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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Principals: Take Five

A class drop-in every month reinvigorates both teacher and administrator.
Sara Bernard
Journalist

Too many school administrators get bogged down with, well, administration. The 1,001 tasks allocated to the head of the school are likely to keep even the most efficient one trapped in the office, epitomizing what Kim Marshall, principal of Boston's Mather Elementary School from 1987 to 2002, calls "the dirty little secret of American schools": Principals rarely visit classrooms.

But school heads, not just teachers, need to know how their students are learning. Recent studies by educational researchers Elaine Fink and Lauren Resnick maintain there is no way for a principal to know what's really going on in the school -- and, therefore, no way to improve it -- unless he or she visits classes frequently.

Effective change in the classroom is the result of instructional leadership on the part of principals rather than efficiency at administrative duties. Principals, Fink and Resnick discovered, become reengaged in the craft of teaching by regularly going into classrooms, and a culture of learning and mutual dependency subsequently develops among staff members at all levels.

Marshall once diagnosed himself with "hyperactive superficial principal syndrome," the unfortunate result of submitting to those forces that, he says, "keep school administrators from a meaningful instructional role." The remedy: five classroom visits a day, at five minutes a pop. (See "The Visitors: By Invitation Only" for the wrong way to go about this.) The results: strong relationships with teachers and the opportunity to give prompt and effective comments. Your goals may not be so ambitious -- you could skip the daily five-pack and instead attend one class period every day until you cover the campus -- but they should be paramount.

Unfortunately, Marshall's pop-in ratio is not the norm. Frustration with the lack of school leaders in classrooms -- and their losing touch with classroom activity -- has even led to proposed legislation in Texas. HB 759, submitted by Texas state representative Jim McReynolds, will, if passed, require that administrators (including superintendents, principals, and anyone else who oversees classroom teachers) serve as teachers for a full semester once every five years. How's that for a classroom visit?

Sara Bernard is a former staff writer and multimedia producer for Edutopia.

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Frank Palatnick's picture
Frank Palatnick
Nobel Peace Prize Nominee 2008, Semi-Retired UN Advisor/Education

I agree. Using the concept from the docudrama ' Lean On Me' is the best exale of class visitation as well as student-administrator dialogue. Since the student is the most important person in a school environment we, as administrators, must make as much time as physically available to understand the student. I personally have seen both teachers and administrators ignore students problems even to the point of totally ignoring a cry for help in the hallway. True that is not the norm. But that should not be happening at all. There should be a standard added to the ETS's ISLLC standards that says that there should ' school leaders must be empathetic to all students.

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