Friday, February 28, 2014

Literacy: A Principal's Perspective

In the late 90's there was this television show that was a guilty pleasure of mine called "The Pretender."  The gist of the show was that there was this lead character, Jarrod, who had been a child prodigy.  In his adult life he was on the run (from some super secret cliche government shady organization) and he would hide in plain sight by pretending to be these other people.  One episode he would be a doctor who would end up saving someone's life in this miraculous surgery and in another episode he might be a race car driver that would help some struggling race team to win the big race and get a national sponsor.  Each episode was a new career that Jarrod had to master in order to successfully navigate the challenges he faced during that 60 minute episode.  During my first 8 months on the job as a principal, I see a lot of parallels between "The Pretender" and "The Principal."
Now let's be clear from the start, I am no child prodigy, I can't perform surgery and while I like rev the motor on my 4 cylinder Honda Civic... a race car driver I am not.  However, I have learned that a principal is expected to be a master of many different things.  In a given week the principal is asked to provide advice and/or make decisions on a variety of items that span a wide range of topics from the best approaches to teaching reading to a child with ADHD to the best way to change traffic flow in the building when your school will be used as a voting location.  While I accept and enjoy this challenge, it does often make it difficult to focus on any one topic for an extended period of time.  I recently had the opportunity to spend four days at Lesley University exploring the role of principal in the Literacy Collaborative Model.  This uninterrupted period of time helped me to deepen my own knowledge of what a quality system for teaching reading and writing looks like; it also afforded me some time to reflect on what role I can play in supporting that as a principal. From that reflection came four big ideas that will drive me moving forward.

Support your Coach

I have worked in several districts during my career in education, but this is the first time I have been lucky enough to work in a district that supports the funding for coaches.  While some districts may have coaches for particular content areas and not others (as we do), a coach's greatest benefit to a school is not in his/her knowledge of the content area.  Rather, a coach best serves a school through his/her ability to do three things: carefully observe pedagogy, ask questions that encourage reflection and support teachers (and principals) as their thinking continues to evolve.  The coach is able to provide this experience in a way that is not connected to a professional's evaluation.  The teacher does not need to worry about his/her job performance when meeting with the coach, rather the teacher has the opportunity to completely open himself/herself to the learning experience inherent in coaching.  In their meta-analysis for the book Classroom Instruction that Works, Marzano, Pickering and Pollock showed that specific and timely feedback that is connected to clear criterion has a dramatic effect on student learning.  It would be foolish to assume that this does not also apply to adult learners.  Every professional can benefit from the information, feedback and reflection that they get from the coaching experience.  Any educator who thinks he/she has "got it" has not truly considered what it means to be a learner.  Learners know that there is no end on the journey of learning.  Theory evolves, science makes discoveries, experiences are collected, children change, communities change and on and on... can we honestly expect we have learned it all when the "all" is constantly changing?  
As a principal it is my responsibility to ensure all my staff are taking advantage of the coaching experience.  If my coach is not running around like a chicken with his/her head cut off trying to get to all the people that want coaching appointments, then my staff is not growing and I am failing.  The staff and the coach need to understand how much I value the coaching experience and the value I place on it for our continued growth and success.  

Support your Teachers

While I do remember an episode when "The Pretender" was a teacher, the principal is not going to be teaching the students to read and write.  It will be the teachers in the building that do.  In the same book referenced above, Marzano, Pickering and Pollock found that single most important factor that affects student learning is the teacher.  So what does this mean for a principal?  It means that a principal's single most important job is to make sure his teachers are the best they can be and that they continue to get better.  This is not accomplished by hard-line tactics, negative evaluations and leadership by decree; however, it is also not accomplished by sitting in your office, hoping for the best and trusting that it will all work out.  A principal supports his/her teachers when he/she is seeking opportunities that will further teachers' knowledge, challenge assumptions about learning, create opportunities for teachers to meet, and develop common beliefs and understandings around teaching and learning.  He/she empowers them to be the professionals our students and families deserve and holds them accountable to those standards


Not to beat a dead horse, but the principal can't be expected to know all things.  However, the principal is the final decision maker in a school; therefore a principal is left with two choices: either make uninformed decisions, or ask some questions and listen to the people who know more than he/she does.  Knowledge presents itself in a variety of ways; experiences, schooling, reading and many other factors add to a person's knowledge.  A principal would be foolish to assume there wasn't something to learn from each person he/she came into contact with.  Therefore principals should take the time to listen to the thoughts, ideas and concerns of his teachers, parents, coach and interventionists.  Each person brings a unique set of experiences and their own perspective to each challenge the school faces.  When exploring the best way to schedule a literacy block, plan for intervention, monitor student growth or improve the quality of students response to writing the principal is obligated to not only hear the voices of the staff in the building, but participate in quality active listening that will allow him/her to deepen his/her knowledge base and broaden his/her perception, so as to make an informed decision that best meets the needs of students.

Model Learning

There is a quote from Albert Einstein that I love.  It states, "Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death."  The teaching of literacy is a constantly evolving paradigm; brain research, educational research and the day-to-day interactions between teachers and students continue to inform our practice.  The most effective teachers are and will continue to be those that understand that there is always more to learn about the science of teaching and that (like doctors, lawyers and accountants) teachers are professionals that must stay up-to-date on current thinking in their field.  I would not feel comfortable going to see a doctor who had not been to a conference or read a medical journal in five years, and nor should parents feel comfortable sending their child to a teacher that has not attended a conference or, taken a class or read an education article in five years.  As principal, it is important that I communicate this belief regularly and take the same approach to my own learning.  Of these four big ideas, this one comes the most naturally to me.  Whether it be leadership theory, literacy, math, changing the brakes on my car, or french braiding my daughter's hair I know there is a lifetime worth of learning in front of me.  I feel compelled to share this information with the staff in my building.  I find myself shooting off emails about a great video I saw on math instruction to my kindergarten teachers on a Sunday morning, or a thought provoking blog on "close reading" to my upper elementary ELA teachers on a Wednesday night (usually from a School Committee meeting).  I start getting antsy if I have not tweeted something on my Twitter account, not because I have a lot of followers (because I surely don't) and I feel like they are missing me, but rather that this is a sign to me that I have not been keeping up on my own learning.  I tweet what I learn, so no tweeting means no learning and that is not OK.
The locations from which an individual can access knowledge in today's world are endless.  Some of my favorites are books (yeah those things still exist), YouTube, Twitter, email newsletters, conversation, and TED Talks.  Regardless of where new learning comes from it is important for those of us in education to continue to seek it out, share it with others, challenge our own assumptions and reshape our perceptions.

I don't ever remember an episode where "The Pretender" ever assumed the role of "The Principal", but if he had I don't think it would have made for very good television.  And while Morgan Freeman played a compelling and motivating character in Lean on Me, I think the keys to fostering a school environment that supports students on their journey to literate life is best done through these four (no so Hollywood) ideas.  

1 comment:

  1. Marc- my own barometer for my professional learning is literally how relaxed I am. If I am feeling like "I am all set" then it means that I haven't pushed my own thinking through reading, reflecting, or talking with other professionals.
    When I think about my own mentors in education I realize that they are constantly reflecting on their own beliefs and practices about they way children (and adults) learn. Even Irene Fountas still tutors children in reading!