Shadowing Program Highlights School Leadership in Action

By Meredith Barnett Communicator December 2013, Volume 37, Issue 4

By Meredith Barnett
December 2013, Volume 37, Issue 4

It was 8 a.m. at Spring Hill Elementary, and Roger Vanderhye was on the go. After meeting with his assistant principals, he swung by the library to make his daily appearance on the school’s morning show. By 8:57, he landed in a fourth-grade classroom for a drop-in observation, tapping out feedback on his iPad. A typical morning for this Mclean, Virginia, principal.

What made this day different was that he had an audience: a “shadow” from the Department of Education (ED). Vanderhye was one of 45 Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. principals who hosted visitors for the ED Goes Back to School Principal Shadow Week in November, an opportunity for policymakers to walk a mile in principals’ shoes.

And Vanderhye and his ED shadow (pictured above) did plenty of walking, in and out of classrooms and meetings, highlighting one message Vanderhye wanted officials at ED to hear: that schools, teachers, and students are not test scores.

“Teaching is an art—it’s about being able to form relationships so that kids love coming to school,” he said. “We’re there together; we learn together; we work together.”

This marks the second year that NAESP has partnered with NASSP and ED to organize the shadowing program, with participation this year almost doubling.

Visits occurred on November 18-22 at elementary, middle, and high schools in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Principals were encouraged to be open, honest, and to provide shadows with an authentic look at their typical responsibilities. The initiative gave principals a rare opportunity to show ED officials how policy impacts practice—especially in the arenas of Common Core implementation, professional development for principals and teachers, and performance evaluations.

Both in 2012 and this year, the shadowing week culminated in briefings with principals, their shadows, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. At the briefing, principals and visitors shared their feedback, examining the complexity of principals’ roles. More than one ED shadow commented on how much of their day was spent moving around the school—just as Vanderhye and his shadow did at Spring Hill. After their observation, Vanderhye and his shadow dropped in on a data-focused, fifth-grade collaborative learning team meeting, talked fundraising with the PTO president, checked in with one of the school’s guidance counselors, and met with a teacher to share observation feedback—and that was all before lunchtime.

Shadows could see instructional leadership in action, says Carl Bencal, principal of Seven Locks Elementary in Bethesda, Maryland.

“[My shadow] was able to see on paper how we manipulated the master schedule to allow grade level teachers to have extended planning time, but being in classrooms allowed him to see the continuity in classroom instruction among grade-level teachers,” he says.

Beyond highlighting principals as instructional leaders, the shadowing program also threw a spotlight on principals as problem-solvers. Much of the discussion at the debrief centered on the challenges principals face with new teacher evaluation systems. Principals agreed that evaluation tools need to be comprehensive, but streamlined and reasonable, and should above all exist to help teachers improve their practice.

In response, Secretary Duncan acknowledged that policymakers have to support principals through tough changes. Next, said Josh Klaris, resident principal at ED and an organizer of the program, ED leaders will have to leverage feedback from the shadowing week to inform their priorities.

“The overall feeling at the department is that there is a great need to do as much as possible to continue creating opportunities to better understand how our policies are being implementing at the school level,” says Klaris. ED plans to continue the shadowing program in the future, he reports, and is planning to form a student shadowing component. (In May, ED officials shadowed teachers, as well.)

Ultimately, said Vanderhye, programs like these are not just powerful for shaping policy—they are necessary for telling schools’ true stories.

“There’s been some bad press about schools,” he said. “I wanted people who typically aren’t in schools or haven’t been in schools for years to see how well schools are really doing.”

Teaching and learning together is complex—it’s full of hard work, Vanderhye said. After spending a day in his principal shoes, his shadow would probably agree.

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