School & District Management

The School District Where Principals Also Teach

By Denisa R. Superville — July 28, 2017 7 min read
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The common lament is that principals have extraordinarily demanding and near impossible jobs.

Setting class schedules. Evaluating teachers. Drafting school budgets. Overseeing school bus drop-off and pick-up.

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

For the past 15 years, McCauley has been the principal and a teacher at Crellin Elementary School, in the small town of Oakland, where she dedicates at least three hours a day to the classroom. Her primary subject is math, but in the last year she taught reading and the school’s agriculture and environmental science curriculum.

And McCauley is not the only teaching principal. In the district of 3,700 students, four of the eight elementary principals are pulling double-duty. They’ve been doing so for more than 20 years, according to Barbara Baker, Garrett County’s superintendent.

Baker, who has been with the district for nearly 30 years and was also a teaching principal early in her administrative career, said that when she arrived in the district the program was already in place.

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

The move has allowed the district to keep its class sizes small without the additional cost, she said. And teaching principals come in especially handy in 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.

“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.

But teaching principals like McCauley are rare, except in cases when leaders are tapped to teach for fiscal 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.

About 1 in 10 principals teach some time during the year, and principals in Shellinger’s SAM program work about once a week as teachers, he said.

When he was a principal and a superintendent in one district, Shellinger taught one hour a day. He enjoyed being in the classroom and the time he did so notched him points with parents and teachers, but Shellinger said he knows now that his time would have been better spent co-teaching, modeling, or working with other teachers in small groups to improve their instruction.

“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.

“Some principals use this effectively,” Spiro said in an email. “However, it is a trade-off because the principal’s job is to work with the adults in the school (who, in turn, work with students). The question is whether a principal’s time is better spent working with teachers on curriculum, professional learning communities, etc. These activities benefit the entire school rather than just a class of students.”

A Principal Who ‘Gets It’

Susan Friend, a kindergarten teacher at Crellin, said that having a principal who also teaches is beneficial in multiple ways. McCauley encourages teachers’ ideas and passions—Crellin’s agriculture program, for example, grew out of one teacher’s interest. She participates in professional learning with them, and pushes them to try new ideas. She sits alongside teachers in weekly staff meetings to learn from other teacher-experts, review data on every student, talk about what teachers are doing, and share ideas on what’s getting results. McCauley never asks teachers to do something she wouldn’t do herself, Friend said.

“She is very good about asking our opinion about what works and what doesn’t, and [is] so supportive, so supportive of anything that we want to try,” Friend said. “We are fortunate enough that she gets it.”

She credits McCauley’s immersion in the classroom and her trust in educators with green-lighting a new pre-kindergarten program last year after only eight students registered for kindergarten. Friend knew there were students who would qualify for a pre-K program if the school offered one, and teachers could get an early start on getting those students socially and academically ready for school. She took her pitch to McCauley, who understood the need. She approved the move, hired a new staff member, and rearranged the school’s schedule to make it happen. And 15 children enrolled, Friend said.

McCauley, who has a doctorate in math, focuses on math and math enrichment at Crellin, a K-5 school with 138 students that has received plaudits for both student achievement and community engagement. Students who leave Crellin and move onto middle school often stop by for McCauley’s help.

In 2010, Crellin, whose student body is mostly low-income, had the highest passing rates on state assessments of all of Maryland’s elementary schools. (That was before the state’s switch to the PARCC exam).

A Principal Who Knows ‘Exactly’ How to Support Teachers

Joshua Aronson, an associate professor and director of the Mindful Education Lab at New York University who has been studying Crellin since the late 2000s, says part of the school’s success stems from McCauley’s dual role. But, he says, the entire school environment is one in which everyone supports the 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.

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

When new initiatives are coming down the pike, McCauley said she thinks about them from two perspectives: that of the school leader, and as the teacher who’ll have to put something into practice in the classroom.

A few years ago, 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.

“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, whose day starts at 5:30 a.m., gets a lot of her administrative work out of the way before students show up. That way she is ready to greet students when they arrive. Her day ends around 6 p.m.

Like other teachers, she has to do lesson plans, grade, write instructional plans for students who need individualized support, send home notes to parents on special projects, and put up bulletin boards. (She’s not too keen on the bulletin boards.)

“It puts her on a realistic page with us, where she is just not sitting behind the desk kind of 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. ‘You are the ones in the classrooms. You tell me what needs to be done so that I can make it happen.’ ”

Given the huge number of demands for her time and attention, McCauley can’t tend to every concern as they pop up. Baker, the district’s superintendent, said that scheduling meetings with teaching-principals is a bit of a challenge—albeit a small one—because it’s difficult to get them out of their schools.

“Time is always the enemy,” McCauley said. “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.”

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

“Together we make a really smart person—we put all of our strengths together,” she said.

“The leadership is shared because I depend on them to do certain things because I am not always available to do it,” McCauley said. “I am ultimately responsible, but I know that I can depend on them. 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.”

Photo: Dana McCauley, principal Crellin Elementary School, Oakland, Md. -- Courtesy of Lifetouch

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.