One of the toughest but most rewarding jobs in education is being a school principal. Some principals end up disliking the job because they find themselves deskbound by administrative responsibilities. But they needn't be. It is possible to move out from behind the principal's desk and get into classrooms for part of each school day.
In In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, Jr., introduced a management technique called MBWA, an acronym for "managing by wandering around" or "managing by walking about." It's a style that is the ideal description of many of the best principals' leadership styles. Those principals spend a great deal of time "walking about," working with and observing teachers and students.
NOW THAT YOU'RE IN THE CLASSROOM...
Principals who make time to get out of the office and to explore the exciting and meaningful activities going on in their schools will tell you that getting into classrooms regularly requires two strategies: the commitment to doing it and a competent secretary. Without a competent secretary, being in classrooms is next to impossible.
So let's assume you've met those two requirements Once you are in classrooms, what exactly should you do while you are there? I have a few suggestions that I've learned from my experience.
[content block] Offer your services as a teacher's aide. I always enjoyed working with small groups of students on a regular basis or for a specific purpose. So I asked teachers to feel free to invite me into their classrooms, or to fill some role when I dropped in. I always enjoyed listening to children read aloud or recite math facts. Those were easy roles to fill. Not only was I helping to improve students' skills, but I also left with a good sense of each classroom I visited -- its atmosphere and the kind of learning that was taking place. As another benefit, children I worked with often shared their thoughts or feelings about our school. Their comments were always valuable feedback.
Being a teacher's aide can be great fun too...
Years ago, Albert Cullum wrote a great book for educators, Push Back the Desks. When I was a sixth-grade teacher, I used several of his creative ideas to spice up my lessons. One of my favorites was "A Grammar Hospital," a lesson on identifying the eight parts of speech. When I became a principal and actually had the title "Dr." attached to my name, I was asked by one of my fourth-grade teachers if I would be willing to put my "doctor" skills to the test. Together we would serve as aides as her students operated on sentences. We purchased surgical masks from a hospital supply house so everyone could wear one as we operated. What fun the teacher and I had as we worked with the students and their "patients"!
Create a sign-up sheet, teach a lesson. When I was a principal, I provided a sign-up sheet with the times that I'd be available to teach. I encouraged teachers to invite me to teach a lesson. I tried to teach between five and eight lessons a week. (Music always provided the biggest challenge for me!) I used the teacher's prepared lesson plan to ensure I was following the established learning sequence. Among the big benefits of teaching in this way were that I was able to keep my teaching skills current and I had frequent opportunities to interact with students. In addition, sometimes my teaching stints were gentle and important reminders of the frustration teachers can face as they try to teach difficult concepts.
Imagine the dinner-table conversation when parents learned who taught their child that day! Especially after one particularly fun teaching experience
One of my third-grade teachers invited me to teach a lesson. She shared with me one of her favorite books, How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell, and asked me if I would read it aloud to her students. If you are not familiar with the story, it tells of a 10-year-old boy who bets his friends that he can eat 15 worms in 15 days. The book can be read in five sittings, so we arranged for me to read to students for 40 minutes at the end of each school day for a week. We gathered all the school's third graders -- 65 of them -- for this weeklong event. Each afternoon, the students and I reviewed the sequence of events from the previous days. Then I read the next installment. On the next to last day, I told the students I would have "something special" for them to consider on the final day. I entered the classroom that last day at the appointed hour with a silver platter that had a linen napkin draped over something on top. (The students' eyes focused on the platter, which had a special connection to the story. Under the napkin I had concealed "worms" -- which were actually softened, rolled-thin tootsie rolls.) After I finished reading, I thanked the teachers for letting me read the book and I thanked the students for their attention. As I prepared to leave, the students stopped me because they wanted to know what was under the napkin. I peeked, but I didn't let them see. Instead, I pulled a brand new one-dollar bill from my pocket. I offered it to whoever was brave enough to eat just one of what was under the napkin. The students naturally assumed there were live worms on the platter. Many of them wanted that dollar bill and considered accepting my challenge, but just then -- by previous arrangement, of course -- one of the teachers volunteered. Students loved it! They wanted to see a teacher get sick, just as Billy had in the book. The teacher came forward, made the "worm" wiggle and squirm, put it in her mouth, winced, and shut her eyes as she swallowed. She claimed her reward and I left with the tray, napkin, and book. Needless to say, we sold many copies of How to Eat Fried Worms at the school book fair that year!
Give teachers duty-release coupons. When I was a principal, on Halloween and Valentine's Day I gave each teacher a coupon good for either a duty-free lunch or recess or a chance to leave 30 minutes early one day. Those coupons gave me yet more opportunities to get to know the students and for the students to get to know me in a different setting.
Of course, if the teacher chose the "leave early" option, I found myself in the teacher's role, teaching another lesson, and I didn't mind that at all.Just one caution about using coupons in that way: Be sure you include on the coupon an expiration date. The coupon you gave on Halloween should expire before the Valentine's Day one begins.
AN ACTION PRINCIPAL
These tried-and-true suggestions didn't reduce my administrative paperwork -- but I did get into classrooms, where the action is.
One colleague who often gets into classrooms told me that his teachers said his willingness to be actively involved was influencing the curriculum as well as boosting teacher morale. And -- as all principals know -- when teachers are happy, that is reflected in the atmosphere of the building and in the attitude of the students.
My colleague's comments should be motivation enough for you to give one of these activities a try, or to try another creative idea of your own. Your visibility and work in classrooms will reap many benefits for students and your school. It will have a positive impact on your credibility as well.
I learned a long time ago that being a "classroom principal" or an "MBWA principal" was more time consuming than being an "office principal." But I also learned quickly that the rewards are far greater too.
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Article by George Pawlas
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