Hearing What They’re Saying

Listening is the key to improving student achievement and staff relationships.

Topics: Curriculum and Instruction, Principal Pipeline, Teacher Effectiveness

By Christy Bowman-White

After 10 years of teaching middle school language arts, I decided to leave the classroom and become a principal. I wanted to become a highly effective instructional leader, and to meet this goal, I would need to learn what instructional leadership was, identify research-based best practices, and incorporate those practices into my work. I guessed the process would take about four years, after which I would have the power to transform schools.

The Wake-Up Call

In my first year as an assistant principal, I set my plan into action. I observed instruction, provided feedback, and followed procedures. I approached my growth as steps to be mastered and checked off the “instructional leader” list. Monitoring instruction? Check. Planning with data? Check. Improving instruction? Not so fast. When I saw that state student achievement data showed no significant improvement from the year before, I realized that improving instruction was going to be more complicated than I thought.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey illustrates the pitfalls of making a diagnosis too quickly. Covey’s infant daughter was sick, and the doctor called a prescription in to the pharmacy after hearing a description of the symptoms. The doctor didn’t realize the medication would be for an infant and not an adult, however, and the mistake could have had disastrous consequences.

Poorly informed feedback from an instructional leader might not be dangerous, but it can be ineffectual. I had been like the doctor who wrote a prescription after a few questions and a quick examination. Instead of listening to my teachers so I could better understand what they were thinking, I assumed I already had the answers.

Situational Awareness

In my second year, I thought our schoolwide literacy initiative was thriving—until I asked my teachers. I thought they had the support, professional development, and materials they needed to implement the initiative.

There was an embarrassing gap between my perception and reality, however. My vision and expectations were not clear. The data showed that the one area in which our students didn’t grow was the same area on which we had focused through professional development all year.

In School Leadership That Works, authors Robert Marzano, Brian McNulty, and Timothy Waters describe the results of a meta-​analysis of 69 studies that look at school principals’ effect on student academic achievement. Of the 21 responsibilities of school leaders identified to have a positive effect, situational awareness—being aware of issues hiding under the surface and addressing them proactively—had the largest correlation to student achievement.

Situational awareness was lacking in my leadership. Rather than listening to my teachers to uncover the realities of our literacy initiative, I had assumed all was well.

Perception Versus Reality

In my third year, I learned that my teachers questioned the authenticity of my positive feedback. I was proud of the notes I propped between the keys of their keyboards before leaving the room. I believed I was building relationships and making it clear how their actions had affected students positively. I worked hard to visit teachers’ classrooms and provide feedback twice a month.

Regardless of my intent, my feedback wasn’t fulfilling its intended purpose—and my situational awareness had failed again. I started to believe instruction wasn’t improving because I wasn’t listening. I felt blindsided, embarrassed, and misunderstood. It was now clear to me that my plan to emerge as an effective instructional leader in just four years wasn’t going to pan out.

But at least my teachers trusted me enough to tell me something they knew would be hard to hear. As a result, I could now address the realities of the situation. While my feedback was falling flat, I could do something about it.

Listen and Learn

By my fourth year, I had finally learned that effective instructional leaders listen—and learn. Here are some of the things I now do to listen and learn:

Over the summer, I meet with new teachers to find out why they are passionate about education, what type of learner each one is, and how they best process feedback.

In the fall, I ask teachers about their goals for professional growth, and I keep our focus on those goals throughout the year.

Each month, I meet with lead teachers to learn about the needs of their grade-level teams and help guide our department’s professional development.

In the spring, I ask for teachers’ perspectives on our teams, our department, and our school. I use and communicate this information to initiate improvement efforts.

Even when things seem fine, I find out from the source—the faculty and staff—how it’s going for them, what they need, what’s working, and what isn’t.

Listening can be time-consuming, uncomfortable, confusing, and painful. But over time, you’ll become resilient to the discomfort of listening and accept it as a natural, necessary part of growth.

Listening communicates respect and builds trust, resilience, influence, and situational awareness. Although it comes at a cost, I am convinced that listening to—and being open to influence from—our students, teachers, and families wields more power to transform schools than any checklist ever could.

Christy Bowman-White is principal of Maple Elementary School in Seattle.