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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Getting Into Classrooms With a Coach Approach

By Jessica Johnson — July 05, 2017 4 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Jessica Johnson, school principal (Wisconsin) and co-author of The Coach Approach To School Leadership: Leading Teachers To Higher Levels of Effectiveness (ASCD, 2017).

In a recent blog post, The Coach Approach to Giving and Receiving Feedback in Schools, Shira Leibowitz shared the importance of principals providing teachers with feedback. The value of being in classrooms to provide feedback seems like an obvious one, and yet so many principals can find themselves trapped in their office, piled under the daily minutia preventing them from getting into classrooms to provide feedback.

Kim Marshall (2003) has actually given this the term “hyperactive superficial principal syndrome.” Any principal reading this is likely nodding their head in agreement or laughing while picturing himself running on a hamster wheel and relating to the feeling of getting to the end of a day wondering if anything was accomplished. We completely get it, however, we also believe that getting into classrooms to give feedback regularly can and should be done with a coach approach to leadership.

Despite all of the tasks on our to do lists and emergencies that can pull us from where we want to focus our time, we have found that the more time we dedicate to being in classrooms, the better rapport we have with students and staff and the fewer fires we have to put out. Is student discipline one of your barriers to getting out of your office and into classrooms? Let’s look at this issue differently. You already know right now which students are going to be referred to you, either because:

A) they have been repeated “frequent flyers”

B) they are in Ms. X’s class, your teacher who struggles with relationships and classroom management, or

C) you’re brand new but you can just ask the secretary.

If A is the case, then start out your day in their classrooms to check in with these students and make a positive connection each day before they get into trouble and hopefully prevent them from visiting your office. If B is another reason, then Ms. X needs you to be in her room more than ever. Get into her classroom frequently so you can help provide her with feedback and suggestions to improve relationship building and classroom management so she is not constantly sending you discipline referrals. In addition, make sure to get into other classrooms these students are in so if Ms. X blames certain students you can follow-up with how they respond to instructional strategies in other classrooms. If you are brand new to your position you can still make a plan to get into the classrooms of your frequent flyers, based on recommendation from your secretary or looking at the discipline data you have been given.

If being in classrooms regularly has not been a part of your practice, then it will feel awkward for you, your teachers and students; but only at first. I don’t recommend that you pull the bandaid off immediately so to speak, but that you first inform your staff. Explain to them your goal of getting into classrooms more regularly with the purpose of leading with a coach approach, not for evaluative purposes. I tell my teachers that I might follow-up with a quick conversation or an email (because if I’m in classrooms regularly, it’s likely I won’t have time for the in person meeting each day) asking a reflective question after I visit. I explain that the reflective question is just that, a question intended for them to reflect, not any sort of a gotcha. I flat out tell them that I am wearing my coaching hat unless I specifically say, “I have a concern.”

The next step to getting into classrooms is to prioritize it by putting it on your calendar and making sure that your secretary/administrative assistant is teamed up with you to help triage whatever comes your way while you are in classrooms. Give your secretary the green light to tell people, “I’m sorry, but she is in classrooms right now, I see an opening on her calendar at 2:00 today, how much time should I schedule for your meeting with her?” Not only does this let people know that being in classrooms is a priority, but it also puts dedicated time in your schedule to devote your full attention to the individual, which is far different from your distracted attention if they catch you with “do you have a minute?” (We all know it’s never a minute!)

Now that you’re in classrooms, make sure to share feedback promptly so teachers won’t be fearful/anxious about you being in their rooms and see the value of a second pair of eyes to help them notice their impact. Start out be recognizing and appreciating the strengths you notice in each teacher’s classroom. Don’t worry about areas of instruction/learning needing improvement at first (unless, of course, if you witness unacceptable/harmful behaviors). Be fully present in each classroom to write a narrative (using your tablet to email or handwrite a note) to the teacher to include:

  • What was being taught/what students were learning.

  • Evidence of effective strategies/practices used by the teacher.

  • The impact on student learning.

  • End with a reflective question.

Starting a new habit is hard, so make sure to schedule and end of the week check in time for yourself. Use this time to reflect on your goal of being in classrooms: how many classrooms you have been in and the feedback you have provided teachers. Make sure you have classroom time on your calendar for the following week and make a personal goal related to the feedback you provide your teachers with moving forward.

Photo courtest of Pixabay.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.