The job of a school leader can be an isolating one—now more so than ever. In this recurring Education Week advice column, two experienced former principals—Tamara McWilliams and Sharif El-Mekki—take turns sharing their decades of expertise with their colleagues.
Have a question? Send it in to AskAPrincipal@educationweek.org and check back to see if it appears in an upcoming column.
We’re going to be fully remote in the fall. How can I observe my teachers and give meaningful feedback in a virtual setting? The prospect of watching a recording of Zoom classes feels a lot more impersonal than a classroom visit. Should I even be focusing on teacher evaluation now? I want to keep things positive, but I also want to establish clear expectations for our virtual learning.
TAMARA McWILLIAMS: Your question is on the lips and in the emails of many principals and teachers right now as we look into the great unknown of the coming school year. And while there are many things that our schools may or may not be doing that look alike for this year, everyone wants clear indication for what is expected; clearly communicating your expectations for instruction is a good place to start.
In addition to stating those expectations, we must make time while preparing for the start of school to have discussions on a district level about goals for teacher growth and teacher feedback for the year ahead—whether schools are fully remote or providing a hybrid model.
Teacher input is central to this process. With the level of preparation required of our teachers in the virtual classroom, they will want administrators to recognize their work and give feedback on the effort. I agree that Zoom lessons do not offer the same level of engagement as the live classroom. However, I’ve attended more than one lively Zoom learning session that was a testament to the creativity and innovation of the teacher. If a school is fully remote, that is what the students are receiving, so administrators need to be immersed in the virtual lessons, too.
Perhaps the question for us to ask our teachers this year is: How do you want to grow professionally in this new environment?"
Perhaps the question for us to ask our teachers this year is: How do you want to grow professionally in this new environment? How can we help you grow by giving feedback and support? Goal setting with teachers for professional growth and learning has always been an extremely individual part of our job as administrators. This year, those conversations will be even more specific to the teacher’s needs.
As my school community tries to be more accountable for racial equity, we’ve talked a lot about asking the tough questions: “What is working? For whom and why? And who is not being served?” I’ve noticed that the follow-up question of, “What are we going to do about this data?” is really difficult for our teams to approach. How can I coach my team to look at our achievement data as a system issue and not internalize it as a personal failure?
Your question is an incredibly important one for districts. Equity audits are an important part of giving districts and campuses the data to know where the challenge spots and opportunity gaps can be found—but then what? Teaching and learning are very personal endeavors, and I agree with you that we must be careful to not treat the data like a personal attack or a personal failure for our teams—but how?
Trust is an essential component to making equity advances with our staff. Honesty is equally important. Let your teachers know that this is not a blame game and that the focus of looking at the data critically is to move forward, not continue to lament where we are today.
Creating culturally inclusive classrooms is a serious issue that needs our attention and our dedication. We must move toward a solution and not stall out in blaming each other, ourselves, or circumstances beyond our sphere of influence as educators. Before you can move forward with an action plan, you may also need to have discussions about collective efficacy and deficit thinking, while assuring teachers that we do have the power to improve the gaps revealed by the data. Only once the faculty has had a chance to voice concerns over “why the data is what the data is” can we focus on an action plan.
I advise picking one student-learning objective and one student population to work on for the first grading cycle of the new school year. You can gather data from a six-week action plan and apply it to another population with another student-learning expectation for the second cycle. Or, if you do not make the gains you needed on that first objective, stick with your first plan through the second grading cycle before widening your focus.
An action plan with specific timelines and strategies to gather new data keeps our focus on closing the gaps and finding workable solutions for the needs of our students. Awareness, intentionality, and focus give our teams a plan to go into battle united.
I’m going to be mentoring a few new principals this coming school year. Is there anything you wished you had known in your first year? I’d love to be able to share some tips beyond just my own experience!
Mentoring new principals is one of my favorite things to do in education. Good for your district to allow you to invest your valuable time in their growth. Where to begin?
Communication with staff is so important for a first-year principal. I would encourage them to dedicate themselves to the weekly email to staff. The hitch with the weekly email is to make sure that it happens every single week, before the week begins. This allows for encouragement, logistics, reminders of the vision and mission of the staff, shoutouts for all the good things happening on campus, and—perhaps the best benefit—responses from the veteran teachers who will chime in to remind the new principal of what he or she has forgotten to put in the weekly email.
I have found it helpful to keep an elaborate planner and to hold onto old planners from year to year. I can go back to September three years ago when I was an elementary principal and see what was on my list of must-dos. I can also use my calendar to give my future-self reminders. For instance, at the end of last December, I wrote notes to myself of what I needed to remember for this December for the high school campus. Take time each month to plan your month strategically so the inevitable daily fires don’t take your attention away from your monthly goals.
Never underestimate the power of a positive sticky note left on a teacher’s monitor or a thank-you card in their box (or inbox) on a random Tuesday. Teachers will appreciate the time you took to write the note and the affirmation from the principal.
One of the first things I learned to prioritize as a principal was that my first job every day was to keep everyone safe—staff and students. Learning cannot happen if we are not physically and emotionally safe. This has become my guiding principle as an educator. In all my decisions concerning discipline, curriculum, infrastructure, and budget, I look at physical and emotional safety first.
In fact, when I disciplined or met with students, be they tall or small, my opening question was always, “What’s my first job?” After a few weeks of having me as their principal, each one of my students learned to respond, “To keep me safe.” That lens would set the tone for the rest of the conversation. Students, parents, and your staff should know that above anything, you will work hard all day, every day to keep them safe.
A version of this article appeared in the August 19, 2020 edition of Education Week as The Principal Is In