A School-Improvement Guidebook: Empower Teachers
How one busy principal got a continuous-improvement model off the ground
Editor's note: In this special Commentary project, a team of educators from Byron Nelson High School in Texas—a principal, an assistant principal, two instructional coaches, and one teacher—offer their perspectives on the difficulties and benefits of implementing the continuous-improvement model. Read all of the essays in the series.
The responsibilities of an administrator at a large comprehensive high school such as mine, with its 2,600 students and 200 staff members, are many. Byron Nelson High School, where I have served as the principal since the fall of 2014, offers athletics, fine arts, and career and technology courses, as well as advanced academics and other special programs. The shifting nature of priorities for a principal at any big high school campus is also dependent on the particular (and many) needs of his or her students, who typically range in age from 14 to 18.
As the principal of BNHS, one of my duties is helping to guide our young people's life choices. There are also school community needs, such as working with our PTSA organization, booster clubs, and local partnerships and carrying out my administrative obligations. All of this can limit a principal's daily interactions with his or her teachers. And yet, one of my most important roles as a school leader is to offer support and encouragement to our educators as they seek to provide rich learning environments for students.
Teachers are the first line of defense when it comes to creating powerful opportunities for students to achieve academic and social and emotional success in preparation for the challenges that lie ahead. And when the school structure fosters opportunities for teachers to meet regularly, allowing them to engage in dialogue about their teaching practices, examine student data, and provide peer feedback on individual practice goals, everyone benefits. Establishing common planning times in the master schedule is key to making this work.
Over the past 30 years, I have been an administrator in urban and suburban districts, including three years on a military post. I have worked on bilingual campuses and with low-income student populations in elementary and middle schools. (My current position is in a Dallas-Fort Worth middle-class suburb.) In each instance, I have been fortunate to learn how a range of districts pursue student academic growth. Invariably, school improvement involves teachers and action.
After a year at BNHS, I was not satisfied with the gap between my administrative role and working the teachers. I was not offering the actionable support that would enable them to do their jobs in the way they believed was best for their students. This led me to the conclusion that I needed teachers to support the instructional part of my role. If the teachers are working with students on a day-to-day basis, it made sense that they should be leading this work. And so three years ago, I broadened our campus definition of instructional leadership; instead of administrators only playing that role, we would turn to instructional coaches to help teachers process their work.
Our campus had never used this coaching model. I knew it was a risk and would take time for staff and teacher buy-in.
Our central office was not able to provide additional staff members to help us carry out this improvement plan, but it did sanction my use of full-time staff members to implement this model. With permission in hand, my "theory of action" began. I approached two of our campus teachers—calculus teacher Diane Caldwell and AP language and composition teacher Sarah Menn—to see if they would consider becoming instructional coaches. Like most of our teachers, neither one had regularly worked with an instructional coach. But Diane and Sarah were successful classroom teachers and talented department leaders. And I knew they would give me the kind of regular and honest feedback that I value.
In order to support Diane and Sarah and to make sure the instructional-coaching model would be effective, I sought professional development that would reinforce the promise of peer-to-peer instructional coaching. I looked to continuous improvement, which offers a feedback loop and gives those closest to the decisions agency in their outcomes. I understood from my years as an administrator that instructional coaching provides the greatest value when teachers are experimenting with and implementing new instructional strategies. I also knew that a model that distanced itself from the evaluative process—one that is usually associated with the administrative role of a principal—was important. Building trust between the teachers and their respective coaches, perhaps above all else, was crucial for this plan to succeed.
Today, our two instructional coaches facilitate dialogue in professional-learning teams across the campus. To help support the collective efficacy (where our professional learning communities are empowered to problem solve through determining their own action steps) and functioning of the teacher PLCs, the instructional coaches spend most of their time guiding these teacher collaboratives. Diane and Sarah provide the necessary instructional presence. They respond to individual teacher needs, based on each educator's self-selected goals. Our assistant principal, Maggie Norris, meets with the science PLC that she oversees as often as possible, and other assistant principals meet with their respective PLCs. But none provides administrative evaluative oversight, which helps build trust with our teachers, their coaches, and the administrators.
From the start, the learning that emerged from this work led us to become more responsive to the needs of our campus. It has allowed me to gain a sense of the broader professional-development needs across our campus. I am now privy to feedback that comes my way through my own discussions with Maggie and the other members of our administrative team, as well as with Diane and Sarah. This continuous-feedback loop between teachers, instructional coaches, the team of assistant principals, and me gives me insight as I consider the shared needs that emerge from these unique conversations.
Instructional coaching can provide the means for school improvement to become visible so that students benefit from the intentional decisions made by the educators responsible for their learning.
Vol. 37, Issue 35, Page 24Published in Print: June 13, 2018, as A Busy Principal Empowers His Teachers