November 2018: Leadership

The Critical Importance of Good School Leadership


Every Jewish Day School wants its students to graduate with the skills, knowledge, and habits of mind to be successful – at the next level of schooling, in the workplace, as citizens, and as members of the religious community. What school factors produce that outcome? Good teaching in every classroom and a positive school culture. Both of those are heavily influenced by the principal.
Ensuring effective teaching in every classroom and a positive school culture is a daunting task. Each instructor teaches around 900 lessons a year (assuming five a day, 180 days in a school year), so in an average size school, the principal is responsible for the quality of around 27,000 lessons from September to June. Yikes! Even the most energetic principal has to trust that teachers are handling things well in the 99.9 percent of the time that they’re on their own with students.
When Ronald Reagan was president, he had a three-word mantra for the Soviet Union and its nuclear missiles: Trust but verify. Principals have no choice but to trust teachers, however, no teacher is perfect, and in every school, there are some mediocre and even ineffective instructional practices going on in some classrooms every day. So how can principals verify the teaching that’s effective and improve the teaching that’s not?
This brings us to the four basic responsibilities of instructional leadership: quality assurance (being able to honestly tell parents that their children are getting quality teaching of the right material in every classroom); feedback (regularly letting teachers know how they’re doing, including appreciation, praise, and suggestions on possible areas for improvement); motivation (inspiring teachers to bring their A game every day and constantly reflect on their practice); and wise personnel decisions (making the right calls on who stays and who goes). Of course, hiring good teachers is important, but every school makes hiring mistakes, and some teachers change over time. Therefore, there’s no substitute for effective on-the-job supervision and evaluation.
Given the staggering number of lessons taught every year, and the many other responsibilities that principals have, how on earth is it possible to provide quality assurance, feedback, motivation, and good personnel decisions? The traditional approach is to do a very thorough inspection of one or two of each teacher’s lessons a year, with the visit announced in advance. It’s easy to see why this model, which has been used in U.S. schools for more than 60 years, has very little impact and misses a lot: a. formal visits to classrooms are infrequent; b. having advance notice allows teachers to put on the best possible lesson for the boss (commonly called the dog-and-pony show); and c. if the principal is able to give detailed suggestions on less-than-effective practices, there will be way more feedback than most teachers can digest (would any athletic coach work that way?).
In recent years it’s become clear that writing up one lesson a year is an ineffective practice, and school leaders across the nation have tried a number of other approaches. For example, making surprise videos of teachers; putting a camera in every classroom; using anonymous surveys of students; and during the Obama administration, using test scores and complicated statistical formulas to decide which teachers should be fired. The track record of these and other ideas has not been impressive.
The good news is that a few districts and schools have hit on a much better approach: principals making short, frequent, unannounced visits to classrooms (about two a day); having a debrief conversation after each mini-observation (it’s amazing how much there is to talk about after only ten minutes of instruction); observing teachers in their team meetings, with parents, and in other activities, and pulling all these snapshots together into a detailed report on each teacher at the end of the year – with the teacher’s self-assessment as a significant component. An efficient way to aggregate information is a teacher-evaluation rubric, which deconstructs the basic elements of teaching and gives a brief description of each at four levels of performance: Highly Effective, Effective, Improvement Necessary, and Does Not Meet Standards.
This approach is working well in a number of schools, helping to keep principals in touch with day-to-day teaching and learning, reassuring effective teachers about their status, and giving early warning about less-than-effective practices so they can be improved – and, if there isn’t improvement in a reasonable amount of time, making personnel changes.
The biggest challenge for many principals still remains: getting out of their offices – escaping the endless stream of e-mails, drop-ins (“Got a minute?”), student discipline issues, phone calls, and do-it-now demands from outside the building. Some principals do a cursory walkthrough of all their classrooms every day – the “managing by walking around” approach borrowed from the business world – but very quick classroom visits are superficial and have little or no impact on the quality of instruction because teachers aren’t getting feedback (one study even found that walkthroughs without feedback have a negative impact on student achievement). Some principals spend hours going over teachers’ lesson plans, but this is not a good use of time – it’s the execution of each lesson plan that matters. Some principals simply give up and let teachers fill out their own evaluation reports at the end of the year.
The plain fact is that there’s no substitute for regularly visiting every classroom for a decent amount of time. Surprisingly, 10-15 minutes is enough time to get a sense of what’s working and what needs work. And there’s no substitute for having a conversation with each teacher after every single visit that allows the teacher to explain what was going on before and after the visit and provide information on the broader context of the lesson. These debrief chats, ideally within 24 hours and held in the teacher’s classroom when students aren’t there, are where most of the appreciation and fine-tuning of teaching happens. Right afterward, it’s important for the principal to follow up with a very brief summary of each conversation, sent electronically to the teacher. One net-based program limits the principal’s summary to 1,000 characters – basically a full paragraph.
The three components of a mini-observation cycle – observation, conversation, written summary – shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes: 10 minutes in the classroom, 10 minutes for the debrief, and 10 minutes for the write-up. Ten of these per teacher per year seems like an attainable goal, and in most schools, that comes down to one or two mini-observations a day. If a principal can’t fit that into a 6-7-hour day, there are three possibilities: the school is in complete chaos; the principal isn’t very skilled at time management; or the principal is avoiding the hard but important work of instructional leadership.
So to summarize, here is a mantra for principals: If you want to know what’s really going on instructionally and culturally in your school, go to the real place (visit classrooms, talk to teachers after each visit, and drop in on teacher team meetings). If you want to show teachers that you care about and appreciate their work, go to the real place. If you want to show your colleagues that, despite all the other stuff you have to do, you are genuinely interested in teaching and learning, go to the real place. If you want to see good classroom practices, give teachers specific praise, and spread effective ideas to the whole staff, go to the real place. If you want to coach teachers on practices that need improvement, go to the real place. If you want to pick up on possible boundary issues that could cause huge problems for the school, go to the real place. If you want to build a case to fire a persistently ineffective teacher, go to the real place. If you want to promote good morale, keep effective teachers, and attract good teachers, go to the real place. If you want to go home each day with a sense that you have done the core work of the principalship, go to the real place.
It’s being done in many U.S. schools. You can do it, too. 

Kim Marshall, formerly a Boston teacher and administrator, coaches principals, consults and speaks on school leadership and evaluation, and publishes the weekly Marshall Memo. He can be contacted at or by visiting