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Administrators: How to Get Out of the Office and Into Classrooms

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Two boys and an adult in the sidelines

As an administrator, I think about the most enjoyable times I have had at school. Frankly, none of them include sitting in my office doing paperwork, disciplining, or attending meetings. The most enjoyable and productive times I have experienced are when I have been in the classroom observing teachers and interacting with students and teachers.

Conceptually, I believe that every administrator would agree with me that they need to be in the classroom to be the most effective with teachers and student learning, but in reality, it is easier said than done. The administrator's office is the focal point of so many things: planning, scheduling, disciplining, reporting, and managing. All of this becomes a magnet drawing the administrator inexorably back to the office any time he or she strays any distance from it.

The ultimate question of every administrator worth his or her salt is that, given all of the demands on an administrator's time, what can we do to escape the pull of the office spend a majority of our time in the classroom?

I have found that, for weeks on end, I am bombarded with issues from the time I arrive at school to the time I leave school, and often it takes every second of my day, including lunchtime, to deal with them. These issues include teacher needs, student needs, parent needs, district office needs, state needs, and a whole host of facility problems, personnel issues, planning concerns, and discipline referrals. If I simply stand in front of my office, I will be busy all day long -- guaranteed.

Managing Time Effectively

The reality is that, for the most part, I will never be able to satisfy all the "needs" in one day, or one week, or one year. Because of this, the first thing that I have to do is handle what I can handle, and delegate the rest. Last week, I spent time organizing the volume of keys for the building (it is an old school that did not believe in master keys). I could have easily given the task to another person and spent this time in the classroom. This takes a bit of organization, planning, and negotiation, but is well worth the freed time it provides. Actually there is no such thing as free time because, unless it is planned, something will always fill it up. Nature abhors a vacuum.

So that is the next step. I have learned that if I do not spend the time to put what I need to do on the calendar of daily activities, I will relegate important things for later and only take care of the most urgent items, regardless of how important they are. With chagrin, I looked at my weekly calendar on Friday and realized that it was blank. I had not planned the week. I fully understood why I had done only a few classroom walkthroughs and did not meet my observation goal of visiting each teacher's classroom every day.

Getting Into Classrooms

I find that when I make the effort to block out time for observations, I can tell the urgent demands to wait until I am done with my observations. Perhaps even more importantly, if I share my plan with my secretary, she can hold at bay many of the urgent demands and sometimes solve them for me.

Just as a goal is a wish unless it is written down, when we share our goals with others, they can help us reach them. I have found that it is helpful to let my teachers know of my observation goal to visit their classroom every day and enlist their help in making it happen. If I know that a teacher is expecting me to be in his classroom that day, it is more likely that I will make every effort to be there. After all, I do not want to let the teacher down or show lack of professionalism or poor planning.

The final strategy that helps me to be in the classroom more often is to establish a routine. This helps me because I don't have to think about a habit. It's easy to plan for, and the teachers and students know that I will not be in my office, so they do not look for me at those times. Perhaps the greatest benefit I see is the change seen in the perspective of the teachers.

Administrator as Ally

Infrequent observations tend to promote a teacher perspective of "evaluation" and looking for mistakes. Frequent observations and feedback help teachers view the administrator as a colleague, an ally, and a valuable instructional improvement coach.

Avoiding the magnetic pull of the office is a constant battle for every administrator. When I have taken the time to establish observations as a priority, when I have delegated extraneous tasks that other can effectively do, and when I have deliberately set aside windows of time for observations, I have been able to make headway with improving instructional practice, establishing instructional accountability, establishing standards of teacher professionalism, and ultimately, I have made significant impacts in student learning.

While every administrator understands and fully comprehends the importance of these three steps, it is not easy to do them. I promise that if you make teacher walkthroughs a priority, you will see significant changes in school climate, teacher diligence, student performance, and many of the "issues" that pull you back to the office will disappear of their own accord.

How have you been successful in demagnetizing yourself from the office? Please share in the comments section below.

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Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

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Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Hi Ben,
I found that, when I was working as an assistant principal, there were two really good ways to interact with students:
1) Do lunch duty - this is a surefire winner for teachers, because you can give them an extra break, while you get the chance to talk to students in an informal environment. Suddenly, everyone in the school knows who you are.
2) Do an extra-curricular activity at least once a week. This is a chance to engage in teaching and learning for an hour or so a week, again, seeing students informally.


Alex's picture

This post probably resonates with a lot of administrators - I think it's because a sense of community and positive school climate is one of those common sense things that people just know is a positive aspect of education. Outcomes expected from a positive school climate (In a 2012 study by the National School Climate Center conducted by Thapa and colleagues) include positive impacts on student's mental and physical health, decreased absenteeism from middle and high school, and students' motivation to learn.

Bryk & Schneider (2002), as cited in the article, found that schools with higher levels of relational trust, or good social relationships on all levels of the community, were more likely to take positive steps to "improve student achievement."

The CDC defines school connectedness as "the belief by students that adults and peers in the school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals." The same National School Climate Center article cites that school connectedness, which could be facilitated by increased administrative presence in the classroom, is associated with increased student satisfaction and decreased violence.

I think getting administrators 'out of the office' is a great idea to improve a sense of community within the school, and to improve overall school climate.

Franziska's picture

I credit the National SAM Innovation project with increasing my instructional time from 40 to 70 percent.
It includes planning your schedule carefully with a secretary or coach who then watches you like a hawk and kicks you out of your office, politely and firmly, protecting your classroom time from all "Do you have a minute?" moments. You also create a "first responder list" for teachers and parents to know who to go to for what and making sure you are the second or third but not first responder for most areas. Office referrals kept me busy my first year as a principal, and I rarely made it into classrooms. Creating a strong, building-wide PBIS or other structure and providing lots of training is another essential piece in getting out of the office. If you don't have an AP, then training secretaries or hiring an RJ coach/behavior para to respond to Tier 2 behaviors helps keep you in classrooms.

Tricia Whenham's picture

Thanks for the great post, Ben. I think that administrators who make the time to be in the classroom deserve our applause, as I know it isn't an easy thing to do.

Keith, I totally agree about the value of lunch (and recess) supervision. When I was a teacher, I so appreciated seeing the my principal and AP out on their field and the playground with all the rest of us.

In the opposite direction, I think technology - like school blogs or digital portfolios - has great potential to supplement principals' in-classroom time and give them a clearer picture of what their classes are immersed in and who their students are.

Betsy Justis's picture

What do you think the optimal hours a week an administrator should visit classrooms? Thanks!

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