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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.

Professional Development Opinion

Response: Being a Principal Means ‘Spending Time Each Day Building Relationships’

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 28, 2018 14 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How should principals spend their time?

Principals have lots of demands on their time—every day they are pulled into a zillion different directions.

This series will explore the question: How should they really be spending their time?

Today’s guest “responders” are PJ Caposey, Stephanie Brant, Megan Allen, Sanée Bell, and Rachael George. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with PJ, Stephanie and Megan on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here. By the way, you can also now listen to the show on Google Play and Stitcher, in addition to iTunes.

You might also be interested in previous columns appeared here on Administrator Leadership.

Response From PJ Caposey

PJ Caposey is an award-winning educator, author of two books (Teach Smart and Building a Culture of Support), and sought after speaker and consultant specializing in school culture, principal coaching, effective evaluation practices, and student-centered instruction. PJ serves as the Superintendent of Schools for Meridian CUSD 223 in Northwest Illinois and can be reached at pcaposey@gmail.com or via twitter (@MCUSDSupe):

Principals either do the job or the job does them. Said a different way - either the principal happens upon the school or the school happens upon the school leader. It is pretty clear for me to see within a few hours in a building or a few minutes in conversation which of these two are true for any school leader. Hopefully, if you are a school leader right now this premise is forcing you to really reflect about which it is for you. If you cannot tell, here is a huge hint: ask your faculty and staff. They, without a shadow of a doubt, already know the answer. The difference between those that are simply doing the job assigned to them versus those that are imparting their will on the position is the difference between leadership and management. It is the difference between being proactive and reactive. It is the difference between having vision and following mandates. The question is - what type of school leader are you and if you have found yourself managing instead of leading - how do you break the cycle?

You may be thinking that this still does not answer the question of what should principals be doing with their time. The reason I wanted to first explore the concept of leading versus managing is because - to me - that is the answer. Abundant research has been done to isolate the impact of school leaders. The consensus is pretty simple - great leadership matters. Leaders matter. You matter. So there it is - principals should be spending their time focused on leading their buildings and the people within them.

The next logical question to ask is how can or should someone lead? The research becomes a little convoluted when trying to identify precisely what makes a school leader effective. Marzano explores over 20 characteristics of effective leaders, the Wallace Foundation highlights five key behaviors and a simple Google search on the topic will yield thousands of other articles with even more research. This brings forth information overload and instead of the research making it easy to start the journey, it can actually serve as an impediment.

My belief is simple after working with a plethora of highly effective principals and an even greater amount of marginally (at best) effective principals. The delineation is simple - great principals are constantly chasing down big dreams for their schools. To have big dreams for your building there are three key paradigms and behaviors a principal must demonstrate:

  • The ability to see beyond the next most logical change.
  • The willingness to set goals that may not be accomplished.
  • The understanding that great success only comes as a result of the efforts of the team, not the individual.

Great principals spend time thinking deeply about school and the future of school. They know where they want their school to be and understand it will take several changes or shifts to get there. They know that by setting audacious goals they are empowering those they serve to self-actualize and achieve greatness. And most importantly, great principals know that great schools exist because of the adults and kids within them - not solely because of the principal.

So, when it comes to what should a principal be doing with their time. The answer is extraordinarily complex, but also very simple. They need to be leading. They need to be growing. They need to be working to achieve something greater than what currently exists. The last thing a principal should be doing is attempting to ‘get through the day’ or allow themselves to have their time directed by those who are not working fervently to produce a better product for kids.

Response From Stephanie Brant

Stephanie Brant is the proud principal of Woodfield Elementary School in Gaithersburg, Md. Prior to becoming an administrator, Stephanie taught first and second grade, as well as taught Reading Recovery, an intense intervention program that served struggling readers. As a teacher Stephanie focused on literacy and building life-long learners. As a result, in her current position she works to inspire readers, problem-solvers, and critical thinkers who are competitive learners in the 21st century:

At 8:40 each day I am in front of my school, welcoming every student by name. I set a tone for the day and send a message: students know that they are important and that I believe in them. As the bell rings at 8:50, students return their books to the hallway book baskets and hustle into classrooms. During that time, I check in with them quickly in order to guide their mindsets for the day. I believe that a positive school climate must be established first thing in the morning and modeled throughout the day.

With Students

I spend a lot of time with students, especially with those who need individualized support and encouragement. I support their behavior plans, review their incentive charts, and teach intervention groups. By 9:00 most mornings, there is a buzz in my office: “I read my book twice last night!” or “I earned time to help in a kindergarten classroom today!” Kids swap books they’ve finished for new ones, and students are motivated to read again the next night.

I try to maximize all the resources available to me in my building. For example, one second-grade student loves basketball. I know that my building service worker does as well, so I create an incentive tailored to the needs and interests of this student. If he achieves the goals we’ve set together, they can play basketball together during the school day. I spend time building relationships with staff to ensure the needs of students are met each day.

With Staff and in Classrooms

Twice weekly, I meet with teachers engaged in instructional and data conversations. These conversations bring me into the classroom to learn about my staff’s expectations for students, how those expectations align with our curriculum, and how students perform as a result.

I give feedback to teachers about their instruction, and to students about their learning. I often ask students simple questions that allow me to gauge the work they’re doing, and determine whether that work aligns with expectations based on instructional and data conversations. Speaking with students allows me the opportunity to connect with their learning environment, which I find is as revealing as if I could see them in their community.

In the Community

I will never forget the first time I went into my school’s community. In just an hour, I was able to begin building relationships with future students and their families. I also met with community members who could someday mentor or help reach a student, or simply tell me something special about a student I’m having trouble connecting with.

Principals should view the community as a resource, especially in cases when all ideas and resources at school have been exhausted. I learned this when I partnered with a local senior center to do a reading initiative with my students. Some of my most challenging students have greatly benefited from the relationships they have formed with these community members, and from these shared reading experiences. A simple idea resulted in an invaluable mentoring program.

A principal’s day should be spent with students, staff, and the community. Time should be spent studying instructional best practices, watching instruction in action, analyzing data, and working to ensure all students meet their maximum potential. When this is done effectively, and strong relationships are built with students, staff and the community, success is a shared experience.

Response From Megan Allen

Megan M. Allen, NBCT, EdD, is the Director of Partnerships for the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and the founding director and developer of the Mount Holyoke College Master of Arts in Teacher Leadership. She likes to nerd out on education topics on her Ed Week blog at An Edugeek’s Guide to Practice and Policy and @redhdteacher:

How do principals possibly do everything they are required to do? On top of what students, teachers, and parents need them to do?

I made the decision in 2010 to go back to school for administration, thinking that would be a great next logical option for me sometime in the future. Not that I was all that confident about this career step, but I was unsure (and possibly unaware) of any other options.

I finished my program last summer, and graduated with my EdD this past January. And there is one thing that I’ve learned: I don’t know if I ever would be able to tackle this mighty job. Nor would I want it in this day, age, and education climate. Not now. Not that job.

And I really think at some point, I would LOVE to be a school leader. I think this could be my calling.

Just not now.

So how do principals spend their time?

Bill Ferriter wrote this great blog highlighting how principals spend their time in 2015 for the Center for Teaching Quality with this infographic as well, highlighting survey research from Ontario.

I also found this research to be helpful, which is from the Regional Education Laboratory (REL) at Education Development Center (EDC). Principals were found to work about 60 hours a week, which is 1.5 times the normal workload.

And we wonder why the turnover rate is so high.

I’m worried that principals also are not focused enough on instructional leadership versus compliance management. The term principal stemmed from the phrase “principal teacher,” who was the instructional leader for a school.

Shouldn’t a school leader be focused on improving learning and not just compliance?

I think so. And until that’s the case, it’s not the job for me.

Response From Sanée Bell

Sanée Bell, Ed.D. is a middle school principal and adjunct professor who resides in Houston. She has experience as an elementary principal, middle and high school teacher, and basketball coach. Dr. Bell recognizes her impact as a leader and uses her role to inspire, motivate, and empower others. Sanée shares her thoughts on leadership on her blog saneebell.com and via Twitter @SaneeBell:

Every day when I walk into my school, my number one objective is to be a better leader than I was the day before. My second objective is to make sure that I add value to someone’s life. As the principal, my job is to be present, be accessible, be active, and to be among the people. One of the sayings that I held true when I was a teacher was that teaching happened on my feet not in my seat. The same is true for me as a principal. Leading happens on the field and not in the locker room.

Instead of playing in the game I am now coaching a team of teachers from the sidelines. I have a broader view and a deeper knowledge of the game being played, so my job is to use my insight, knowledge, and skills to help others grow. I model and watch teachers practice, and then I provide specific feedback. The principal should spend the majority of his or her day out in the field. How will you know what to lead if you are not observing where all the action is taking place?

Someone reading this might ask, “How will I get my work done if I don’t spend time in my office?” It is amazing how much work never makes it to your office if you are out of your office and in the school. Try it. So many things come to the office because the principal is not out coaching and giving feedback. I schedule office time so that I am able to complete the “tasks” that only the principal can complete. If someone else can do it, I delegate. This allows me to spend most of my “time” being the principal because no one else in the building can do that but me.

Being the principal means spending time each day building relationships with students, staff and parents through the giving and receiving feedback. Building relationships only happens through visibility, accessibility, and active engagement. Remember, even though a school has many teachers, assistant principals and support staff, there is only one principal. Recognize the influence you have on the organization and seek to maximize that influence daily.

Response From Rachael George

Rachael George is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015 and currently serves as the principal of Sandy Grade School in the Oregon Trail School District. Prior to serving as an elementary principal, George was a middle school principal of an “outstanding” and two-time “Level 5: Model School” as recognized by the State of Oregon. George specializes in curriculum development and instructional improvement as well as working with at-risk students and closing the achievement gap. Connect with George on Twitter @runnin26:

Principals need to spend their time where it matters... with kids and supporting teachers by being an instructional leader. As a principal, it is easy to get bogged down with managerial tasks and busy work in the office. Instead, I would encourage principals to take control of their schedules and make room for the important things, which means getting out of the office!

I believe principals need to be visible throughout the entire school, interacting with students, staff, and parent volunteers. As you are out and about, have fun with the kids. Go take a ride down the playground slide, eat lunch in the cafeteria with a table full of kids, sit on the carpet for an engaging read aloud in the afternoon, the possibilities are endless. While getting out of the office can be fun and games, you have to remember that a major part of your day should be spent serving as an educational leader. This comes in the form of providing in the moment feedback, support, and encouragement to teachers as they try a new strategy, take a risk with a project, or attempt a new concept. I believe it is during these moments that the real relationship and collaboration is built when it comes to outcomes for kids. As a principal my goal is to be in every classroom every day to provide support to teachers.

Thanks to PJ, Stephanie, Megan, Sanée, and Rachael 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.

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.

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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.

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This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Classroom Management Advice

Race & Gender Challenges

Implementing The Common Core

Best Ways To Begin The School Year

Best Ways To End The School Year

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

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Author Interviews

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I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Two in a few days.

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