Making time to teach amid the abundance of responsibilities for principals is a rare opportunity for many in the role. In a 2017 survey, the National Center for Education Statistics found only 7 percent of principals in public schools said they had taught one or more classes that school year. And despite having an average of eight years of principal experience, many in the role had acquired only half as much teaching experience before taking on their administrative roles.
But for principals like Christopher Young, Sean D’Abreu, and Kelly Frycz, prioritizing time to give lessons in the classroom is an essential means of staying onnected to students and teachers and understanding the difficulties of teaching in the new educational environments created by the pandemic.
“I have never been a teacher post-pandemic. I’ve only been in administration and [teaching is] way different than it was seven years ago when I became an administrator,” said D’Abreu, a seventh-year principal of Helendale Primary School in Rochester, N.Y., who makes a habit of teaching a lesson in a classroom every six days.
A June 2020 special report from Education Week suggests most teachers would agree. They reported becoming more creative, adaptable, and sympathetic to family situations as they dealt with the fallout from COVID-19 and the transition to and from remote instruction.
“If I’ve been in [the teacher’s] shoes, even for half the day, I have a little bit more perspective on my decisions and the impact,” D’Abreu said. “I start the year by saying, ‘I have been a teacher, but I have never been a teacher this school year, so I’m going to need your help to understand it.’”
Building relationships inside the classroom
The need to build—and rebuild—relationships drove the return to the classroom for Christopher Young, a fifth-year principal at North Country Union High School in Newport, Vt., who teaches an elective class at his school every other day. He said his ability to connect with students was sabotaged by the pandemic after only six months in the role.
“I’m in the parking lot every day, in the hallways, in the cafeteria, in and out of classes, at games and musicals, but I couldn’t do any of that for a year and a half,” Young said. “[Teaching] was a way to accelerate that relationship piece, at least with this class of freshmen students. It gave me the ability to really understand where kids are as far as re-engaging in their classrooms.”
Young also cited Vermont’s new proficiency-based graduation requirement as another reason for wanting to spend some time teaching. The Green Mountain State has led the way in creating a system based on students’ mastery of knowledge and skills rather than traditional seat-time requirements. He said with such a large change to the way the school now produces transcripts and understands grading, he needed to get to the heart of the matter—what kids are doing on a daily basis.
“How are we providing them with feedback on how well they are doing is the part I hadn’t done as a teacher, and wanted to get back to that,” Young said. “As we’re making systematic changes, I wanted to really understand what it looks like for teachers in the classroom.”
As a result of his experience, Young said his conversations with teachers about curriculum have been much deeper and more informed. He said this has also helped him work with teachers on their pedagogy.
Kelly Frycz, a second-year elementary principal with Union County Public Schools in Monroe, N. C., said in order to ask her teaching staff to do the work, she needs to be willing to do it, too. Before serving as principal, Frycz was an instructional coach with the same school and held the same philosophy.
“You might see me fail, but I’ll still try it out because kids are our center focus,” Frycz said. “If kids are what we’re all in this business for, no matter what position you’re in, you should be willing to get kids to grow.”
D’Abreu said for him, being in the classroom with teachers is vital for setting his expectations for each subject and how it should be taught.
“I’ll schedule out time with [new staff] and show them what my expectations are for writing, and then I’m able to model and they’re able to give me feedback,” D’Abreu said.
He also said that when new programs are piloted, he will first teach the lesson according to the new guidelines, then observe teachers the following year. D’Abreu said this gives him a better perspective on what he is asking his teachers to do in adapting to new techniques.
A supportive administrative team
Young, Frycz, and D’Abreu all said they have supportive administrative teams who work behind the scenes to ensure they’re able to spend time in classrooms. Young, a former English teacher, said when teaching his 70-minute class, his support staff keeps the school running.
“The only reason I can do it is because I have an amazing team of administrators that are willing to pick up the slack when I’m actually teaching,” Young said. “They see the benefit of it, so we’re trying to figure out a way for them to do it as well to see if we can take turns and rotate.”
D’Abreu blocks out time on his calendar to teach a lesson every six days. If the school is short on substitutes, he will fill in the whole day or split the day with the other administrators in the building.
Frycz said she’s still trying to find her footing in balancing teaching and administrative duties since starting as principal last year, but during her time as assistant principal, she often went into the classrooms at each grade level, depending on the teacher’s preference.
“I created Google Forms where teachers could sign up for me to come in and teach, do interactive writing, do a read-aloud, or math problem solving,” Frycz said. “You can have something as detailed as that system to make sure you’re teaching instruction, or it can just be when you’re walking through classrooms [you take] teaching opportunities.”
A call for all administrators to teach
All three principals said they encourage their peers in administration to try and teach as well. They all said it’s an important aspect of the position to not only connect with students and teachers, but remain at the heart of the job—serving children.
“We have a lot on our plate as principals—especially if you’re the only admin in the building—but we can all probably find 45 minutes a week to get into a classroom,” D’Abreu said. “If you do that throughout the whole year, chances are you’ll be able to hit a huge part of your school, and it makes a difference. People talk about it.”
“I would certainly highly recommend it, but I know it’s not easy to make yourself [unavailable to the rest of the building] for 70 minutes every other day, plus prep and planning,” Young said. “Within my own team, I would highly encourage them to do it.”
Said Frycz: “Kids are why we’re here, so why are we not teaching kids?”
A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 2023 edition of Education Week as These 3 Principals Still Take Time To Teach. Here’s Why