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Professional Development Opinion

Response: Principals ‘Need To Step Back & Forward Through Time’

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 19, 2016 12 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

Luke Sumich asked:

We know that quality classroom teaching does not automatically mean teachers will be quality leaders or Principals. What skills do aspiring Principals need to make the successful transition to Principalship?

In Part One, Catherine Beck, Mark Estrada, Bill Sterrett and Ben Fenton share their suggestions. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Catherine and Ted Appel (a frequent contributor to this column) on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Myron Dueck, PJ Caposey, Pete Hall, and Christina Post contribute their commentaries on the topic.

Response From Myron Dueck

Myron Dueck is the author of Grading Smarter Not Harder: Assessment Strategies That Motivate Kids and Help Them Learn (ASCD, 2014). He is currently a vice-principal and teacher in School District 67 in British Columbia, Canada and previously taught in Manitoba and on the South Island of New Zealand. Dueck has presented his student-friendly assessment procedures at conferences worldwide:

If teaching was a decade in US history it might be the 1920’s: ‘interested in emerging practices while practicing isolationism’. Inquiry and collaborative ventures may be valued, but the realities of budget and time constraints has resulted in the most effective teachers individually developing learning activities, corresponding assessment tools and sound grading routines. For many of the best teachers who have worked solo, a swift wind of change occurs just as they reach the height of their practice - the move to administration. The successful teacher is jolted into the transferring a myopic success to that for a school or district. In reflecting on my six years of administration and my work with districts around the globe, I have compiled a brief list of effective skills for the aspiring administrator (AA):

1. Deprogram

The AA must move away from isolationism and understand how narrow bands of classroom success can be transformed into broader school initiatives. No longer is it an option to have the best classroom practices hidden, but rather she must highlight and promote classroom pioneers by sharing their success with colleagues.

2. Time travel

The AA needs to step back and forward through time. Though her most recent classroom experience might have been the most successful of her career, reminiscing solely about the glory days will not be very effective. She needs to recall the struggles and apprehension she felt as a new teacher, while looking for what transferable skills made her feel more confident and effective. She then needs to use this lens to help the most inexperienced teachers gain success.

3. Strategize

Good strategies are universal. The AA needs to look for what strategies worked in his classroom or when he was a Department Head. If trial and error was working on his department’s grading inquiry model, then that might be the best place to start in his first administrative venture.

4. Utilize time

In moving from the classroom to admin, I felt that my time was far more fragmented and that I had gone from doing a few things really well, to many things poorly. At a time when I was focused on discipline issues, my principal, Bill Bidlake, gave me some sage advice. He suggested that I not spend all of my time on one behavior issue as I would never get time for instructional leadership. The AA should purposefully plan the day to touch on all of the things needed, from management to leadership.’

5. Practice over policy

Teachers will judge the new administrator not by what vision or goals she trumpets at the first staff meeting, but more so by the way in which she handles attendance, behaviors, and facility. A school that is running effectively will have staff much more willing to engage in conversations around grading, assessment, creativity and purpose. ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ should be foremost in the mind of the AA who knows that a good plan is methodical and timely. Trust and confidence are essential in developing vision, policy and dialogue.

These are a few suggestions I might have for the aspiring administrator. My central piece of advice it would be this: look for people who need support more than for people you wish to ‘change’.

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 currently serves as the Superintendent of Schools for Meridian CUSD 223 in Northwest Illinois and can be reached via twitter (@MCUSDSupe):

The absolute hardest year of my professional career was my first year as a principal. There was nothing in my previous experience that adequately prepared me to take on the challenge of leading a building. In discussion with my peers, my experience was not an anomaly. First-year principals struggle. There is more research to support this than there is to refute it, yet seemingly little has changed in the experience of a first-year principal despite changes in preparation programs and mentorship programs once on the job. I am currently in the midst of my dissertation research on this very topic, but as it stands my personal perspective of the skills that set those who experience normal growing pains versus those that truly struggle (like I did) are as follows:

Understanding Change Processes

  • As a young administrator, a respected veteran teacher once told me that I needed to understand that as an administrator I was visiting the building, but teachers lived there. I will never forget that statement and it shapes me still today. What seems like a simple shift or progress to a new administrator may symbolize a loss of normalcy by the people that are the most important in the educational process - the teachers. Change is hard. This does not mean that as a new administrator you should not stick to your philosophy and convictions - but it does mean you should always be considering how such changes will impact your people.


  • Successful administrators do not simply try to do the job; they try to accomplish their goals. This is the biggest area of concern I have when working with new principals. They attempt to complete the job description that they thought fit what a principal should do. The job is so immense that without a concrete vision of where they want to go, day after day fills with work and the building stagnates in terms of progress and vision. Successful administrators have the ability to see the school for more than in currently is, articulate that to all stakeholders, and then lead.


  • The quality of a school or school system simply cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. Administrators can create any program or policy that they choose, but the only way to create sustained school improvement is through investment in the people working directly with the children. Great leaders know that their greatest asset is their teaching staff and do whatever it takes to invest in them. People, not programs or policies, are what make great schools great.

Response From Pete Hall

Pete Hall (@educationhall) is a veteran school administrator and professional development agent who has dedicated his career to supporting the improvement of our education systems. He is currently a faculty member with ASCD Professional Learning Services. Along with Alisa Simeral, he is a co-author of Teach, Reflect, Learn: Building Your Capacity for Success in the Classroom (ASCD):

Sometimes great teachers make great principals. Sometimes they don’t. It takes a different set of skills, experiences, traits, knowledge, and approaches to be an effective administrator. If your ambition is to become an excellent building principal, I have a few bits of advice for you:

Be the best at what you’re doing right now. If you are in a classroom, be the best teacher you can be. If you are a resource teacher, instructional coach, mentor teacher, or assistant principal, be the best at that position. Nothing sets you up for success better than fully dedicating yourself to the task at hand. Supervisors will recognize that, because the results of your efforts will shine.

Learn about effective instruction. Successful principals have a vast knowledge of instructional strategies, best practices, and teaching methods. They are truly instructional leaders. In order to serve as the “principal teacher,” you must be able to coach teachers, deliver differentiated feedback, and provide accurate recommendations for growth. Get into as many of your peers’ classrooms as you can, read as much as possible, and “talk teaching” with others often.

Tackle leadership roles now. Every school harbors dozens of opportunities for leadership, from organizing committees to running task forces, from leading team meetings to orchestrating events. Many of them are unglorious, mundane, and fraught with obstacles. What great learning opportunities, and what a tremendous training ground for the principalship! Volunteer, roll up your sleeves, and be the best committee chair that committee has ever had.

Cultivate your vision. You don’t have to know what school you might eventually lead to have a vision. The vision you’re creating is that of excellent instruction, of robust learning, of powerful collaboration, of strong home-school-community partnerships, and whatever else you believe contributes to a successful school. Clarify in your head what that vision entails, keep that image front and center, and refine it as you engage in your work. When the day comes, you’ll want the description of that vision to roll off your tongue.

Remember it’s about kids first. A little stroll alongside a school principal will reveal that most of the work is done with adults and computers. That may be true, but it’s important to keep the purpose clear: We do what we do so that kids learn, achieve, succeed, and have the brightest future imaginable. So even when we’re dealing with adults, the student outcomes (and how all our decisions impact our kids) are the driving force. Always remember that.

And good luck to you.

Response From Christina Post

Christina Post is an Elementary Assistant Principal and mother of two. She loves to connect and learn from others whenever and wherever she can and strive everyday to do what is best for all kids. She is an avid reader of all things and has a blog where she documents what she learns:

Making the transition from classroom teacher to administrator can be a monumental leap. The skills that made you a teacher leader can be beneficial, but these are not the only ones needed to be an effective administrator. There are certain characteristics any aspiring administrator must possess in order to be a successful leader.

Be Curious. You don’t have to have all of the answers. By asking for help you show that you are able to take suggestions and are always looking for new learning opportunities.

Be Approachable. Parents constantly worry about the wellbeing of their children especially when it comes to their education. Make the time to be visible and be clear with school communication that you are committed to give their children the best experience you can.

Be a Learner. Stretch yourself regularly. Stay up to date on latest trends and articles. Create an online PLN where you connect with other educators beyond your own school district.

Be attentive. Now is not a time to show what you think you know. Be humble and listen to others. Knowing the pulse of your building is essential!

Be Appreciative. You worked hard for this position. Make the most of it and work hard to learn and grow. You owe it to your students, families and staff.

Find Balance. It is easy to get caught up in work. Make sure you also make time for your personal life. You will need a balance so that you avoid burn out.

Most of all remember you choose to be an educator because of your love of children. Do not lose sight of that no matter how stressful it becomes. It is essential to find ways to meet the responsibilities of the position while maintaining the connection to the classroom and the children for they are the real reason you go to work each day!

Responses From Readers

ciedie aech:

My personal teacher’s experience inside low-income schools suddenly invaded by educational “accountability” testing was that the deregulated churn of inexperienced short-term principals deployed by a “benevolent” reform needed to be exactly the opposite: Highly experienced and long-term career dedicated.

Thanks to Myron, PJ, Pete, Christina, and to readers, 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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