Turning Around Schools: The Real Key to Success

It is widely accepted and understood through copious amounts of research that teachers have the highest impact on student learning. But I believe there is a real disconnect in that line of thinking, because we have failed to allow our knowledge to expand our expectations of the principal as an instructional leader.

As the instructional leader of the campus, the principal is responsible for hiring, training, and cultivating teachers. Therefore, ineffective teachers who contribute to low student achievement are the direct responsibility of the principal. If we accept the principal’s role in teacher effectiveness with the same conviction we reserve for the teacher’s impact on student achievement, what then should our expectations be of our principals in their ability to ensure quality instruction in every classroom?

The most important requirement of being an instructional leader is simply understanding what quality instruction looks like. This is often something oddly taken for granted when hiring principals. We assume that principal applicants are automatically capable when it comes to their knowledge of instructional practices, because we make the assumption they were good teachers.

Too often this assumption leads us into a trap that can consume a campus, as we’re hiring principals who do not know quality instruction. Simply having general knowledge—or conversational knowledge—of instruction isn’t enough. A principal must know and understand instructional practices to a level that they are comfortably able to put those practices in place to address diagnosed instructional weaknesses. While it is naive to think principals can be experts in every content area on their campuses, it should be expected that principals know and are capable of sharing quality instructional strategies and practices that transcend content areas. The most powerful instructional practice I have found in my time as a principal—and one that I now spend the most time teaching principals—is the power of questioning and formative assessment.

Questioning and Formative Assessment

Questioning and formative assessment are transcending practices. It is imperative that teachers know where each student is in their learning throughout the instructional cycle. How else would a teacher know to move forward through their content? The answer to that question should never involve a calendar. We have all seen the teacher who believes they taught the most amazing lesson and doesn’t check in with students to make sure they understand the content. There’s also the teacher who has half the class raising their hands to answer an array of lower-level questions; however, the teacher never calls once on the students who don’t raise their hands.

A principal who is an instructional leader should understand the problem with both scenarios. A principal must adequately convey the importance of asking questions—being able to guide teachers through what both higher-level questioning and what quality student responses look like. On the flip side, the principal must also communicate with the teacher who summons every student with their hand up about the vital importance of calling on the students who never raise their hand—doing so through the lens of discussing what targeted questioning practices look like (where teachers have a plan on who they will ask questions of based on what they know each student needs through formative assessment).

The sole belief that you have a principal in place who is strong instructionally does not alone make for a strong instructional leader. Principals who are strong instructional leaders must also know how to prioritize instruction on campus. So, what does it look like to prioritize instruction on a campus? Simply put, this is someone who frequently discusses instruction and instructional practices with teachers. People understand what you value by what you talk about regularly; teachers need to understand what it is you value. In order to have these conversations, principals have to be in classrooms regularly to have something to talk about.

Get Into the Classroom

Too often, principals find reasons to keep themselves out of the classroom. However, teachers need to have regular, focused feedback to improve and grow in instruction. We often get stuck in a numbers game, where our district evaluation tool states that each teacher should have a certain amount of observation.

As a campus principal, I held myself and my administrators to the expectation of two walk-throughs a day. These could range from 15 minutes to 45 minutes. The duration was based on teacher need. We sat down weekly as an administrative staff to discuss what each teacher’s focus would be, and then set the observation schedule for the week. Our feedback was very specific and addressed each teacher’s needs. I trained my assistants on what quality feedback looked like. We stayed away from the general statements of “good job!” and also avoided checkboxes by tasks such as “objective posted” or “quality questioning.” Our stronger teachers received as many walk-throughs as those who were less effective. Finally—and this is sometimes the difficult one for administrators—roughly two-thirds of our walk-throughs were not for our appraisal system. Walk-throughs that were not counted toward the appraisal system requirements were simply termed “coaching visits.”

These coaching visits were undocumented and nonthreatening. Teachers over time began to see these for what they were and really started to embrace them as opportunities for growth. The key to the whole process was the priority we assigned to our observations. If something was not going to get done that day, that visit was not deemed an “official” walk-through. The most important part of observations, though, is not the act of completing them, but the feedback and conversation that comes out of them with the teacher. It is imperative that teachers get regular, timely, and specific feedback. How are we to expect anyone to get better at their craft without getting feedback on their progress?

Be Data-Driven

Finally, principals have to be data-driven, another readily tossed-around term in education. The issue with this requirement is that it is essentially two tasks—principals not only need to be able to understand data, but they also must adequately communicate its intricacies to teachers. Understand that data goes beyond reading numbers; it stretches into interpreting numbers. School data is its own language; there is always more information in test results than the percentage of students who passed. If the principal, as the instructional leader, discusses end results solely with teachers—and is unable to find the road map it provides us to increasing student achievement and getting better as teachers—that principal is doing their campus, teachers, and students a disservice.

The bottom line is that principals and other instructional leaders must discern questions in a learning standard and be able to determine if students are struggling with their lack of understanding the material or with the way the question is posed. Instructional leaders should be able to look at the data and see if students are guessing or being able to narrow the questions down to the distractor.

Josh Martin, EdD, has been an educator for 15 years, serving as a teacher, coach, assistant principal, and principal. He currently serves as director of special programs and assessment in the Farmersville Independent School District in Farmersville, TX.