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School & District Management

The District Where Principals Run Their Schools—and Teach

By Denisa R. Superville — August 29, 2017 5 min read
Dana McCauley, the principal of Crellin Elementary School in Oakland, Md., for 15 years, spends about three hours a day teaching in the K-5 school. Her teaching staff says McCauley’s double duty gives her a deeper understanding of what works in classrooms.

A common refrain is that principals have extraordinarily demanding jobs.

Setting class schedules. Evaluating teachers. Drafting school budgets.

But Dana McCauley, a principal in the Garrett County school system in western Maryland, does all that—and more.

For the past 15 years, McCauley has been the principal and a teacher at Crellin Elementary, a K-5 school in the small town of Oakland, where she spends about three hours a day teaching.

McCauley is not unique in Garrett County, where four of the eight elementary principals in the 3,700-student district are pulling double duty as teachers.

That has been the case in Garrett County for decades, said Barbara Baker, the district’s superintendent, who arrived nearly 30 years ago and found the program already in place.

Despite the long-standing practice in Garrett County, teaching principals are rare, except in those cases when leaders are tapped to teach for budgetary reasons, said Mark Shellinger, the president of the National SAM Innovation Project, which trains principals to shift their time and energy from management to focus more on instruction.

Trade-Offs

Still, about 1 in 10 principals teaches some time during the year, and principals in the SAM program work as teachers about once a week, Shellinger said.

Shellinger understands the desire to remain connected to the classroom. As his career in administration took him further away from the classroom, Shellinger tried to keep one foot in the door by teaching one hour a day as a principal when he served as superintendent in another district, he said.

While he enjoyed being in the classroom and got praise from parents and teachers, Shellinger said he now thinks it would have been wiser to have spent the time co-teaching, working with the principals, or working with teachers in small groups to help them become better teachers.

“In no way am I suggesting that it’s a bad thing for a principal to teach a class,” he said.

“If we really want results in schools—if we really want kids to succeed—then the teachers have to be nourished, teachers have to be honored, and the art of teaching as well as the science has to be something the principal respects and invests in,” he said.

Jody Spiro, the director of education leadership at the Wallace Foundation, said that there are trade-offs that come with school leaders doubling as teachers. (The Wallace Foundation helps support coverage of education leadership and arts education in Education Week.)

“Some principals use this effectively,” Spiro said. “The question is whether a principal’s time is better spent working with teachers on curriculum, professional learning communities. ... These activities benefit the entire school rather than just a class of students.”

In Garrett County, teaching principals are not filling in for teachers when they are absent: teaching is a part of their job. They’re the regular math, science, and reading teachers in their schools.

They are assigned to schools with fewer than 150 students, and the positions are often a starting point for new principals who later move to bigger schools without the teaching requirements, Superintendent Baker said.

The practice has allowed the district to keep class sizes small, without extra costs, said Baker, who also served as a principal early in her administrative career. Teaching principals make a big difference helping teachers with split classrooms, where more than one subject is taught during the same period, by dividing students into groups and in providing individualized instruction to students who are at different proficiency levels, she said.

“The biggest positive is the fact that [principals] are getting a feel for what it’s like to be a principal while keeping the ties to the classroom and being right there in the trenches with the rest of their teachers while they are leading their schools,” Baker said.

A Principal Who ‘Gets It’

Crellin, which has 138 students, most of whom are from low-income families, has received plaudits for both student achievement and community engagement. In 2010, the school had the highest passing rates on state assessments of all Maryland elementary schools. (That was before the state’s switch to the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exam.)

Joshua Aronson, an associate professor of applied psychology and the director of the Mindful Education Lab at New York University, has been studying Crellin since the late 2000s.

He says part of the school’s success stems from McCauley’s dual role. But, he added, the entire school environment is one in which everyone supports each other.

“By teaching, she knows the children as intimately as the teacher knows them, and so she knows exactly how she needs to support her teachers,” he said.

Susan Friend, a kindergarten teacher at Crellin, echoed Aronson’s sentiments. McCauley encourages teachers to share ideas and pursue their passions—Crellin’s agriculture program, for example, grew out of one teacher’s interest, Friend said.

The principal participates in professional learning groups with them and sits alongside teachers in weekly staff meetings to learn from them, review data on every student, discuss what teachers are doing, and share ideas on what’s getting results, Friend said.

“It puts her on a realistic page with us, where she is just not sitting behind the desk and...barking orders that are coming down from above,” Friend said.

“She truly knows what works and what doesn’t, and, on the flip side of that, she respects us.”

The opportunity to teach again was the major reason why she left a central-office role to return to school leadership, and McCauley said the double duty has made her a better principal.

When new initiatives are coming down the pike, she said she thinks about them from two perspectives: the school leader’s and the teacher’s.

When the Common Core State Standards were being introduced in Maryland, McCauley taught math at every grade level because she wanted to see the big picture.

Juggling Two Roles

“I knew what it looked like to a 5-year-old, and I knew where they had to be before they left us,” she said. “I wanted that knowledge for myself.”

McCauley starts her day at 5:30 a.m. and gets a lot of her administrative work done before students show up. Her day ends around 6 p.m.

Like other teachers, she has to craft lesson plans, grade, write instructional plans for students who need individualized support, send notes home to parents on special projects, and put up bulletin boards. (She’s not a big fan of making bulletin boards.)

Given the heavy demands for her time and attention, McCauley said she can’t tend to every concern.

“I think all educators would say that time is always the enemy, and there doesn’t seem to be enough time to do everything you want to do,” McCauley said.

Part of the reason why the model works well at Crellin is because everyone on the small staff—seven teachers, an instructional assistant, and secretary—steps up, Friend and McCauley said.

“I am ultimately responsible, but I know that I can depend on them,” McCauley said.

“If I am busy with a child, everybody knows how a school is supposed to run. If it needs to be done, even if that isn’t their duty, they do it.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as The District Where Principals Run Their Schools—and Teach

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