I started my day at Loudoun County High School (LCHS) in Leesburg, VA, feeling excited and a little nervous at the same time. Although I spend most of my days speaking on behalf of principals and advocating for their interests on Capitol Hill, I myself have never been an educator. And the last time I sat in a high school classroom was more than 20 years ago.

I was thrilled that LCHS Principal Michelle Luttrell was so quick to accept my request to shadow her for a day as part of our annual National Principals Month celebration. When I found her in the office more than 45 minutes before the first bell, she was already deep in conversation with a special education teacher, coaching her through challenges that occurred during a geometry lesson. That meeting was followed by another with a more experienced geometry teacher who had recently executed a new strategy in her class as part of a schoolwide literacy training. After getting the teacher’s feedback on the lesson, Principal Luttrell shared what she had observed in the classroom—commenting on what she had done well and offering recommendations to improve the lesson for future students.

As we walked outside to meet the first bus, Principal Luttrell explained that she and the three assistant principals each supervise 30–40 teachers and classified staff. However, the meetings I observed were with other teachers she coaches and focused on formative feedback to enhance their practice. And this emphasis on instructional leadership didn’t end when the students arrived. She also conducted a walkthrough of instructional strategies in a self-contained special education classroom and met with the head of counseling to discuss students at risk of not graduating on time.

The bulk of our day was spent in a day-long training with teachers who work most closely with the school’s English-language learners (ELL). The subjects they teach ranged from social studies to driver’s education, but they all modeled strategies that could be used with their students and discussed areas for improvement with the school’s ELL coach. The biggest aha! moment was when the group was shown a video clip of a woman speaking another language (which turned out to be Farsi) and were then asked what they learned. Some of us heard the words “penguin,” “chips,” and “chocolate,” but we could only guess as to the content. We were shown the clip again, but this time the woman used gestures and a stuffed penguin and chicken as props. We then understood that this was a lesson about healthy eating and its impact on classroom performance, and we discussed how they could use similar strategies in their own classes to help English-language learners better understand the lesson plan.

I learned that most of the English-language learners at LCHS have been in the United States for less than three years, and this is definitely the issue that keeps Principal Luttrell up at night. Many of them had little to no formal schooling in their own countries, and those who did had transcripts with classes like the History of Peru, which don’t exactly transfer into credits for a standard high school diploma in Virginia. Yet, they’re still expected to graduate in four years and leave the public school system once they turn 20. There also seems to be a need for more English language teachers, which are greatly outnumbered by special education teachers even though the student populations are roughly the same size. In addition to the specialized training and monthly professional development sessions for all staff, Principal Luttrell is trying to make these students feel more connected to the school community. With homecoming days away, she shared that staff helped new students purchase class shirts and talked about the dance, football game, and other activities in all of their classes.

Space being a “commodity” was another topic of conversation I heard throughout the day—from the 19 special education teachers who were looking for a space to the school librarians who wanted to create a makerspace for students to use twice a week. LCHS was built in 1954, long before there was a need for computer labs and Wi-Fi. And with the increased demand for new school construction in a growing community, there has been little funding for school modernization or expansions.

Even with all of our interactions with teachers and other administrative staff, Principal Luttrell still made time for her students. She greeted kids in the hallway between classes, served lunch duty in the cafeteria, and waved as the last bus—which was 20 minutes late—pulled out of the school parking lot. She also made time to meet with students in the library who are creating a new “Raider Report” for community members that will highlight the achievements of the senior class. Students skipping class and other issues arose that may normally derail a principal’s day, but with a strong administrative team in place, Principal Luttrell never let that take her away from her laser-like focus on teaching and learning.

So how will my shadowing visit inform my own work at NASSP? Overall, it reaffirms our priority on professional development for school leaders and teachers and the need for Congress to continue funding Title II, Part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act. We will also continue to advocate for the policy recommendation in our position statement on school facilities and supported legislation endorsed by the Rebuild America’s Schools coalition, of which NASSP is a member. My final action will be researching federal and state policies on English-language learners and determining how we can better support school leaders to ensure the success of these students.

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