The Evolving Relationship: Principals and Their Supervisors

There’s a lot of dialogue these days about how principals supervise their staff. But what about how principals are supervised? To find out more about that topic, we convened a roundtable in November with three practitioners and experts in the field: Jill Baker, deputy superintendent of schools for the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) in Long Beach, CA; LaShell Diggs, principal of Riley Elementary School in Long Beach, CA; and Mikel Royal, director of school leader preparation and development for Denver Public Schools. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the discussion.

Levin-Epstein: Has the relationship between principals and those who supervise them changed in the last decade?

Diggs: I’ve been a principal for 18 years. One shift that I’ve experienced is the significant increase in the amount of time principal supervisors spend on the school campus alongside the principal—supporting, teaching, and learning. In the past, a lot of the time spent with supervisors was more operational, helping solve problems and issues that might arise on the site. With our current system, I see my principal supervisor at least two times a month on my site. Our visits are focused primarily on instruction, rather than operational items.

Baker: One of the things that’s become really clear over the last several years of focusing on principal supervision and support is redefining the role of a principal supervisor. Just to be specific, in Long Beach Unified, prior to our principal supervisor initiative, we had a number of veteran principals who got promoted into central office positions. As a component of their jobs, they supervised principals. But most often they had other departments that they were leading.

For example, the director of research ran the research department, and—to some degree as an ad hoc assignment because he had been an effective principal—was a principal supervisor. We had an effective principal who was promoted to be the director of our categorical programs department, and as part of his job he was a principal supervisor. To honor this role, because we know it has an impact on student achievement and the work of our principals, we now have what we’ll call “pure positions” that are solely focused on the supervision, and quality support, and coaching of principals.

Royal: I’d say the biggest shift that I’ve seen between the relationship of the principal and the principal supervisor has definitely been a paradigm shift from compliance to capacity builder. The role of the principal supervisor is to help build the capacity of the principal and help the principal grow as a leader and become more effective as a leader.

So, to LaShell’s point, we’re seeing the shift from a compliance check and operational check to a more coaching relationship—a relationship that is definitely driven by building the principal’s capacity to lead the school, to build the capacity of the leaders within the school such as the associate principal, such as teacher leaders—making the role of the principal much more tied to what’s happening instructionally in the classroom. And to continue working on the operations as well, but also really maintaining and developing skills that are more dispositional and that support the culture of the school. There’s definitely been a shift over time in that regard.

Levin-Epstein: When does the supervision of principals usually begin?

Royal: I would say the relationship begins right away and through the hiring process in our district. The principal supervisor is very involved in the hiring process, and that support begins day one.

Baker: I would add, too, that one of the roles for principal supervisors—when they’re spending time out in schools—is also to help build the leadership pipeline. So, in those schools that have an assistant principal, when principal supervisors are working directly in support and supervision of the principal, they’re also incorporating the assistant principal into things like classroom walk-throughs and professional development, so that the moment that person becomes a principal, they have already been built into this system of support and coaching.

Levin-Epstein: Have most principals been assistant principals?

Royal: Close to 100 percent. It’s very rare that a principal has not had previous experience as an AP.

Baker: That’s the same for Long Beach Unified.

Coaching and Instruction

Levin-Epstein: Could you give some examples of specific areas in which you think the principal supervisor has played a positive role in helping a principal on certain aspects of coaching or instruction?

Diggs: My principal supervisor comes twice a month. One of the visits is specifically for classroom walk-throughs, and the other focuses on my site action plans and support. We look at my school focus for the year, implementation of professional development, and student outcome data. On our walk-throughs, we’ll look for implementation of the items listed in my site action plan, discuss student engagement, identify instructional best practices, and collaborate on next steps for myself and staff.

For instance, last year my theory of action included small-group instruction and differentiated instruction in language arts. As we walked through classrooms, my principal supervisor would help me look for evidence of differentiation taking place in classrooms. We would identify teachers who might need a little more coaching, and identify specific targets of coaching for those teachers. We would also look at areas of the professional development plan that had strong implementation and identify areas that could be strengthened, if any. From there, we talked about next steps and support needed. When she returned the following two weeks, we discussed implementation of the next steps identified.

Baker: I think something that I would add, too, is that oftentimes the principal supervisor is the bridge between other departments and the school. Just to build on LaShell’s example, we have some curriculum staff who have expertise in small-group instruction. So, the role of the principal supervisor, if the principal wants this kind of support, is then to come back to the central office and to be a bridge between support structures, such as professional development or resources that can then be deployed or be connected to this principal from the central office support structures. I guess I would also add that LaShell’s example is a great way to see the cascading effect of coaching. You have a principal supervisor who has been trained in coaching methodology coaching the principal, and then in their relationship they’re talking about how to coach teachers together, and then the principal is typically, or often by themselves, coaching their teachers. We see some of the impact of that—although it’s not quantifiable—we see that as a way teachers are interacting with students in more of a coaching manner.

Royal: I can just add a little bit to that picture, and I would say it sounds very similar to what happens in Denver, but at the same time I can say that a principal supervisor is also supervising multiple principals. So, as they’re working individually with each principal, they’re documenting action steps, feedback the principal is receiving, and from there, looking for themes across their small network of principals as well as themes across the district that then later inform the overall professional learning experience for the principal.

Reaching Out to Staff

Levin-Epstein: Do principal supervisors ever want to talk directly to teachers, other staff, and students to get their input and feedback on the principal?

Baker: That’s an interesting question. We’ve used some survey tools to do that, but in Long Beach we don’t typically do a direct conversation where the principal supervisor would be saying to teachers, “Tell me about your principal.” We have used the VAL-ED survey and some other surveys for teachers to give feedback, but not in the way that you are describing in Long Beach. [The Vanderbilt Assessment of Leadership in Education (VAL-ED) is a research-based evaluation tool that measures the effectiveness of school leaders by providing a detailed assessment of a principal’s behaviors.]

Royal: I would agree. In Denver, we definitely have perception surveys, so students and teachers and parents, in fact, can share via survey their perception of how well their principal is performing and how they are experiencing their principal. Going back to what Jill talked about earlier, when the principal supervisors are in school, they may not be having direct conversations about how the principal is performing, but they are definitely observing other things around the school, even outside of the classroom, such as transitions between passing periods, or how the lunchroom is operating, or how the office is being managed—there’s lots of other data points that are being observed and captured in terms of how to best support the school leader.

Diggs: I would add to that by stating that the principal supervisor does have conversations with students and teachers during each visit. It could be in the form of a student in a classroom learning, and the principal supervisor might ask, “What is your learning target today?” “How did you get that answer?” With teachers, she would ask, “How’s it going?” and “How could I support you?” She also makes a point to give compliments to students and teachers regarding the teaching and learning that’s taking place in the classroom.

Evaluating School Culture

Levin-Epstein: How does a principal supervisor assess the culture of a school, and how that’s going?

Diggs: The principal supervisor visits can also be a time for my supervisor to get a pulse on the culture and climate of the school site. I know when my principal supervisor visits, she notices what’s going on and comments on the positive interactions between staff, students, and parents. She observes school assemblies, staff meetings, committee meetings, and other school events. We currently have a focus in our district on building relationships and equity; therefore, my supervisor also visits classrooms with those lenses in mind.

Royal: In the surveys that we’ve already mentioned—the perception surveys—there are some questions in there about culture that would give a principal supervisor, or the principal as well, an assessment of how well the health of the culture at their school is perceived. You know, the principal is the key leader in the culture, and we do a lot of work around how to assess and establish a healthy culture, a culture of learning and growth and continuous learning. What’s going on outside of the classroom is just as important as what’s going on inside the classroom.

Baker: In Long Beach, we also use a formalized survey tool that is administered annually to both students and teachers. It focuses on a number of things, including school culture and climate. So, that’s part of our principals’ goal setting when they interact with their principal supervisor. They use both their baseline data and their growth data in a continuous improvement cycle, so they’ve got some really nice quantitative information to use in their goal setting and their ongoing work at their school.

Levin-Epstein: From the viewpoint of the principal supervisor, how do you evaluate the principals on issues such as diversity, equity, social media outreach, and crisis management?

Baker: Something that we refer to as “keep the main thing the main thing” has a lot to do with a very intentional focus on students and classrooms. I think it’s easy, of the things that you said—all of which are important—they can distract from staying focused or keeping the main thing the main thing. So, while all of those things are important—and we certainly don’t disregard when there’s a crisis—the main focus of the role of principal supervisor is to stay focused on students, stay focused on equity, and really support principals in keeping the focus there, too, while supporting them when there are issues related to crisis or social media.

Royal: I would definitely agree. On a higher level, we spend a lot of time really defining what an effective school leader is, which in turn becomes our school leader framework. That is our standard for which the principal performs. It’s an iterative process, and as things change over time, we know that we need to prepare our principals a little bit differently, and we know that they are experiencing the role differently. Crisis management has been top of mind in keeping the students safe and healthy—their mental health as well, the whole child—so as those things evolve, it’s our job as supporters of the principal to ensure that they’re receiving the support and the training and the development around these new issues that arise.

Diggs: As a principal, I see my principal supervisor’s role as supporting me in ensuring that all of those areas are integrated into the daily curriculum and/or site operations. For instance, you mentioned technology. With our instruction changing to prepare students as 21st-century learners, we have added a lot more technology to the classroom, which requires additional training for staff. This has been an area that has been integrated into our professional development plan over time at our site. Diversity and equity are part of our district and site goals, and are included in our culture and climate action plans. Crisis management is an area that counselors and other site support personnel receive ongoing training in. They are available on-site to assist with crisis management when needed. I see the principal supervisor’s role in all of these areas as one of monitoring, identification of additional resources/training, and support in site implementation.

Levin-Epstein: Are you saying you have counselors permanently on-site who have training in crisis management?

Diggs: I have a counselor 50 percent of the time, and she is trained in crisis management. I share her with a nearby school. In the event of a crisis happening at my site, she is there to assist. If a crisis happens at her other site, she is released to assist in that crisis. Since student safety is a priority, both principals understand that the site in crisis has priority, and the counselor, who is highly trained in crisis management, will assist in that situation.

Levin-Epstein: What advice do you have for a principal for establishing a good relationship with a principal supervisor?

Diggs: That’s a good question. My advice would be for principals to be receptive to the feedback and the coaching and allow the partnership to build into a trusting relationship. LBUSD has a new principal evaluation system, which is a framework similar to a rubric. This tool is used regularly as a focus for discussions between principal supervisor and principal. It creates a great opportunity to receive coaching from your supervisor regarding your performance as an instructional leader.

As a site principal, you don’t always have extra personnel on campus in the form of an administrator, so your supervisor may be the only other administrator that you get to collaborate with and share confidential items with on-site. It’s really a needed and essential relationship to grow as a leader. I appreciate the amount of time that principal supervisors spend at sites; it is invaluable.

Royal: I would agree. I think that trust is very important—being vulnerable, having an open mindset. But you also need to be very clear and self-aware of what your needs are, what your school’s needs are, and viewing your principal supervisor as a resource and as someone you can go to [in order] to help you develop your skills and develop a place where they can help you to serve the schools and the students in your community.

Diggs: I look forward to my visits with my principal supervisor. I don’t have that sense of nervousness that one may get when their boss is coming to visit. Instead, I am anticipating the support, feedback, and professional collaboration that I will receive. I prepare my list of things to share, questions to ask, classes to take her to, or items I would like to collaborate with her on to help me to grow in my leadership.