Make the most of your time with principals

by Michael Moore

When school leaders dig into student achievement results, they begin with basic questions: Do the lesson plans address the academic standards? Are the instructional practices effective? How is progress being tracked? Teachers are expected to plan well, differentiate instruction and track student progress. What if we took the same approach to developing principals and focused on better planning of their time together?

Since 2007, I have worked with hundreds of district leaders who supervise principals. Some are in full-time principal-supervisor roles overseeing just 12-15 schools. Others are in similar roles but have 50 or 60 schools. More commonly, district leaders supervise principals part-time while having other central office responsibilities. Often, the Superintendent oversees principals directly. In my experience, very few district leaders who supervise principals are satisfied with how they use the time they have available, worrying that principal development activities feel fragmented or unfocused.

This column provides a framework for optimizing time with principals based on structures and tools that work for the most effective principal supervisors regardless of district size or how many schools they oversee. Let’s begin with an overview of the current state of principal supervision.

Historically, the relationship between the district office and schools alternated between centralization and principal autonomy. In either case the relationship between principals and supervisors was often nothing more than a monthly meeting of principals and a formal annual evaluation.

Over the last decade a research-based consensus has developed about how to provide pressure and support to principals through a specialized principal supervisor role. This approach was codified in the Council of Chief State School Officers’ 2015 Model Principal Supervisor Standards. Those standards challenge supervisors to “support and improve principals’ capacity for instructional leadership.”

Regardless of district size and organization there are challenges to taking a more developmental approach to principal supervision. Time is a constraint. Supervisors often need to spend time with principals on compliance issues such as teacher evaluation or urgent issues such as student safety. Central office department heads want time with principals to roll-out new initiatives or procedures. Moving away from the existing norms and structures of how-we-do-things-around-here is hard yet changing how supervisors use the time they have with principals is likely to be the highest leverage change strategy available for meeting the district’s goals.

A Framework for Spending Time with Principals

This framework is based on five principles:
1. Be intentional and clear about your purpose.
2. Do things well, not quickly.
3. Learn from doing.
4. There is more expertise in the group than in any individual.
5. Distribute leadership for learning.

The framework has two pairs of planning steps. The first pair is about intention, the long-term purpose: Focus >Plan. The second pair is about instructional design and assessment: Model >Monitor. The first pair will remain stable: it is the journey principals will take over time. The second pair is iterative: it is the lesson plan for each meeting of principals or individual coaching session.

Focus >Plan

To focus, choose no more than two high-priority topics. Ideally, one would be a new school-based practice and the other would be a leadership skill. When possible, make a connection between the two topics. For example, if your school-based practice is “to improve the quality of standards-based planning,” the leadership standard might be “foster continuous improvement of individual and collective instructional capacity” (NPBEA Standard 6.d). Naturally, whatever topics you choose there will be a wide range of experience and expertise among your principals. If each principal has room for continuous improvement, this variation is a good thing for collaborative learning.

To plan, choose a natural cycle from the academic calendar. If there are interim assessments, use those cycles. School vacations, academic grading periods, or any period that principals experience as energy rising and falling will suffice. In each cycle, plug in the meetings already scheduled with principals such as standing monthly meetings or quarterly principal retreats. Project how much time you will spend with individual principals in between these group meetings. A white-board or chart paper with works better for this planning process than an on-line calendar. Add up the total number of hours you have available in each cycle. You will never eliminate all the urgent and pressing business items that need to be dealt with throughout the year, so commit to using just half of the total time on your two focus topics. Complete the plan by adding a projected sequence of sub-topics to the calendar. For example, three sub-topics for the standards-based planning topic might be: (1) identifying what makes a good standards-based plan; (2) assessing the current state of planning; (3) designing a shared training for teachers about planning.
Note that the emphasis is on the time available and how you will use it, not on goal-setting or detailed planning. The Focus-Plan pair will minimize the time lost to traditional business and training meetings while also pacing the work so that there is no need to rush when busy times of the year arrive.

Model >Monitor

Modeling is about instructional design for adult learning. It is not about agenda-building, team norms, or traditional training. It is about creating spaces where everyone, including the supervisor, engages in collaborative work and social learning. Be explicit that you are modeling for principals how you want them to work with their teachers. Create the lesson plan for each meeting after the previous meeting: What does the group need next? If it is content and concepts use text-based discussions or jigsaw activities. If they are running into implementation problems, use consultancy protocols or problems of practice tools. If there are change management issues, use role-playing to prepare them for talking to teachers. If some principals are leading the way, ask everyone to bring artifacts and examples of their work to share. Intentional variety is powerful in groups of leaders. Vary the size of break-out groups and mix people.

Monitoring is about building momentum from session to session. Each session should end with principals making specific commitments to be completed by the next session. These commitments could be specific actions such as, “I will attend all six of my school’s team meetings and give feedback on the quality of their planning,” or they could be results they will produce as, “Right now, only half the teachers have quality lesson plans and by the next session 2/3rds will.” Dashboards and trackers can be helpful, but the important thing is that principals work on the two focus topics between sessions and bring what they learned back to the group.

Blending Individual and Collective Supervision

If the supervisor is fortunate enough to be able to get into schools once or twice a month, those visits are an opportunity to differentiate the leader’s development and reinforce the group’s work. The focus topics, calendar, and activities can scaffold the principal’s development in their daily work. Just as we left time for urgent and business items in the group calendar, these visits will include other topics specific to the school.
If the supervisor has fewer opportunities to visit schools the group discussion, the reporting out of commitments and sharing of artifacts provides an opportunity to observe the principal’s development in ways that were not possible at a traditional business or training meeting.

Getting Started

This framework is easy to test drive. Pick one topic and a short cycle to begin. Ask principals to share the collaborative learning activities they already use with teachers. Be explicit about why you are taking a new approach to the time you spend with them. Use a quick on-line survey at the end of each session to see what is and is not working for participants.
In the next few columns I’ll share specific ideas for principal development activities, easy ways to track commitments from one meeting to the next, and techniques for aligning coaching activities with the learning from principal meetings.

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