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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Professional Development Opinion

Response: An ‘Important Challenge for a Principal Is Prioritizing’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 27, 2018 16 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What are the biggest challenges faced by principals and what are the best ways to respond to them?

In Part One, Dr. Sanée Bell, Jen Schwanke, Mike Janatovich, Joseph F. Johnson, Jr., Cynthia L. Uline, and Lynne G. Perez contribute their thoughts on the topic. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Sanée, Jen and Mike on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Michael Haggen, Donna Wilson, Marcus Conyers, Tom Hoerr, David Bateman, Jenifer Cline, and Jennifer Abrams provide commentaries.

Response From Michael Haggen

Michael Haggen is Chief Academic Officer for Scholastic Education. In this role, he ensures that Scholastic is a responsive comprehensive literacy partner to pre-K through grade 12 districts nationwide. In Haggen’s 20 years of academic experience, he has served as a teacher, principal, chief academic officer and direct report to superintendents. His hands-on approach has led to significant change, most recently in East Baton Rouge Parish School System, where he was Deputy Superintendent:

The biggest challenges faced by school principals today can be loosely grouped into three categories: reaching all students, resources and morale. While these challenges are pervasive and at times discouraging, they are not insurmountable, especially when school leaders have access to resources and ongoing professional learning opportunities that are tailored to their needs. Below, I’ll explain how to help principals in their important work of creating a school culture in which both teachers and students learn and thrive.

Reaching all students

Principals need help supporting both students who are English language learners, as well as their teachers. Schools nationwide are becoming increasingly diverse, with districts that may be required to teach kids in many different languages. (I know of one district in Texas with students from countries including Myanmar, Somalia, Iran, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.) And the challenges here are not simply around instruction: there are now significant hurdles around family engagement, such as families that may be unable to enter into deep partnership with the school due to deportation fears. Or schools may need help learning how to communicate with the variety of cultures in their communities. And yet we know that when done effectively, family engagement is absolutely critical to student achievement.

Recommendation: Principals need access to training around deep and meaningful family engagement for all families. With strong professional learning for principals and teachers, it is possible to learn how to work effectively with families from diverse backgrounds, and to learn to work with community partners to provide learning supports for kids (like books, food and health services). We also have to address staffing strategies for working with all students, and working to help ENL students get access to early childhood programs.

When done well, professional learning that is tailored to the needs of the school and the community will lead to increased student achievement.


Principals make a lot of tough choices around spending. In the Scholastic Teacher & Principal School Report we found that principals’ funding priorities largely center on addressing outside barriers to learning. Additionally, principals are allocating dollars for classroom needs like libraries and curriculum resources. That leaves little to nothing left over for professional learning. By and large, principals don’t receive the professional learning they want (neither for themselves nor for their staff) because of budget restrictions, so they end up having to do it in-house without outside expertise.

Recommendation: Get creative and cast a wide net when it comes to allocating and sharing resources. For example, a district in New York had access to site-based funding, so we brought principals together from across several communities. There were a cluster of schools with the same needs, so they were able to benefit from professional learning that was led by outside experts, and tailored to their needs. When resources are scarce, come together.


Instructional standards change constantly, and consequently, curriculum does, too. That can be difficult and discouraging for even the most experienced teachers, which then becomes a problem for principals. These challenges can result in a high rate of principal turnover. There is a steep learning curve, and students lose out when there are frequent staff changes or frustrated and discouraged leadership. As these issues cascade, student achievement can suffer and schools may reach a crisis point. Principals need support on how to support teachers and boost morale; they need to know what that kind of work looks like when it’s done effectively.

Recommendation: We must invest in principal training on how to support teachers by modeling the highs and lows. Principals need to be able to communicate to teachers that it isn’t (just) about the test, it’s about growth and learning, and best practices on essential skills. When principals know how to lead their staff toward that outcome, it helps relieve pressure and frustration, and renews focus on what’s most important: the learning, achievement and academic growth of all students.

Response From Donna Wilson & Marcus Conyers

Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers, founders of BrainSMART, are international education consultants and authors of over 20 books. To learn more about the ideas in this posting see, Smarter Teacher Leadership: Neuroscience and the Power of Purposeful Collaboration (Teachers College Press, 2016). For a possible book selection for your PLC see, Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains: Metacognitive Strategies, Activities, and Lesson Ideas (ASCD, 2016):

Quality of teaching has a significant impact on student achievement; in fact, it may well be the most important factor within schools’ control in ensuring that students achieve their full learning potential. Therefore, the 21st century principal is challenged to plan and create opportunities that support the complex and difficult work required to teach effectively each day. That is no small task, especially alongside other essential duties, such as planning budgets, reporting to the central office, hiring and monitoring the performance of teachers and staff, and overseeing implementation of standards.

Principals don’t need to be fully versed on how to teach students at all grade levels and content across their schools, but it is important that they understand how teacher leadership and purposeful collaboration among teachers support effective teaching. And they should encourage and facilitate collaboration as one way to keep improvements in student learning as a shared focus with teachers. In this way principals and teachers are more likely to enjoy positive and productive working relationships, and student achievement is more likely to increase. Over the past 16 years as full-time professional developers and teacher educators, we have found that when teachers are supported to share their favorite strategies and plan more effective lessons together across required standards and content, the resulting collaboration makes for a greater sense of efficacy and well-being.

Some key strategies for principals to apply in order to set up opportunities for teachers to engage in purposeful collaboration are:

  • Make purposeful collaboration that has a focus on the development of effective lessons across the school curriculum a part of “the way we do business here.”

  • Protect this focus by limiting new projects so that teachers can see their process of creating new lessons through to completion.

  • Encourage and support teachers to...

    • Lead when their teaching expertise is needed, for example, with particular academic content or with regard to teaching students with learning challenges, and
    • Establish their motivation for planning a new lesson and agreeing on the positive changes they expect to see from developing and implementing these lessons.

  • Support teachers to develop goals for increasing lesson effectiveness and a concrete action plan to make success happen. Make these goals public to increase positive collaboration.

  • Keep the focus on the improvement of teaching and learning rather than primarily on supplying paperwork.

  • Support the charting of course corrections. Given the complexities of teaching today, the team may well have setbacks and unintended occurrences. If this occurs, the best response is to return to the goal and action plan, and move forward to finish the project.

  • Celebrate the completion of goal setting, planning, and execution. Principals should ensure that the hard work of teachers to collaborate purposefully to raise student achievement is acknowledged and celebrated.

A common obstacle to long-term change is a dwindling commitment to the original goals or a mandate to turn to the “next big thing.” Change takes time, and principals can be successful change agents by continuing to champion teacher leadership and purposeful collaboration as primary tools to support effective teaching and student achievement gains.

Response From Tom Hoerr

Tom Hoerr is the Emeritus Head of New City School, a Scholar In Residence at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and writes the “Principal Connection” column in Educational Leadership. His latest book is The Formative Five. www.thomasrhoerr.com:

Principals face many challenges, but in my mind their efforts should be focused in three areas. First, these challenges are myriad and unending, and that’s why the job is so rewarding and so frustrating. There is always more to be done, and it can always be done better and more quickly. Thus, the most important challenge for a principal is prioritizing: deciding what can be done now, what can wait, and what must wait. This is much easier said than done because just about everyone else thinks their need is urgent. This is obvious in their facial expression, in the capital letters in their email, and in how often they appear at your door. Distinguishing between what is important and what is urgent - these are two different qualities - is the first key to success.

Second, regardless of students’ test score results or school awards -- principals must push against the inevitable institutional inertia. This inertia is a human condition and found everywhere but is even stronger when people cannot agree on the goals to be pursued or the means to accomplish them. Whether the controversy is over pursuing the Common Core, the merit of performance pay, or if we should teach grit, a natural reaction to the sometimes rancorous debate is to lower your head and continue doing what you were doing. Most people resist change, and many people think that if they just wait long enough, the impetus to change will evaporate. (Or maybe she will be transferred.)

A principal must push back on this tendency for homeostasis and create a culture in which everyone in the building - children and adults - is a learner. We need to try to elicit the same curiosity about learning and growth in our teachers that they want to cultivate in their students. We should promote an attitude of “Make New Mistakes” (Hoerr, 2016) so that everyone is comfortable taking risks and leaving comfort zones to learn. Professional development activities need to reflect the fact that the conditions for good learning are the same for children and adults. We all learn best when we are motivated, construct knowledge, are engaged, and when learning is individualized. Using these criteria to plan faculty and committee meetings benefits everyone.

Finally, principals must realize that they must take care of themselves. By definition, the job of a principal is to provide direction and consul, to listen and support, and to understand and empathize. But we need to be careful that in constantly taking care of others, we don’t neglect our own needs. “Caregiver burnout” is a phenomenon most often associated with nurses and others who directly work with people in crisis and ignore their own emotional or physical health. The symptoms can resemble high stress or depression, and we may not be aware of them because we are busy looking out for others. This caregiver burnout can happen with teachers, and it can definitely happen with principals.

Principals need to find and maintain an interest or hobby that’s not associated with their school, they should talk regularly with someone they can trust and with whom they can vent, they need to remember that family comes first - including their own family - and they need to recognize, returning to my first point, that they will never be fully caught up, no matter how hard they work. They need to create windows for relaxing - using vacation days and occasionally leaving early or coming in late. Leadership is a marathon, not a sprint.

Response From David Bateman & Jenifer Cline

David Bateman, PhD is a professor of special education at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania where he focuses on providing appropriate services to students with disabilities. He is the co-author of many books, including A Teacher’s Guide to Special Education.

Jenifer Cline, MS, works in the Office of Public Instruction for the state of Montana. She is a former speech pathologist and a special education administrator. She is the co-author of many books, including A Teacher’s Guide to Special Education:

Being a principal is hard work. However, one of the biggest challenges faced by principals is that as the leader of the building, one is expected to know all of the answers. These questions can come from teachers, parents, and students. One can have a little leeway about not knowing all of the answers about sports, politics, and current events. However, the constituency a principal serves will expect a building leader to know the answers to any questions relating to education.

Given how expansive the field of education is, with all that is going on across the country (even the world), it is impossible to know all of what is occurring and be able to answer questions relating to any comment or query. Questions that can come up relate to a school in a different state wand the reading method that is used, a new form of fund-raising, a student who brought a knife to a different school, student who is selling drugs on a school bus, to a student in special education who is not making progress. These are all very different questions, and with parents and other educators spending time on the internet reading stories and seeing news, one can not be sure of where the next question will come from.

What is a principal to do? First, join and maintain an active membership in a professional organization (like ASCD), and make sure one reads (at least scans) the literature provided. But also, a principal should be a member of an organization that sends out regular updates and importantly updates when there is major or breaking news on an education related topic. Let the professional organization do the work for you in gathering the information. You just read it.

Second, talk with parents. Talk with teachers. Talk with staff. Talk with them about things they want to talk about, not just information you are comfortable with. Go to events at your school. Go to different events. You may like band, but also go to the drama activities, the forensic activities, as well the more public and typically attended sports activities. Learn from what you hear and see. Diversify yourself and the information from the professional organization(s) will be more relevant and applicable.

Response From Jennifer Abrams

Jennifer Abrams is an international educational and communications consultant who considers herself a “voice coach,” helping others learn how to best use their voices. Abrams is author or co-author of several books for educators, including Hard Conversations Unpacked - the Whos, the Whens and the What Ifs and The Multigenerational Workplace: Communicating, Collaborating, and Creating a Community. Learn more about Jennifer at www.jenniferabrams.com or connect with her on Twitter @jenniferabrams:

One of the biggest challenges principals come across is the adults in the school not owning their responsibility and their freedom.

When I was a young teacher, I went to my superintendent to complain about my principal. I didn’t think the principal was ‘good’ at his job and he was doing the wrong things. My superintendent didn’t fix the problem for me. Instead, he actually said, “I am sorry this isn’t a good fit for you. If you are really unhappy, perhaps you should think of working elsewhere.” I was shocked. I sobbed. How dare someone confront me with my freedom, especially when I was the good person and the other person was bad?

What I have realized in the last few decades is that I have freedom to be self-accountable if a system isn’t working for me. Deep down, behind the fear of no money, or my reputation or my livelihood, I could get another job. If the system I am working in, the people I work with, and the rules I have to work by don’t work for me, I can make a change. Many educators believe they are upstanding citizens, doing what’s right for children and others need to change because as teachers they should get a ‘bye’ for being good people. I understand the belief and empathize. We do get a bad rap and we need more acknowledgement and support. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way.

Principals need to confront people as supportively as they can with their own freedom; what they can change within the system and what they can’t. I have often needed a field trip to the world of the principal because I couldn’t see what they did; what the organization needed, not just what I needed; how I fit into the bigger picture. It wasn’t a fun learning but it absolutely has been one I need to have. Principals have the privilege of being on the front line of supporting their teachers to learn this same lesson.

Thanks to Michael, Donna, Marcus, Tom, David, Jenifer, and Jennifer for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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