Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Principals Let Their Hair Down

By Kirsten Olson — July 13, 2010 6 min read

Recently, I observed a group of high-powered principals vigorously engaged in a serious, districtwide improvement plan. The leaders at the table, some relatively new, a few long-timers who had managed to tough it out during a recent superintendent transition, were having a moment of truth as they reflected on the past year. “This is like when you turn over in bed in the morning, and there’s your partner: no makeup, no toothbrush, no mouthwash. It is what it is,” said a member of the teaching and learning team from the central office, setting up the discussion.

Because there was a fair degree of trust in the room, principals started laying it on the line. They talked about their sense of unfairness at being asked to change their ways of doing business. “I resented you guys, because you were treating us like we were broken,” said one. “We didn’t see ourselves as broken.”

“I really didn’t understand what you were doing,” offered another. “I couldn’t see the plan you had in your heads for how we were supposed to do the work in our buildings.”

Putting student learning experiences at the center of the institution of school is nothing short of a revolution.

But mostly, principals expressed their deep sense of uneasiness, and plain lack of comfort, with the new thing they were being asked to do: look closely at instruction in classrooms—while it is actually going on—and offer fine-grained, non-evaluative feedback to teachers on how to make learning more powerful for students.

“I’m used to being a building manager. Being an instructional leader is very confusing to me,” one principal said, jumping in.

“Being out in classes, I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be seeing. ... Oh my gosh, I’m supposed to know what I’m seeing. I just don’t feel confident. We’re focusing on students now. I’m not trained to do that. I feel like a blank slate.”

“It’s new. I’m trying to do it all. Gathering evidence around instruction is a different way of assessing. I couldn’t identify instruction. I don’t know how to do that.”

Hearing accomplished principals talk this way—so honestly and so expressive of their real truth—was a breakthrough, a moment of transformation. In the world they came from, being in classrooms meant 10 minutes twice a year, in which they checked off “whether the bulletin boards were neat,” and “whether kids were raising their hands,” as one principal put it. “I’m an administrator with a BlackBerry. Good students comply. Where I’m from is that I get rewarded for keeping order and calm, and producing test scores.” And the new world of instructional leadership is saying: “Where you’re from is too limited a vision. Where is the student from?”

In the old paradigm, students were almost like pieces of furniture: something to be sanded, filed, and nailed, to be crafted; they were not real individuals in the classroom, co-creating meaning around the work of learning. What these brave principals were saying was that it is not natural, not intuitively obvious for them to bend down and talk to students at their desks, to ask them what they are doing right now, why they are doing it, and then try to understand how this engages them as learners (or not). Moving away from the teacher as the center of the action, to the subtle, sometimes contradictory evidence-based world of the student as knower was hard. It wasn’t comfortable. They didn’t like it.

It was important.

There is a huge, truly significant change taking place in the institution of schooling. Much of the transformational work of the past couple of decades—from readers’ and writers’ workshops, to schools for all kinds of minds, to instructional rounds, to the explosion of technology that cracks open learning, to functional magnetic-resonance-imaging scans (fMRIs) that tell us what students’ brains look like when they are taking multiple-choice tests—is trending in the same direction: putting student learning at the center of the educational enterprise.

How do kids construct meaning around that writing prompt? How do students understand school when they are asked to complete worksheets for six hours a day? What does it mean to a child when she is not allowed to text message someone to ask them a question in class? Who has authority in thinking when a teacher relies on a textbook as the source of knowledge in the classroom throughout the course of the year? These were all questions the principals were pondering—for the first time in their professional lives, some said.

If one is willing to consider the proposition that the institution of school, as it has been constructed in America, has evolved largely to serve the economic, social, and even biorhythmic needs of adults, then putting student learning experiences—the intricate, complex, and paradoxical work of learning—at the center of the institution is nothing short of a revolution. It is a Galilean upending, knocking the geocentric adult out of the center of the universe and placing students at the heart of it. The factory model must be dismantled, widgets must be interviewed. Students become the sun and the source of energy from which light and meaning flow. It turns the conventional paradigm of school upside down; it changes the orbital path of the institution and dramatically alters the specific gravity of classrooms.

For many years, my outlier work has been listening to students talk about creating meaning around learning within the institution of school—checking out my assumptions, making sure I circle back to talk with students to see if I got it right, querying them about whether what I think they said is what they actually meant. Students are glad to talk to me, although at first surprised, because adults so rarely ask them about their experiences of learning in school. (Initially, they wonder if you are for real.)

Asking students what they are learning, and how they are learning, and listening to them in as much detail as possible is always a reminder of how much they know about the game of school. Powerfully, with precision, students tell me most often how bored they are, how underchallenged they are, how deadened by school routines they are, and how infrequently they are enlivened by their work.

So when teachers and administrators complain that students are bored in school, unmotivated and underperforming, I say, “Can you really blame them? If you were asked to do what they do, wouldn’t you be bored? Have you sat with them at their desks and done what they are asked to do?”

The principals around the table in this planning session filled me with hope. Schools will only get better when adults become trained to see the institution from the perspective of students, and to value and honor that perspective as equally important to their own.

There is an acculturation and training function to schools, of course, a passing on of values, beliefs, and images, but students are active co-constructors of those meanings, whether adults acknowledge this or not. Our work now is to formalize this co-construction, to move attention toward the student and his or her experiences of school, and of learning. “I don’t know how to do this,” the principals said.

But we do know that great learners begin by being unafraid to express what they don’t understand. These courageous principals were facing the new challenges of instructional leadership by saying, “I’m willing, but I don’t know how.”

How do we change the paradigms of schooling so that student experiences of learning are at the center of our work? We practice doing it.

We all need practice. Let’s begin today.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2010 edition of Education Week as Principals Let Their Hair Down: ‘I Don’t Know How to Do That’

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