Three Focus Areas for School Leaders

With endless responsibilities on their list, principals need to be very clear with teachers and other stakeholders about priorities for instruction, with attention to their cultural implications. While the task of college readiness...

Written By admin

On October 7, 2013

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A principal I know has reported that in the first four weeks of school this academic year, he has averaged being called out of his building to meetings close to two days per week. At that rate of disruption to the critical work of being a hands-on leader, a principal would miss a little more than an entire week per month, totaling more than a quarter of the year in absences from the very job he or she is tasked with doing.

With endless responsibilities on their list, principals need to be very clear with teachers and other stakeholders about priorities for instruction, with attention to their cultural implications. While the task of college readiness for all can seem overwhelmingly complex, leaders can do much to efficiently communicate expectations and lay groundwork for such a cultural change. The three things I suggest are:

Leaders can help teachers focus while making a large impact.  (Photo courtesy of

Leaders can help teachers focus while making a large impact.
(Photo courtesy of Pakorn at

  • Insist that all students are active participants in all classes.
  • Insist that all students have access to special events, trips, and projects.
  • Insist that data analysis include student work.

Why these three suggestions? Each of these non-negotiables can make a difference in student learning, but more than that, they can be powerful leverage points as administrators tackle old mindsets. Given the demands that take principals out of sight in their buildings, such clarity can offer focal points for other administrative staff and teachers as well, while assisting the professional cycle of reflection, communication, and decision-making.

Here is a breakdown:

By insisting that all students are active participants in all classes, leaders would reinforce the need for old ways of teacher-centered instruction to be greatly reduced, if not dismantled entirely.

If a leader expects to see student-driven learning and looks for it in walkthroughs and other evidence, students will be engaged in more inquiry, in more active reading strategies, and in producing authentic products that demonstrate their learning.

Some teachers who have years of professional development on these approaches and strategies will often continue to direct whole class learning to a single answer or toward students writing the same compare and contrast essay, down to the same examples and explanation. Two explanations I offer for this phenomena are: a) if the professional development doesn’t model the change one wants to see in the classroom, it will not typically transfer into practice, and b) if the principal’s walkthrough instrument focuses on what teachers do and not on what students are doing, practices will not change. Flip the expectations you measure in the classroom and in professional learning, and you will  flip the learning experience for students, as shown in this video example of a leader who did just that.

Focusing on field trips or special programs might seem like a small thing, but leaders should investigate current building practices to learn whether and how often students are excluded from special educational enrichment events. Leaders should find out, for example, whether schools are taking the “upper level” tenth grade classes to the local play, but not the rest of the tenth grade.

With so much research against tracking, it is amazing that school mindsets are still focused on “high” and “low” categories of people (students).  Leaders should eliminate such practices and repeat the mantra that “all means all” until the message permeates all practices in the building. Support for this approach is found in this statement by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

It is true that some students come to school with disadvantaged circumstances depriving them of prior knowledge that their peers may have. Why would a school exacerbate that issue by taking only the “Gifted and Talented Program” students to a local museum or performance?

While our profession has increased our use of data in the last 20 years, we have much room to grow in this area in terms of understanding what the data can and can’t tell us, and most importantly, how to respond to it with students in the classroom.

Analysis of student work using clear protocols can add a layer of insight and professional growth to data analysis, taking the conversation beyond standardized test scores and what those assessments narrowly tell us, into a more complete and meaningful plan for the classroom. Also, while standardized tests can help us measure individual learning targets, when do students get to put some of those targets together in a sustained product like they will do in college and career?

Not only can student products help us understand students better, but our own instructional approaches, too. Are students writing the same answers as their peers to writing prompts, showing little in the way of individual thinking? Maybe we are being too prescriptive.

In addition to individual teacher and team analysis, student work can be viewed collectively to inform everyone about the kinds of tasks students are completing. Are tasks spiraling in complexity across grade levels and content areas? Are students using a range of forms and mediums for their summative assessments?

Railroad Tracks

A busy school leader can keep a pulse on a list of practices like these since they are closely linked. Student engagement leads to a sizable collection of student work for analysis. And a scan of that data with an eye for equity can determine whether all students are getting access to the same types of learning experiences.

School leaders can open the professional dialogue and learning while steering school culture in a new direction. Clarity of purpose mixed with a laser-focus on doing a few things very well will help educators focus, and that has to be a good thing for students.

For more please visit CTL’s Leadership Development page.