Professional Learning

Principals: Take 5

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

October 21, 2015 Updated June 1, 2005

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?

Get Started

  • Read more detailed advice from Kim Marshall, now a writer and consultant on effective leadership in urban schools, at
  • For more information on classroom observation, see "Walk-Throughs Are on the Move!" or "Excellent Evaluations," at Education World's Administrator's Desk:
Sara Bernard is a former staff writer and multimedia producer for Edutopia.

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