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Leading Edge Blog

5 Things Principals Need to Know & Do

Guest blog by: Dr. Brian McNulty

I want to share with you first, that this blog is all based on research and evidence, but it's also based on 50 years of work with schools and in schools. While most of this work is specifically for principals, much of it is also for the whole school, including building leadership and the teacher teams. So here are the five big ideas:

  1. Focus,
  2. Leading teacher learning,
  3. Collective leadership and teams,
  4. Sharing our learning, and
  5. Classroom observations and coaching.

Let’s start with the question, “Do you know what is working in your school?”—and by that, I mean, what particular practices are you using in your schools that are working for your students? What’s getting you better outcomes for students, for staff, for yourself, and for the whole school? If you don't know what's working, how do you expect to make progress?

We need to see and document what works better for our kids here in our school. Most of us have pretty firmly held beliefs, but not all of them are based in fact or data. We need to be able to show people including ourselves, what works. If you and your building leadership team don't know what practices work, you're in trouble. That's the foundation. We (as the leadership team) need to be able to identify what are the high impact teaching and learning practices. That's where we want to end up—we want to have a pretty good list of what those high impact teaching and learning practices are. And, we should share them across the school widely, so that we can all learn them when we need to.

Often times, the big reason for our lack of success is that we have tried to do too many things. We can't really do that many things well. We can only do a few things well. As the leader of the school, the principal’s first obligation is to give some focus to the school. I understand this is not always easy. Districts continually lay things on people and they keep asking you to do more and more and more. But I'm telling you, schools that do better focus on doing a few things very well. The focus should be on our learning. What are we learning, and how do we know that? And, what's the right evidence that we've collected to tell us that?

The second big idea regarding principal leadership is “leading teacher learning and development.” To do this, the principal has to be the lead learner. They have to demonstrate their own learning in front of their staff. They have to be willing to be vulnerable and open that they don’t have all of the answers. This starts with the principal. Principals should be actively involved as the lead learner, by this I mean asking more questions and being open to different perspectives and experiences, problems, and solutions, So, the first thing you have to decide is, are you going to focus? The second thing is, are you going to focus on learning, for you, as a principal, and all of your teams?

I'm not saying here that principals should know everything that there is to know. As a matter of fact, I'm saying exactly the reverse. The principals should be seen by their own staff as the leading the learning. The truth is, the best leaders are the best learners. Lots of people have studied this and lots of people have come to the same conclusion. Learning, then becomes the master skill.

The third big idea regarding principal leadership is collective leadership and teacher teams. Even the strongest, best principals are not as strong as effective building leadership teams or effective teacher teams. So that's the first part, collective leadership matters. The second thing is highly effective and functioning teacher teams.

Why do we need collective leadership? Because we need more leaders to help change the whole school. Anybody who thinks that they can do this alone is misguided. Teachers tend to trust each other more than they do the principal. If we want to change the whole school and make the whole school more effective, we need to have teachers lead this change work. You also need different perspectives from multiple ways of looking at the problem and the solution. And you need more credibility. You get that from your teacher teams and your building leadership team. The principal needs to be very focused on developing more leaders through effective teams.

The fourth big idea, if we're going to identify what practice, processes, and teams work, we've got to be able to then figure out a way to share that learning. The way that we do this is better use of our teams, our teacher teams and our building leadership team. We have to look at the processes that we use to share our learning. Remember, we want building leadership team members who are socially connected. People feel comfortable and open to new ideas when the information is shared by somebody that they know and trust. Teachers sharing with other teachers matters.

We have to have a way to effectively share information up and down the pipeline of effective practices that people are using. If we have a list of highly effective practices and the data that supports them, then what we can start sharing out how we think about practices and the quality of evidence that we might use to convince everybody in the school that these practices have above average impact on student learning.

The fifth big idea about principal leadership is around classroom observations and coaching. In effectives schools, teachers and administrators work together in developing, selecting specific learning strategies, assessments, and instructional materials, that can be studied in teacher teams. When teachers use these practices in their classrooms, this is an opportune time for principals to observe these practices. Working with the teacher, the principal can see the practices being used directly in the classroom. By selecting the practice that we are working on in our teacher teams, principals can tie in their classroom observations directly to what teachers are learning and practicing in their TBTs. This gives principals a clear focus for the observation. It also gives us a focus for the follow up conversation that we want to have with the teacher “Tell me about the practice, tell me what you are trying to do, tell me how well you think it worked, why, what are you learning about this. Is there a way that I can help you learn about this?”

Observations and coaching then would be tied directly to the practices that teachers are studying and using in their teams. Teachers, learning and using the practices could also become part of the teacher's professional growth plan. They're learning about the practices in their teams, but these same practices then become a functional part of their professional growth plan. That would mean professional growth plans developed over time, so that the specific practices that I'm studying now become a part of that professional growth plan.

Constantly improving and refining instructional practices is the single most important responsibility that principals and the whole educational system can do. As the collective capacity of the whole school increases, so does achievement, and this holds true for all subjects in all areas. I hope you will take time to watch the two-part webinar series, Five Things Principals Should Know and Do or participate in the interactive opportunity and join me live for Q&A on January 28 from 1-3 p.m. Both of these opportunities explore more of the research and evidence, as well as detailed examples of how to implement the five big ideas.