Part 1: Walking the Walk

This two-part series features ways principals have leaned on each other in an often isolating world.

This two-part series features ways principals have leaned on each other in an often isolating world.
By Thomas Van Soelen

April 2019, Volume 42, Issue 8

Editor’s Note: In this two-part series, Thomas Van Soelen highlights the value of principals learning from one another and leaning on each other in a world that’s often isolating. This is Part 1. We’ll feature Part 2 in our May 2019 issue of Communicator.

When I started my career as a band teacher, I would boost myself up on tough days: “You’re the best band teacher they’ve got here!” Of course, I was the only one. School principals can self-proclaim this same statement.

In his landmark book, Schoolteacher, Dan Lortie described the isolationism of teaching. It took three more decades for authors to describe the isolationism and loneliness of principals. To non-educators, it seems paradoxical: Schools are full of people and excitement. How could someone feel adrift in all of that action?

In 2008, Gwinnett County (Georgia) School District was one of the fastest growing districts in the nation, with over 150,000 students. Geographically covering 437 square miles, schools were divided into high school feeder patterns of seven–10 schools each. Even with these attempts at creating smaller learning communities, principals desired to learn from other colleagues spread across the county.

In 2008, after a district-sponsored five-day professional development institute on using protocols to examine student- and adult-generated work, a group of principals began to dream. Many of them came to the institute with teacher leaders and assistant principals from their home school and left confident how to implement with their school-based teams.

However, during some of the institute sessions, principals gathered together to give and receive feedback about each other’s work. In those moments, these leaders realized even with the most dynamic and thoughtful school leadership teams, they never could replicate learning with other principals.

So they scheduled a voluntary gathering after school of interested principals and me as an external coach. All quotes in this article were written by principals as they exited one of these monthly meetings. Five themes recur: tight on time, facilitator of adult learning, relevance, ownership, and risk-taking. In Part 1 of the series, we’ll dive into the first two themes.

Tight on Time

“It is always the right call to make time for this meeting.”

Principals have complicated jobs. Expected to be instructional and operational leaders, their time is valuable and could easily be filled by a myriad of tasks.

This competition for time is not new to the principalship but certainly has been exacerbated by the context of schooling in the 21st century, with new curriculum standards, blended and personalized learning, increased accountability, litigious parents and advocates, threats on student safety.

Sometimes it is the time of their teachers that most concern principals. Consider Daniel Skelton, principal at Level Creek Elementary School in Suwanee, Georgia. In an effort to value the time of teachers at his school, Skelton had been canceling various staff meetings, replacing them with short videos he had created using screencasting software. Although many on his staff appreciated having more time, Skelton was unclear how to manage the accountability of teachers truly engaging in the videos.

The monthly meeting group took on his dilemma like it was our own. We raised possible assumptions and speculated what the teachers might be thinking. Skelton returned to the group and reported what he was now thinking. During the debrief of the protocol, participants shared our personal next steps. We marveled how the hour we just spent was far more efficient than many of our own meetings we lead.

Facilitator of Adult Learning

“I am becoming quite aware my feedback is only designed to affirm teachers. I just want everyone to be happy.”

Observing classrooms and crafting written feedback is an important responsibility for principals. In most places, the approval process focuses on the rating, not the quality of the written feedback. In fact, the notion of evaluations being learning experiences for teachers is all too infrequent.

Stacey Schepens, principal of Crews Middle School in Lawrenceville, Georgia, created a leadership focus among herself and her three assistant principals: increase feedback quality. She had gathered feedback on her written feedback from her team but wondered whether they had been honest.

At the next meeting of her principal colleagues, Schepens brought one of her written narratives and sat back to listen. We described in objective terms what was evident. We interpreted about the conditions under which Schepens crafted this narrative, and wondered aloud about the assumptions she may have made in this classroom. Finally, we opportunistically identified personal goals in the feedback we needed to write. We discussed how we sometimes write feedback simply to meet evaluation requirements.

As the penultimate step, Schepens returned to the discussion, detailing her learning about how she was going to use this narrative to facilitate learning for this teacher. Finally, the group discussed the process and how they might use it in their own leadership teams.

Three other themes—relevance, ownership, and risk-taking—emerged from these meetings. Van Soelen will go into detail about how principals in the group found relevance, assumed ownership, and took risks in Part 2 of this series, which will be featured in the May 2019 issue of Communicator.

Thomas Van Soelen is president of Van Soelen and Associates in Lawrenceville, Georgia.

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