One of the very robust conversations we’ve been having in our district has to do with the principal’s role as a supervisor of instruction, and the part this plays in framing relationships in our building.
In British Columbia, we are lucky to have strong Leadership Standards for school administrators. These standards have recently undergone revision, and in the spring we started a closer examination of these. One of the domains is Instructional Leadership, which is often the focus of principals’ growth plans. (After doing the self assessment, I completed my own growth plan, which is a requirement for all administrators in our district)
For many of us, we’ve come from a long career of teaching and we’re in our positions because we know that role. It’s been part of our career to develop our pedagogy, work as a collegial team, and perhaps be teacher leaders in this area.
But now, as administrators, our role has changed. We need to manage the tension that comes from being responsible for the quality of teaching and learning, and for continually building relationships with our staff. (My growth plan includes the goal of; Ensure Teaching and Learning Conversations occur on a regular and ongoing basis.) As instructional leaders, sometimes that means having challenging conversations with teachers about their practice. If you see things in a classroom that you are not comfortable with, you need to engage that teacher in a conversation. That’s just our job. In our district, we’ve been asking, How do we perform that role, and at the same time maintain relational trust and protect the relationships we have?
As we all know, safety is a critical aspect of the learning environment, especially for adults. If learners don’t feel they’re safe, if there’s judgement or fear, the learning will really suffer. How many of us have gone into classrooms as part of our regular instructional walk through, only to see a teacher freeze up or dramatically respond to your presence? Ideally, we’d just like to be a fly on the wall, and have these visits be part of a larger process which focuses on deepening our practice. If trust is missing, that can’t happen.
Here are a few thoughts we’ve been working on to assist with this.
1. Re-frame your role: Our superintendent, Jeff Jones, has encouraged us to think differently about the work we do as supervisors. Ask yourself the question, “How are we adapting our practice to suit the changing needs of our students?”. Engage your teachers with this question, as it’s really at the heart of what we’re all trying to do. It’s not about watching for teachers’ deficiencies and helping bolster them, it’s about effective practice which is attuned to our students’ needs. Students, and families, are changing for a number of reasons. There are economic pressures in our community which are causing a large number of parents to seek employment in other places, such that one parent is at home and the other only returns on weekends. There are social and societal pressures which come from the media, and the ever-growing presence of technology in our lives. How have Facebook, and the cellphone, changed the educational landscape in the last 5 years? It’s a changing world, and our practice needs to keep up.
2. Trust through talk. Starting from this re-framing of our role, engage in conversations which include yourself as a learner. It’s not about finding weak practice and bolstering it; your role is to ask teachers curious questions about how best to engage our learners. In our district, we’ve really been working on conversations that start with “I’m curious how we might…”. It’s pretty clear this will go much further to build trust, and show you’re part of the team. Your relationship will be fundamentally different than if you begin conversations with “I am concerned with…”.
3. Share your learning; Most of us have some teaching as part of our assignment, and our classroom teaching should be doing exactly what you’re looking for in the rest of the school. How are you adapting your practice to the needs of your learners? Are you using the same canned units and lessons you used 10 years ago? Or, are you adapting a few core ideas to a new generation of learners who view the world differently. Share what you’re doing in your staff meetings, explain how you’re seeing new things in your classes and how you need to adapt your instruction. Whether it’s including technology, more movement and group work, or whatever, share it out and show you’re engaged with deepening practice as well.
4. Ask for help; Have you ever asked one of your teachers to observe your class? Every day we’re in their classes watching them, and for some they’ll ask us to watch particular lesson elements and solicit feedback. Why not reciprocate this, and ask their thoughts on what you’re doing. Be a visible learner, show your vulnerabilities, make it clear you’re working on your practice as well. What would it mean to a young teacher to be asked by their principal, “Could you please come into my class for 20 minutes and watch my transitions? I’m working on… and I’d really appreciate your thoughts”. Think on this for awhile.
5. A mindset of trust Every conversation, every interaction you have, is an opportunity to build (or lose) trust. And without this trust as part of your relationship, we all know how tough that can be. Susan Scott reminds us to always be authentic, present, and thoughtful in our day-to-day conversations. Select your words carefully, aim to have more trust after every conversation, even the tough ones.