      I like the concept of instructional vulnerability, and you are right, school administrators rarely put themselves in that position, yet we routinely ask our staff members to do it. I certainly don’t think that the position of “instructional leader” is a given and I can see how those who are willing to undertake that kind of learning experience would increase their credibility as someone who is serious about making an impact on the instructional practice at their school.

      As always, thanks for sharing your ideas and participating in the conversation Bill. Appreciated!

      Posted by azjd | December 12, 2011, 6:31 pm
  4. Thank you for this post. As a new Principal in this school, I have been thinking a lot about the questions you pose in your post. I strongly believe that being an Instructional Leader is not a title one simply gains because you are the Principal. Instead it needs to be something you model in all that you do. A few ideas to share from my practice:
    *In my weekly e-memo to teachers I share what I am learning from my PLN. I regularly talk about the power of TwitterUniverse!
    *In all ‘formal’ interactions with staff – faculty meetings, team meetings, etc. – I work hard to model my instructional expectations.
    *To encourage classroom visits of peers, I get into classrooms and teach a lesson three times a year. The students see me as a teacher during these lessons when we talk about the values of the school, and the staff learns from one another.

    My goal for the remainder of this year is to increase the conversations I have with teachers about teaching and learning after classroom walk-throughs. Getting into classrooms is the easy part – carving out the time to have those valuable conversations is my challenge!

    Posted by Julie Vincentsen (@jvincentsen) | December 11, 2011, 8:26 am
    • Thank Julie. I think your willingness to cover for teachers so they can observe peers is a great way to support the learning of your staff, while at the same time providing yourself with meaningful opportunities to stay connected with what is happening in the classroom. Thanks for sharing!

      Posted by azjd | December 12, 2011, 6:34 pm
  5. Great reflection and questions to ask! For all these reasons I have found it important for me to not only get into classrooms for walkthroughs but to also be active as an educator myself. Maybe it’s do I don’t lose touch with teaching or more for teachers to see that I am not out of touch with teaching. Either way, I think its important for principals to keep their hands in teaching. Some if the ways I’m stayin active in teaching: each summer II teach a summer school class, when I’m in classrooms during literacy I try to confer wih students and i am now scheduling #NoOfficeDays where I am in certain grade levels all day and schedule times to teach classes or coteach with the teachers.

    Posted by PrincipalJ | December 11, 2011, 8:50 am
    • I have done a few of the #NoOfficeDays too. Its a great way to truly dedicate undivided time to observing what is happening in the classroom. I too worry about losing touch with teaching…don’t want to be one of those people who seems to have answers in theory, but not in practice.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Posted by azjd | December 12, 2011, 6:37 pm
  6. Jeff, I love this post. It resonated with me on a number of levels. I think reading, tweeting and writing are essential for us to continue learning, but it is so important for us to be connected to the classrooms and teachers in our school. We can be superstars in cyberspace but have very little influence in our own schools. Your post has reinforced for me the need to spend meaningful time in classrooms. Just the “punch in the gut” I need.

    Posted by darcymullin | December 12, 2011, 4:56 pm
    • Thanks Darcy…
      I have done much better this year being comfortable with uncomfortable — seems like I have had the wind knocked out of me a few times 🙂 Agree with your comment, in order to have influence at our own schools, we need to be seen as credible instructional leaders and that doesn’t happen by sitting at a desk. It is so important to be out in classrooms and connect with staff and students.

      Appreciate the comment!

      Posted by azjd | December 12, 2011, 6:41 pm
  7. I knew this morning when I read this post I needed to comment. I seriously think it’s impossible for anyone to comprehend the surreal role of the principal until he’s actually serving in the role. Even though I don’t think I devote enough time to reading, researching, and reflecting on my blog, I so appreciate the little time I do spend, because I do agree with you that it shows I am a reflective, active learner.

    I often wonder, would it be beneficial to have administrators serve for a term- 2,3,4 years – and then return to the classroom for a term of a few years? At this point in my admin career, especially due to the connections I’ve made through Twitter, locating blog and other resources, attending conferences, etc., I have learned so many new things about teaching, learning, classroom culture, and more- there are many days when I wish to have a classroom of my own to try out these new ideas and methodologies with a group of students. Yes, many administrators have the chance to teach a course, but in elementary school, that’s not the norm. That’s why I started clubs like student council and am working to get a student tech group up and running, because I want to stay connected with kids.

    From an instructional leader’s standpoint, how much more powerful could your conversations be if you are a principal who spent the last two years teaching, and could converse about teaching and learning with a high degree of efficacy, having just experienced what it’s like in the classroom?

    I have no idea what that system looks like, but I think it’s one that would be built on a foundation of strong teacher leaders- and every few terms, lead teachers rotate into the role of the principal in order to serve the school for those years. Crazy? Maybe. But I think it’s worth investigating. Might make the role of the principal a lot more appealing, and would perhaps bring everyone together as a cohesive team.

    Posted by Lyn Hilt (@L_Hilt) | December 12, 2011, 5:53 pm
    • Lyn…I couldn’t agree with you more! There are teaching practices that I used “back in the day” that now make me wonder what I was thinking. I am confident that I would be a much better teacher now, given all I have learned from my PLN.

      Like many of the other things we talk about related to educational reform, your idea would require a paradigm shift, but I agree, it is worth exploring. It would take the notion of “shared leadership” to a completely different level.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

      Posted by azjd | December 12, 2011, 6:57 pm
  8. Jeff, for me, this particular post ranks among the top provacative posts of 2011. You reveal many new thoughts that I haven’t ever thought about and thank you for sharing Bill Ferriter’s comment. I truly believe as educators, we should always think of ourselves as teachers first.

    I agree that principals, as instructional leaders, must separate the managerial side of the principalship with that of improving teacher effectiveness. No longer is it acceptable to sit in an office, work on state reports, complete teacher evaluations, or engage in any other activity that can be completed outside the school day. An effective principal designates school hours for students, teachers, and parents, every day.

    As principals, what if we could move beyond instructional leaders? Beyond evaluators? What if we focused more on being Leaders of Learning? For instance, when providing valuable feedback, what if we planned a lesson with the teacher? During this planning, what if we (together) researched proven strategies to improve on an identified area of weakness? What if we then co-taught this particular lesson modeling the desired performance? Afterwards, what if we (together) reflected on the lesson to determine if the strategies worked?

    The energy generated when teachers take ownership of their learning can create a school culture that sparkles with collegiality, collaboration, sharing and a passion for learning. To instill such a passion, it will require much intentional planning along with personal follow up, but developing thinkers, problem solvers, and curious minds is ultimately worth it!

    Thank you for such a stimulating post. I love the simile, “it was like a punch to the gut.” This simple phrase of reflection articulated your own desire to be the best. It shows you care! Shawn

    Posted by Shawn Blankenship | December 24, 2011, 6:34 pm

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