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Three principals share instructional leadership tips

Principals can establish strong instructional leadership with a few key actions, panelists said.

School leaders play an important role in guiding educators as they strive to improve student achievement. School principals, charged with so many tasks already, also must be confident instructional leaders who can help teachers organize instruction, comprehend standards, and develop curriculum.

During a Jan. 12 Education Trust webinar about how principals can be strong, positive, and effective leaders, three school principals shared their tips and strategies for creating a school atmosphere in which instructional leadership thrives.

“Instructional leadership is one of the hardest things for principals to bring about in their schools, because of the historical nature of teaching [as] a closed-door profession,” said Ricci Hall, principal of University Park Campus School in Worcester, Mass.

“I think the notion of instructional leadership being led by the principal and carried out and enhanced by teachers is one of the hardest jobs to really get into the culture of the school,” said webinar leader Kyla Wahlstrom, director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota.

Discuss beliefs, educational values

June Eressy, a founding teacher and former principal of University Park Campus School and the current principal of Chandler Elementary School in Worcester, Mass., said it’s important for principals to articulate their vision for their school in order to establish a strong instructional leadership model.

“The culture here was previously not collaborative … and teachers’ voices were not heard,” Eressy said. “The whole first year was spent building teacher collaboration … and establishing a culture of trust where teachers are my partners. This is such hard work, and I don’t think any principal would say they could do it in isolation.”

Upon assuming the principal position in her new school, Eressy sat down with each teacher and asked if he or she were willing to undertake an educator role aligned with Eressy’s vision for the school. Some teachers opted to take positions with different schools, but the teachers who remained “so eagerly embraced the work,” she said.

“You’ve had conversations with your staff about their belief systems, and that has been … a courageous conversation, if you will, because people tend to shy away from that,” Wahlstrom told the speakers. “You have made it clear that if teachers are not going to be part of that conversation and belief system, then maybe they should be moving on.”

“The main job the principal has is to organize structure and opportunities for the adult culture to thrive,” Hall said. “When you have a thriving adult culture, it’s going to make things ultimately so much better for your kids and your families. For me, it’s about maintaining and enriching that adult culture in ways that allow [teachers] to continue with their work.”

He added: “Too often, teachers close their doors and become completely isolated. We’re all in this together, and a team approach is critical for the culture of the school.”

Mary Haynes-Smith, principal of Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School in New Orleans, faced opening a school in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“We realized that the children were going to suffer if they didn’t come under a good school system quickly,” Haynes-Smith said.

The school opened its doors to any student who was able to make his or her way back to the area after the storm, and Haynes-Smith said her staff’s most important priority was to listen to students talk about their experiences and fears in the wake of such a devastating hurricane.

“We opened the school to all these kids, and we listened to the kids and the stories they told,” she said. “Each person decided to give a part of their lives to the teaching, grooming, and growing of a child. We were good teachers before, but we wanted to be better teachers.”

Haynes-Smith chose seven of her best “pre-Katrina” teachers to open school after the storm. She said she focused on educators with positive attitudes and behaviors and a true love for educating children.

“Each teacher’s positive behavior rubbed off on the next,” she said. “We developed a vision, modeled the vision, talked about the vision, and we lived the vision. Any staff member who didn’t want to buy into it eventually left.”

Organize planning time and teams

Principals must find a way to enable their instructional teams and sub-teams to organize in ways that allow them to have productive discussions about student work, the speakers agreed.

The principals noted that some of the key ways in which instruction is organized include:

  • Regular collaboration meetings with specific agendas.
  • Teachers developing individual learning plans with regular reports to the principal.
  • Instructional rounds, in which teachers observe how classrooms are organized, what is posted on the walls, and move toward observation and feedback on lessons.
  • Grade-group meetings and staff development (after school, if all teachers agree).
  • Regularly review student data.

“We’re creative with the preciousness of time,” Hall said, adding that his school schedules itinerant staff and interns in a way that allows teachers to have common planning time, during which they talk about student problems or issues and possible interventions.

Hall organized common planning times and collaborative times so that teachers have the opportunity to look at student work, talk about challenges and instruction, and understand that the teachers, too, are still learners.

Teachers use an “instructional rounds” professional development model, in which teachers observe their colleagues’ work in a non-evaluative manner in order to talk about instruction and student learning.

“That time is critical to keeping that adult culture going,” he said.

Eressy’s teachers have common planning time Mondays through Thursdays, and then on Fridays she meets with her instructional leadership team and a team that focuses on building school culture.

Teachers receive bi-weekly agendas for common planning times to ensure that conversations are productive and cover specific topics. Additionally, Eressy’s staff is beginning to implement the instructional rounds professional development model.

Haynes-Smith’s teachers were in a unique position, because they found themselves dealing with much of Hurricane Katrina’s emotional effects on their young students. Teachers have common planning time once a week, but all agreed to meet after school with no extra compensation.

Every Tuesday, teachers stay after school for two hours to conduct grade-group meetings, professional development, staff meetings, and technology meetings.

Once a month, Haynes-Smith conducts student academic reviews, where teachers discuss all the students in their classes and present strategies to help struggling students improve their achievement.

Use data effectively

This shared information from after-school meetings helps everyone at Bethune Elementary stay abreast of classroom events, Haynes-Smith said.

“Data use has to be expected by the principal, otherwise it will not happen,” Wahlstrom said. “Principals themselves may need some professional development about how to ask data-based questions of their teachers.”

Eressy uses a Response to Intervention model to post data, and teachers understand that students should constantly be advancing proficiency and progress, she said. The school values formative assessments, and Eressy said she likes to ask students what they’re working on and have them explain it to her in their own terms to gauge their understanding.

“We see data as a large bucket of things that we can use to help us develop academic and non-academic [solutions] for kids when we need to,” Hall said.

Here are the panelists’ recommendations for using data to improve instruction:

  • Use all available data to understand student learning and progress.
  • Have principals model data use.
  • Include students in setting learning goals.
  • Use all kinds of data to develop both academic and non-academic interventions.


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