As every secondary school principal knows, results matter. Every principal also knows that the quality of a school can never exceed the quality of its teachers. Therefore, principals are wise to continually get into the classroom to give meaningful, constructive feedback to teachers.
But the crush of responsibilities inherent in the principalship often causes principals to feel confined to their office just to get everything done. Here are 10 practical ways principals can get out of their offices and into the classroom.
#1: Structure responsibilities to leave yourself ample time to do the things that only you can do. Most principals define their job description appropriately as “whatever needs to be done.” While it is noble and appropriate to be willing to do anything and to lead by example, if you do things that someone else could do, you are reducing your time available to do those things that only you can do. Be willing to do what is necessary to make your school successful—but don’t do everything yourself. For example, be the backup person for hall, lunchroom, and bus supervisory duties rather than the primary person. That way, you can be available for the inevitable visit from a parent or teacher, as well as have more time for classroom observations.
#2. Prioritize your time and eliminate time-wasting activities. In the book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t, Jim Collins encourages people to create a “Stop Doing List.” What could you stop doing altogether or effectively delegate? After eliminating time-wasting activities, ask yourself, “What actions could I take to greatly improve my school?”
#3: Delegate effectively. When I was taking classes to become certified as an administrator, the professor in my personnel administration class said, “Never do anything that someone lower than you could do.” At first, that sounds like an arrogant comment; but if you want to get out of the office and into classrooms, it helps to give some responsibilities away. To delegate effectively, you must make sure the person to whom you delegate is willing and knows the standard of quality you expect.
#4: Prevent problems so that you don’t have to deal with them. I found that walking the halls frequently during the passing time between classes enabled me to observe and address potential issues, such as kids or teachers arriving late to class. Walking the halls also enabled me to develop time-saving rapport with staff and students. Prevent problems by making the ordinary things ordinary, including scheduling supervision in all common and high-traffic areas. Ask bus drivers to build rapport with kids to minimize bus referrals.
#5: Set and reinforce expectations for teachers. Spending time establishing and reinforcing basic expectations of teachers will prevent problems as well as result in higher-quality instruction. Be on time. Dress neatly and completely. Plan engaging lessons that show the relevance of information to students’ daily lives. Teach from bell to bell. Turn in lesson plans when required, and prepare quality plans for substitute teachers. Contact parents about behavioral or academic concerns. These actions make students more successful and prevent disciplinary referrals. Discuss with teachers which student conduct issues merit your attention or intervention, and which do not. Teachers should take the first shot at handling discipline.
#6: Put observations of teachers on your calendar. One of the most dependable ways to get into classrooms more often is to simply schedule pre-observation conferences, actual teacher observations, and post-observation conferences on your calendar. Then, consider those appointments sacred; conduct them unless there is a really good reason not to do so. If a teacher stopped by and asked, “Do you have a minute?” my answer would be, “Yes, I can talk with you until the bell rings, then I am scheduled to conduct an observation.” Teachers understood that answer because they appreciated that I kept appointments. If parents or the superintendent called, my secretary would say, “He is conducting an observation at the moment, but I will have him call you back as soon as he is free.”
#7: Create a schedule that enables teachers to collaborate. Teachers are often very adept at scrutinizing instructional practices, analyzing test data, crafting interventions for struggling students, planning common formative assessments, etc. But, they need time to do so. By scheduling common planning time for teachers in the master schedule, they can collaborate to solve and prevent problems. Their efforts will likely be effective while saving you time.
#8: Teach parents and teachers to resolve problems at the lowest level possible. If a parent calls to tell you about a problem with a teacher, ask him or her to try to first resolve it with the teacher. Set up the meeting if necessary. Better yet, ask the teacher to call the parent. Ask the parent to call you back if she or he is not successful in resolving the issue with the teacher. More often than not, the teacher—who typically knows the issue far better than you do—can resolve the problem and save you time by not making you the middleman. A few days after the complaint, follow up to see whether the parent’s concerns have been effectively resolved.
#9: Address resistance head-on. People who are involved in decisions that affect them are likely to be more supportive of those decisions. Nonetheless, every school community seems to have what I call CAVE people—Citizens Against Virtually Everything. It is tempting to ignore them. But if you do, their concerns likely will not go away. Instead, their actions often become subversive. So, rather than ignoring them or spending time trying to work around them, it is a good use of time to meet with them directly to understand their concerns. By doing so, you may be able to address the source of their frustrations and turn enemies into allies, saving you precious time in the long run.
#10: Learn to say no. A superintendent friend of mine says, “You can’t hit every ball that comes over the net.” That means you should decide which issues you need to be involved in and when. Focus on accomplishing your school and district goals while helping teachers and students improve their skills. View any other activities as extraneous to those essential goals, and keep them to a minimum.
John Gratto is a clinical assistant professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, VA.