George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Letter to My New Principal

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Three Educators Listening

Dear Soon-to-be New Principal,

Welcome to the happiest place on earth! Oh, wait -- that’s Disneyland, isn’t it? Well, we aren’t exactly an amusement park, but as far as middle schools go, we are a pretty happy place. And we want you to know that we’ve got some great things going on. We are a hard working, innovative, and enthusiastic staff, and we hope you will find our school to be as great as we know it to be.

I’d like to offer some suggestions as you gear up for your first weeks on the job. I haven’t met you yet, and I don’t know what kind of experience you have, but after 25 years teaching middle school, I’ve learned a little bit about what makes for effective school leadership. I want you to be successful in your new position, and I know that my own success (and the success of my students) will in great part depend on you. So here’s what I know:

Effective principals genuinely care about kids. That means that when you are roaming the quad and cafeteria during break and lunch, you are chatting with the kids, smiling, high-fiving, getting to know their names, their cliques and their idiosyncrasies. Our kids need you to establish relationships with them, to show them that you care. Your relationships with them will go a long way toward motivating them to work hard, be respectful, and enjoy their time at our school, and that will directly impact the work we do with them in the classroom.

And if you genuinely care about kids, you will care about their teachers. You will value what we do, you will trust us to be the experienced professionals that we are, and you will support us in our work. So what does that look like? The best principals I’ve known make time to be in our classrooms. They pay attention to who does what on campus. They notice the programs and clubs and activities that make a school so much more than the standard classes. That way they know what matters to us, they know our individual passions, they know what makes us such a great school. And because they know us that well, they are able to speak about us with authority when talking with parents, and they are able to defend and support us when necessary.

And if you are a principal who cares about and supports teachers, we can count on you to respond to our needs. If we send you an email, you will answer. If we express concern about something, you hear us. If we have big, bold visions for our students, you will find ways to see those visions through to reality. An effective principal knows that if the teachers aren’t supported, the kids will suffer. And so, Soon-to-be New Principal, my colleagues and I look forward to sharing our exciting work with you, and we trust you will do what you can to support us and our students.

Finally, I hope that when you join our staff, you will watch and wait before jumping in with any changes. One of the best principals I’ve known told me that in her first year at a new school she didn’t try to change anything except the landscaping. She watched her teachers work, she listened to what they said, she chatted with students and parents, but the only changes she made were to trees, shrubbery and flower beds. She knew that the staff would resist any significant changes coming from someone so new to their school, so she focused first on relationships, got to know the school and its culture, and built trust before bringing in her new ideas.

Now it’s your turn. How can we support you in your new role? What do you need from us to help you become an effective leader of a really big, really cool middle school? What are your visions for your new role? Please let us know in the comments below.

Sincerely,

One of your many enthusiastic and innovative middle school teachers


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M Shafer's picture
M Shafer
Third grade teacher in the Midwest

James Dunning, you mentioned students having to learn multiple teaching styles, classroom rules and procedures. If you explicitly explain those to students, using visual aids as needed, I would hope that would ease one of the layers of difficulty for ELL students, as well as others. You seem to be saying that all teachers should use the same instructional strategies and methods. I disagree with that as a matter of principle, but it also seems impractical to expect History, Chemistry, Algebra and English teachers to have the same methods and procedures in place. The expectations of a lab class and a writing class, for instance, would be very different.
Since I don't know your school, I can't comment on how things are done there. Maybe as someone who enters multiple classes, you see some weaknesses in certain teachers and wish that they knew the methods of the stronger teachers. I think Laura's walk-through suggestion would be a good first step toward that. When I see something good that another teacher is doing, I make an appointment to learn from them. I appreciate administrators who offer opportunities for improvement rather than dictating exact methods that they expect everyone to use.

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James Dunning's picture

So teacher autonomy should outweigh the potential benefits of a common pedagogy (which certainly can span multiple subjects), even if the diverse philosophies and methods don't reinforce the students' experiences in multiple classrooms?

M Shafer's picture
M Shafer
Third grade teacher in the Midwest

Can you give me an example of the common pedagogy you have in mind?

James Dunning's picture

M, let's say that my learning approach is based firmly in Constructivism while you believe strongly in a Traditionalist approach. These pedagogies are subject and grade independent, and are considered polar opposite in approach to instruction and learning. Practitioners of each would likely declare the other anathema.

If we're both high school teachers--you teaching English and me Geometry--would you agree that our shared students would encounter challenges when moving from one classroom to the next? Alternately, knowing you're in elementary school, your analog would be I'm the Constructivist second grade teacher and you're the Traditional third grade teacher who inherits my students. Similarly, do you see both you and the students encountering small and large hurdles?

Jim

M Shafer's picture
M Shafer
Third grade teacher in the Midwest

Again, since I'm an elementary teacher I probably see this differently. What I see with students is that different students learn in different ways and teaching style, particularly at the primary grades, makes little difference for the majority of students and a huge difference for a handful of students. While ideally students would be with teachers who match their learning style, the next best thing is to have a variety of teachers, some of whom match their learning style. At my level, there are students who depend on the direct instruction of a traditional approach, as well as students who thrive on a more independent constructivist approach. I try to provide what different students need, but can't be all things to all students.
From the original point of the article, I gather that you believe it is up to administrators to guide all teachers in the pedagogy of their instruction. I think we'll have to agree to disagree.

James Dunning's picture

"While ideally students would be with teachers who match their learning style, the next best thing is to have a variety of teachers, some of whom match their learning style. At my level, there are students who depend on the direct instruction of a traditional approach, as well as students who thrive on a more independent constructivist approach. I try to provide what different students need, but can't be all things to all students."

Since you can't be all things to all students and you say different groups of students benefit from different learning environments (or teachers), doesn't this make a case for allowing students and their families to learn in classrooms or whole schools that match their "learning style" rather than take their chances with the current random assignment situation you describe?

Whether the outcome for the student is "huge" or "little"--and is there anyway to predict who gets the "little" as opposed to "huge"--is it right to compel the children to learn in a nonoptimal or even inimical environment?

M, doesn't your statement, "While ideally students would be with teachers who match their learning style," argue for students and families to have a choice of programs or schools? Of course, this would also provide teachers with the option of teaching in classrooms with true collaborative opportunities and students who would benefit most from their teaching style (with less student and teacher marginalization)?

Rather than settling for "the next best thing," why not go for "the best thing?"

Jim

M Shafer's picture
M Shafer
Third grade teacher in the Midwest

Jim,
Wow! Now we're out of the scope of the original article for sure. Have you thought about starting your own discussion topic? Anyone from the community can post.

James Dunning's picture

But are we, M? Laura's post focuses specifically on what "makes for effective school leadership," yet, as I read through it I don't see anything that directly links that leader to what most people think of when they send their kids off to school -- learning.

I CTRL-Fed for "teach," "learn," "lesson," "instruct," "achieve," "study," "knowledge," "skills," and numerous other words we might reasonably associate with the processes of learning and found nothing -- and found that strange! In this "principal's handbook" there is perversely no explicit (and very little that I can find implicit) reference to not only what we commonly think of as the student's raison d'etre for being in the principal's building, but even what we think of why the teacher is there.

That and that no one else seemed to notice trouble me.

Seems to me that "learning" and how it's created and supported falls smack-dab in the middle of a school leader's role, not outside the scope, thus my reason for adding it to the discussion. It should have been central to that original post.

So, yes, if student learning indeed is not a primary responsibility of the principal--and, by extension, not central to the school's purpose--then I did take the conversation outside of the scope of the topic.

ericfoley77's picture

This is something that is great before joining as a new principal. This will make you prepare for getting connecting with the students and teachers as well.

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