From the Principal's Office: Be Present

12/26/2013 12:00:00 AM
There is no better way to get the pulse of a school as a leader than to be in classrooms.  I have never considered myself one to be tied to a desk and/or office, but the managerial aspects of the position and ridiculous amounts of paperwork catch up to you at some point.  This year educators in NJ, like many other states across the nation, are still adjusting to new mandates related to teacher evaluation and tenure changes.  Here we call it Achieve NJ.  The toll that all of these new directives - from SGO’s, to SGP’s to PDP’s - has taken on administrators and teachers has been quite dramatic.  In my case, none more than the never-ending time sap dedicated to paperwork and meetings.  This is our new reality.

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One of the mandates in particular has resulted in an increase in observations of tenured staff members. This is probably the one area of directed and mandated change that I have come to appreciate.  Why might you ask? It has resulted in my administrative team and I being in classrooms more often and regularly. Now, the beginning of the year was extremely rough as over six of the seven hours that my students were in school were spent conducting pre-conferences, observations, write-ups, and post-conferences.  After only a few months, the four of us that comprise the NMHS Administrative team have conducted co-observations, developed a common language and look fors, and have mastered the McREL tool that we use to observe staff.  Working together we are not only getting into more classrooms, but we have also developed a streamlined process using shared documents in Google Drive.  

The journey thus far has not been easy, but there now is a silver lining.  Once we became comfortable with the new mandates and how each impacted our professional practice we were able to lay out a vision for a renewed focus on the work we do that truly matters.  The only way to accomplish this was to become even more present by developing protocols to ensure we are in classrooms each day.  Even with the seemingly endless burden imposed by state mandates, we developed a walk-through procedure in order to not only know what is going on in our building, but to also better engage teachers and students in learning conversations.  

Our walks over the past two weeks have reaffirmed our belief in the innovative work taking place here at New Milford High School.  More importantly, they have been a catalyst for positive dialogue on what we can do as a school community to improve and celebrate our collective accomplishments. These rich conversations were just not taking place due to the pressure-filled environment that has been created as a result of education reform in this state.  Post-conferences have focused on how one can “prove” that he/she is meeting the criteria contained in a standards-based rubric, especially with uploaded artifacts.  On the other hand, our walks have reinvigorated our belief in public education and the amazing authentic and meaningful work teachers and students do each day.  Here is just a snippet of what I have seen or experienced in the past week:

  • An English teacher having every student in her Film Studies class share their presentation with me on Google Drive minutes after I attended a class.
  • Engineering students showing off the bridge they had just collaboratively created.
  • A pedagogically sound BYOD lesson in English where an equitable environment was created using both student and school-owned technology.
  • A History teacher having students use Socrative on Chromebooks.
  • Document Based Questions (DBQ’s) being administered in a history class.
  • Digital photography students working on editing the photos they just took on a recent trip to Rockefeller Center, Times Square, and Bryant Park in NYC.
  • A Math teacher using Poll Everywhere in AP Statistics to check for understanding.
  • A math teacher diligently working with students as they participated in a cooperative learning activity.
  • Students in our new Makerspace constantly tinkering, hacking, inventing, and creating.
  • Numerous teachers assessing learning in both summative and formative formats.
Picture from recent walk: BYOD and equity (student + school owned tech)

I think you get the point. Being present in our classrooms and other learning areas of our buildings cannot be overstated.  Even in the face of relentless pressures and mandates that don’t make much sense, it is our duty to be instructional leaders, cheerleaders, guides, mentors, and change agents.  This can only happen if we know what is going on in our schools, connect with both teachers and students alike, and provide positive as well as constructive feedback on what we see. Most importantly however is the mere fact that our presence will reaffirm what we do in the most important profession.  The work that I am seeing from my staff and students serves as an inspiration.  When I go into classrooms I am eagerly anticipating what I will see next.  Don’t succumb to the myriad of excuses that education reform provides each of us today not to be in classrooms.  Be present!

cross-posted on A Principal's Reflections

Eric Sheninger is a NASSP Digital Principal Award winner (2012), PDK Emerging Leader Award recipient (2012), winner of Learning Forward's Excellence in Professional Practice Award (2012) and co-author of Communicating and Connecting With Social Media: Essentials for Principals and What Principals Need to Know About Teaching and Learning Science. He presents and speaks nationally to assist other school leaders in effectively using technology. His blog, A Principal's Reflections, was selected as Best School Administrator Blog in 2011 by Edublogs.
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