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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Principals: Supporting Your Teachers Doesn’t Have to Be Such Hard Work

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 24, 2022 12 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is the one thing a principal can do to support his/her teachers, and why is what you’re suggesting so important?

In Part One, Wendi Pillars, Aisha Christa Atkinson, Robert S. Harvey, and Jessica Cabeen shared their suggestions.

Today, Cindy Garcia, Cindi Rigsbee, Jen Schwanke, Cecilia M. Espinosa, Laura Ascenzi-Moreno, and Mary K. Tedrow provide their ideas.

‘Coach Their Teachers’

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 15 years and is currently a districtwide specialist for P-6 bilingual/ESL mathematics. She is active on Twitter at @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog:

One of the best things a principal can do is to be a strong instructional leader and coach their teachers. As the instructional leader of the campus, it is up to the principal to build a culture of learning and growing at the campus. Every teacher at every level of experience deserves a coach. All teachers should be given multiple opportunities to expand their knowledge, learn more effective instructional strategies, and improve their teaching practices.

I am not suggesting that principals have full coaching cycles with all of their teachers. How can principals coach all of their teachers at their campus? Consistently visiting classrooms will not only let teachers know that their principal is interested in what is taking place in their classroom, but it also provides anecdotal data about campus trends. What instructional strategies are being employed the most? Is what was explored during professional development transferring correctly? The principal can then decide to provide feedback to teachers, teams, or to the whole campus. The principal might decide to have a follow-up professional-development session, provide teacher support, or simply have a conversation about possible misunderstandings.

Being an active member of the campus professional learning community will allow principals to address misconceptions and answer teacher questions. Part of the PLC process is about making necessary changes in a timely manner in order to have the maximum impact on student learning. By being in those PLC meetings, issues and challenges can be addressed before they become difficult to fix.

During formal evaluations, the principal should take the opportunity to take part in pre- and post-conferences in order to get a true understanding of what is each teacher’s best and what requires more support. These conferences provide the opportunity for a one-on-one conversation, where the principal can pose prompts and guide teachers to put into practice what they have learned.

Another way to be a strong instructional leader is to help build the capacity of support personnel and nonclassroom teachers. If the campus has instructional coaches, it is important for those coaches to be given the time and tools to support teachers on a daily basis. Intervention teachers, dyslexia teachers, and librarians all have something to contribute. How can their knowledge be leveraged and shared with classroom teachers?

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‘Display the Heart of a Teacher’

Cindi Rigsbee is a national-board-certified ELA/reading teacher currently serving as a K-12 literacy coach in North Carolina. With over 30 years in education, Cindi was named the 2009 North Carolina Teacher of the Year and is the author of Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make. She blogs at cindirigsbee.com:

Most principals were teachers first. The thing a principal can do to support his/her teachers is to make administrative decisions that come from the heart of a teacher.

I’ve had all kinds of school leaders: dictators, caregivers, you name it. But when decisions are made with teachers in mind, the culture of the school is positive. One of the most important ways to do that is to instill a sense of “family” in the building. Celebrations throughout the year lift the spirits of the staff and help bond teachers and administrators. My principal brings around a goodie cart of treats periodically, including hot drinks in the winter and bags of goodies on holidays; she also places surprises in our teacher boxes. A pad of sticky notes or a highlighter can go a long way when morale is down.

Another way administrators can display the heart of a teacher is by treating the staff as professionals. My principal created numerous committees as a way to gather teacher input on decisions needing to be made during virtual teaching. The Academic Committee, the Health and Wellness Committee, and the Graduation Committee, just to name a few, made sure the chaotic school year would run smoothly. Our principal entrusted teachers to make decisions that impacted the staff.

Part of running a school with the heart of a teacher means that the administrator has the staff’s best interests in mind. For that reason, they do whatever it takes to ensure that teachers are growing as leaders. They offer professional-development activities and give teachers the opportunity to lead as well. We learn the most from our colleagues up and down our own hallways. Administrators who encourage school staff to share expertise with others create an atmosphere that’s conducive to success and a group of colleagues that have buy-in in the workplace.

An administrator leading with the heart of a teacher is important in order to ensure a positive school culture. But also that administrator is modeling for teachers who may become administrators themselves someday. Let’s fill school districts with principals who really care because they remember their classroom days themselves! What a difference that could make in our schools.

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‘They Don’t Bully’

Jen Schwanke has served as a teacher and administrator at the elementary and middle school levels for 20 years. She is the author of the book, You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders, published by ASCD:

As a principal, I have a conflicted relationship with the word “support.” Supportive principals are spoken of with positive, reverent tones—as in, “It is a dream to have a principal who always supports me,” with the opposite being, “Unsupportive principals are the worst.”

Of course I want to be known as a supportive principal. But what do we mean by the word “support?” The answer is multilayered. When I was a teacher, I thought support meant I would be defended by my principal, no matter what. Even when I misstepped, I thought, my principal should go to great pains to reassure me I was right. That, to me, was supportive. But that word gets all mixed up with other words, and we say it meaning something else—defend, corroborate, implicate, fortify, secure, or reassure. I’ve seen principals and teachers expect support from one another, but what they really want is unquestioned loyalty.

I’d like to propose an alternate definition of the word. Support should mean teachers and principals questioning one another with respect, kindness, and an open mind. It should mean we are keeping our eye on growth, are willing to change, and honor the professionalism of our fellow educators. Support is an evolution, a process, an end goal. It should be used as a verb—an action, a process that is symbiotic and dynamic.

Here I provide an example of what we might mean when we say we’d like to be supported and what might be the more beneficial way to offer and receive it.

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Supportive principals don’t have cliques or favorites. They don’t bully. They instinctively seek multiple perspectives and they offer a framework for helping teachers excel. They understand that a teacher’s purpose, priorities, and patterns sometimes change. They are patient but aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. They understand that support is a relationship. Ultimately, a supportive principal-and-teacher connection will take all of the combined energy and funnel it—right into a system of support for students.

supportiveprincipals

Supporting ‘Emergent Bilinguals’

Cecilia M. Espinosa is an associate professor and the coordinator of the early childhood MSEd. and the bilingual extension programs at Lehman College, City University of New York. Laura Ascenzi-Moreno is an associate professor and the bilingual program coordinator at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. Laura and Cecilia are the co-authors of the professional book Rooted in Strength: Translanguaging and the Power of Multilingualism, Scholastic, 2021:

Often, the school staff member with the most knowledge about emergent bilinguals—or students who use two or more languages in their daily lives, is the English as a new language (ENL) teacher (Brooks and Morita-Mullaney, 2010). However, we think it is essential that principals also have a deep and strengths-based understanding of emergent bilinguals’ learning; they are in a position to positively change the academic trajectory of their emergent bilinguals by cultivating a culture of inclusive and robust literacy instruction.

Emergent bilinguals do not simply read in one language and then in the other but rather draw upon resources from all of their languages as they construct meaning as readers. For bilinguals, reading exists as a unified process meaning that bilingual readers draw upon a range of language resources and features when they are reading that transcends any one language. (Ascenzi-Moreno, 2018; Espinosa & Ascenzi-Moreno, 2021; Kabuto, 2017)

Let’s briefly examine the reading practices of two bilingual readers. Blanca is in 5th grade. She is at school reading about blues music and musicians and preparing a presentation. While she reads, she also brings her knowledge about the music her parents play at home—baladas, cumbia, bachata—and the music she hears as she walks to and from school that is in Spanish and English. In another home, we have José, who is reading a biography about Roberto Clemente, a legendary baseball player. He asks his father in Spanish if Roberto Clemente played in the Puerto Rican leagues. They do a web search about him in both English in Spanish. They continue the conversation going back and forth between languages commenting on their new insights about Roberto Clemente’s career.

For these bilingual readers, reading is making sense of print regardless of the language. Reading is purposeful, authentic, and rooted to their lives. For them, capitalizing on their entire linguistic repertoire is the norm; that is, they translanguage to construct deeper meanings, to convey their understanding of the text, to make connections, to pose questions, and to wonder. These readers are not “practicing reading” to obtain a certain level; they’re reading for authentic purposes that are meaningful to them.

Sadly, at many schools, students like Blanca and José are not invited to capitalize on their entire linguistic repertoire to more fully construct meaning. For too many other children in the United States, at school, reading only counts when it’s in English (García & Espinosa, 2020). We often see emergent bilingual children engaged in the act of “practicing” reading rather than reading for an authentic purpose. Young emergent bilingual children are often given books that are devoid of meaning, where they need to practice some letters/sounds of the week, e.g. “The cat sat on the mat.” Such texts do not help emergent bilingual children imagine the possibilities reading affords. Older children are asked often to take on roles such as, summarizer, note taker, or questioner, before transacting with the text (Rosenblatt, 1978, 1995). We contend that how we invite emergent bilingual children to engage as readers and what we ask them to do in responding to texts matters.

As we reflect on the question, “What is the most important thing principals can do support their teachers,” we argue that school leaders can take up a vision of reading that acknowledges the crucial role that emergent bilinguals’ linguistic repertoire and social resources play in reading. They also must support teachers to create spaces for the whole emergent bilingual child to come into the classroom and to have opportunities to authentically engage in reading experiences where their multilingualism is a strength.

Questions principals can ask to develop a vision for supporting teachers:

  • In what ways do the reading experiences we offer help emergent bilinguals draw upon and sustain their bilingualism?
  • What opportunities do emergent bilinguals have to engage in authentic and purposeful reading?
  • Do emergent bilingual children have opportunities to further develop their interests, their knowledge of a topic, a genre, a medium, etc.?
  • When are emergent bilinguals offered opportunities to question and critique texts?
  • How do I support teachers to take up an expansive view of reading that values children’s meaning-making and multilingualism?
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Acknowledge the Work of Teachers

Mary K. Tedrow taught in the high school English classroom beginning in 1978, ending her K-12 career as the Porterfield Endowed English Chair at John Handley High School in 2016. She currently directs the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project at Shenandoah University in Winchester Va.:

Tell teachers individually when they are doing good work. Good work doesn’t need a public celebration. Simply letting teachers know what you honestly value them for would be enough. Be specific.

Though I received many official atta-boys in my career (district teacher of the year, national-board certification), not one of the 11 principals I worked with ever acknowledged my work beyond required evaluations. We don’t always work for the money. A pat on the back goes a long way to ensure that good work continues. It works with students, too.

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Thanks to Cindy, Cindi, Jen, Cecilia, Laura, and Mary for sharing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 10 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.

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