At a recent gathering of educators, we spent several minutes watching an evocative video clip of Yo-Yo Ma instructing a trio of cellists. In this clip, Ma plays the cello alongside the musicians, stops to offer specific feedback on ways for them to improve their performance, and then gives them each an immediate chance to practice. The video was shown by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, Managing Director of the North Star Academies in Newark and author of Leverage Leadership, and it was intended to underscore how far we are from that level of coaching in most public education settings.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation believes improving teacher effectiveness is key for graduating more students college-ready, and sometimes our emphasis on improving teacher effectiveness is mistaken as overlooking the importance of effective principals or school leaders.
To the contrary we are seeing firsthand, across a wide swath of school districts and charter schools we work with, the critical role principals play in the success of teachers. And if new teacher evaluation systems are truly going to be about helping teachers improve as well as holding them accountable for student success, then we need to think differently about both the expectations and, importantly, the supports for principals and school leaders.
Mike Copland wrote earlier this year about the importance of accurate classroom observations as a key element for improving teaching and learning. Ensuring accurate teacher observations is essential, but, it is only part of the equation for success.
Supporting teachers requires principals and other trained district leaders to deliver feedback effectively and work together to provide assistance, based on evaluation and other data, that will help individual teachers improve.
At the recent gathering I mentioned earlier, a small group of practitioners who oversee and coach principals in more than a dozen districts and charter management organizations that are implementing new systems for teacher evaluation and development focused their discussion on the evolving role of the principal in supporting teacher effectiveness and how to bolster those school leaders. Notable trends include the development of new principal job descriptions, new frameworks for selecting and evaluating principals, and new ways of organizing time and resources to push principal growth. The continuous thread in all of the discussions was the importance of defining the principal as an instructional leader and people manager.
Meredith Honig, Assistant Professor in Education at University of Washington, highlighted principal instructional leadership as working with “teachers in and out of the classroom to critically examine the quality of their teaching practice and student work in an attempt to strengthen both.” She also discussed the importance of principal supervisors -- Instructional Leadership Directors [ILDs] -- working “jointly” with principals, “differentiating supports,” “modeling” for them, using “tools as [the] basis for challenging conversations about strengthening instructional leadership practice.” Given their role in developing teacher talent and creating new leadership opportunities for teachers within their schools, principals also can benefit from coaching and support for how to better select, retain, and empower effective teachers.
One implication of a deeper focus on instructional leadership that school systems are wrestling with is creating the right organizational structures and processes, with the right number of principals per supervisor, given the importance of coaching that allows for feedback and practice like that in the Yo-Yo Ma clip. As places work to address this challenge, they are intentionally revamping the principal supervisor and principal role descriptions, aligning evaluative frameworks to job descriptions and how assistance is provided, and listening to the voices of teacher and principal leaders.
Establishing coaching and modeling as the core of good leadership is an important undertaking that requires both urgency and persistence.
Later this year, the foundation will be sharing a report featuring additional details about how the principal role is changing in new teacher evaluation and support systems and what organizations are doing to bolster those leaders. We will also be sharing sample tools and artifacts, synthesized and refined by the Center for Education Leadership at the University of Washington, from practitioners leading these efforts.
We look forward to continuing to learn how their thinking and collective action will shape the role of the principal as instructional leader to profoundly impact teaching and learning.