With so much on the line, principals need the strongest possible support

This post was originally shared in an email on December 4, 2020. If you would like to receive my next email update, you can sign up here.

As COVID cases climb, I send you and your families wishes for health and safety.

This week, I have been thinking a lot about principals. My recent conversations with principals are filling me with empathy, worry, and wonder. When I asked one principal this week how things were going, she said, “Well, today I had to do contact tracing for one of our sports teams, support a student mental health emergency, and half my nutritional staff is out for 10 days — but what I am really worried about right now are these math scores!”

Our principals are carrying so much right now. Across all conversations, I hear fear for students and families, a sense of the impossibility of the options, exhaustion, and decision-making fatigue. I also hear a relentless dig-in spirit, an unbelievable commitment to their communities, and a clear-eyed understanding of the stakes of their job and the opportunity of the moment.

To every principal reading this: Thank you for all you are doing to step into the crux of this moment and support your communities. You have a hard job and a very important job. We all owe you immense gratitude.

Hard leadership is far from over. A lot is on the line for kids, for our communities, and for our country in the educational recovery and reconstruction process of the next several years. We know that the effectiveness of the recovery will come down to the quality of instruction, particularly for students experiencing poverty and students of color. We also know that principals have make-or-break influence in their schools.

When we first started doing instructional observation walkthroughs at Instruction Partners, sometimes principals joined us and sometimes they did not, which allowed us to study the difference. More than any other point of variation (e.g., whether the school adopted a high-quality curriculum, whether they focused on planning or coaching as the improvement strategy, whether they conducted their own instructional observations), principal presence and involvement in the walkthrough was closely associated with the rate of instructional improvement we saw in the three months following our visit.

We do not know if it is correlation or causation. Perhaps the principals who attended were already more engaged in instruction, or perhaps the experience of the walkthrough changed the way they engaged. At some level, it does not matter; what matters is that we know principal leadership is a decisive variable. (Since it made such a difference, we adjusted our service model to require their participation.)

Principals are going to be particularly vital in the years to come because while classroom instruction will matter most, this kind of recovery requires whole-school (and whole-community) attention. Principals will be the ones organizing and leading that effort. They are going to be the frontline, linchpin key to:

  • Helping teachers navigate decisions about how to hold a high bar and also provide a more robust suite of supports within and in addition to core instruction
  • Measuring and tracking student recovery over time
  • Redesigning intervention models that identify and pull in the additional supports that will be needed over time
  • Setting and keeping priorities
  • Modeling the kind of resilient, vulnerable, learning-oriented spirit everyone in the community will need to bring to the job

There is no training that prepares for leading during a pandemic or during recovery. Each principal will have to figure out the path for their school. But we do know a lot about how to support student learning and wellness. To help every principal stand on the strongest possible foundation, we need to share the best of what we know works.

There is a lot we can do to create that foundation:

  • States have a number of levers to support current and future leaders. I appreciated the recent RAND report clarifying those that are leveraged/under-leveraged.
  • District leaders can recognize the singular role principals play in instructional leadership and create as many additional supports to share the load on everything that the principal cannot uniquely do.
  • Districts and organizations that support schools can create real learning networks that efficiently synthesize the best of what is known about problems of practice principals are facing now and over time.
  • We all can make sure principals are not alone in navigating hard decisions. Support communities need to go beyond additional webinars; they need to provide meaningful, side-by-side support.

While there is plenty to keep us all worrying, we can and should draw hope from the incredible teachers and principals working hard every day to serve students well. Educators’ spirit of care, commitment, and passion for learning is not only extraordinary — it can drive limitless solutions for students and families in the years to come.

Here are some of the resources I have been learning from lately:

  • EdSurge released a paper about What Highly Effective School Leadership Really Looks Like in a Pandemic — it’s full of good ideas.
  • I recently spoke with Dr. Gholdy Muhammad for our Rethinking Intervention series, and I’m excited to dig into the collective findings from these conversations.
  • Carnegie Corporation of New York released The Elements, which calls for “transforming teaching and student learning by anchoring professional learning in high-quality curriculum materials.” We’re proud to be included in the report, and we celebrate our partner Gladstone Elementary School in Kansas City, Missouri, for being a featured transformational learning story.
  • Educator Dwayne Reed’s Twitter thread crowdsourced the answer to this question: “What’s ONE thing you would do to make remote/distance learning more sustainable, less burdensome, or simply just better?”

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