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Practical Advice for Principals in the Field

Whether a principal is new to the role or to a school, there is always a lot to learn about a school, its culture, and people. The New Principals Fieldbook offers administrators practical advice on how to process and prioritize all that information. Included: Examples of how to learn about a schools culture.

Whether an administrator is new to a school or new to the principalship, should be required reading. Authors Dr. Harvey Alvy and Dr. Pam Robbins discuss how to become acquainted with a schools culture, offer tips for determining if students are engaged in meaningful learning, and offer advice on setting priorities and protecting instructional time.

Alvy, a professor in the department of education at Eastern Washington University, and Robbins, an education consultant, talked with Education World about their motivation for writing the book and how they think it can help develop more effective school leaders.

Dr. Harvey Alvy

Dr. Pam Robbins

Education World: What inspired you to write The New Principals Fieldbook?

Dr. Harvey Alvy, Pam Robbins: Principal leadership is a critical component of successful schools. From a practical viewpoint, we both recognize that the sooner a principal is able to productively serve, the better off the school will be -- for students, teachers, and the community. When we started to do research on new principals more than a decade ago, we were surprised to learn that little had been done on helping new principals succeed by providing guidance in the multiple arenas in which a principal must serve.

While some of the challenges that new principals face are similar to veteran principals --some are unique to newcomers. For example, all principals, veteran and new, are faced with the challenges of federal mandates, while new principals face the unique challenges of quickly becoming familiar with the territory and school culture. Also, much has been written about the loneliness of the principalship. Ironically, while principals interact with hundreds of people on a weekly basis, theirs is a lonely job. As a consequence, principals often wonder Is this the best way I could have handled the situation? or What would other principals do? The overwhelmingly positive response to The New Principals Fieldbook suggests that it fills a professional and personal void, and addresses the loneliness, by providing the voices of practicing principals, promising practices, and research to guide newcomers on their leadership journeys.

EW: What are some of the most common mistakes new principals make?

We would rate the importance of learning the school culture as more important than some of the formal responsibilities. Culture is the lifeblood of a school.

Alvy, Robbins: We all make mistakes. However, it is critical to stress that each principalship is unique. Thus, when we describe common mistakes, the nuances of each situation must be considered. First, some new principals try to make changes without knowing the culture. In The New Principals Fieldbook we emphasize that it is important to read the culture before trying to make changes. Of course, many new principals are hired because change is needed to improve the school, so they want to quickly implement new ideas. Yet, to implement change without taking the time to learn about a culture is risky. If one does not proceed thoughtfully, necessary changes will be difficult, or impossible, to implement. Newcomers need to affirm what is working and that can occur only by respectfully studying the culture. Wise decision-making will result.

Second, often the schedule or events control the principal. New principals need to thoughtfully develop their schedules and make sure that items of importance, such as visiting classes or spending time greeting students and staff in the morning, are listed and programmed into the daily schedule. Third, new principals often try to take on every school challenge or problem. No one person can do it all. Distributing leadership -- by working with assistant principals, department chairs, teacher leaders, and community supporters -- is critical. As a corollary point, it is okay to admit that one does not know everything. Newcomers need to ask a lot of questions about the school, not in a snoopervising way, but in a positive manner, to understand the system and support what works.

Fourth, newcomers often neglect their families, and neglect taking time to exercise. The principalship can be a 24/7 job. Building in time for family not only affirms the importance of ones personal life, but it also sends a message to others about what is valued. And, if a principal is not healthy, it becomes difficult to help others.

We go into great depth in The New Principals Fieldbook about these challenges and many others relating to mistakes. Although it is an honor to be interviewed about these issues, as we reflect upon our answers we think it would be wise for newcomers to explore the book to gain a greater understanding of newcomer challenges.

EW: What are some ways principals can read the school culture?

Alvy, Robbins: It is important to read both the formal and informal cultures to truly understand how a school operates. By informal culture we are referring to gathering data by informally spending time in different areas of the school to observe the culture and engage in conversations about what works and what needs to be improved. Other informal elements include: the spots where people hang out in the morning, the time they come to work, when they leave -- beyond the policy regulations -- where folks eat lunch, and topics of conversation in the teachers lounge. Also, [it helps to discern] how diversity is affirmed in the school. Leading and Learning by Wandering Around (LLBWA) is a great way to discover the informal cultural aspects of the school. LLBWA occurs when leaders are purposefully walking and talking in the school and community to support and celebrate positive school events, and to discover areas in need of greater focus.

Reading the formal culture involves observing the official, planned events, and reading district and school policies and procedures to learn how the formal organization -- often the bureaucracy -- operates. Formal measures also include official surveys about the culture and climate, parent surveys, district data about students, mission and vision statements, the school yearbook and newspapers, and various other public artifacts.

School leaders have a moral responsibility to help students and staff members -- so student learning soars.

Finally, after considering the formal and informal data, it is important to compare and contrast the official or formal data with the unofficial or informal or hidden culture/curriculum. When newcomers have a handle on this information they can help shape the culture to positively impact student learning and teacher development.

EW: How would you rate the importance of learning the schools culture and personality against some of the more formal responsibilities of the principal?

Alvy, Robbins: We would rate the importance of learning the school culture as more important than some of the formal responsibilities. Culture is the lifeblood of a school. Beginning leaders must first understand the culture if they are to shape it.

EW: What are some strategies principals can use for protecting the time they spend in classrooms?

Alvy, Robbins: This is a paramount issue. To begin, leaders should remind teachers that every minute of classroom time is vital. If five minutes of teaching time is lost each day, about 15 hours of teaching time is lost during the year. This must be addressed in a manner that affirms the positive influence that teachers have on the lives of students. New leaders must remember that they serve teachers, so the teachers can do a better job with students. Thus, principals need to take responsibility for increasing academic learning time by modeling positive behaviors. For example, it is important to minimize or eliminate loudspeaker or intercom system interruptions. Also, faculty meetings provide school leaders with opportunities to model effective time management. Meetings should begin on time and should be about professional development, not administrivia. E-mail, not faculty meetings, should be used for basic announcements.

Faculty professional development workshops can be devoted to protecting classroom time by highlighting learning principles, such as, the brain remembers best what comes first. Also, lesson retention increases from 65 percent to 90 percent when key ideas are synthesized or summarized during the last few minutes of a class. Consequently, the culture should value time at the beginning and end of each class period and the importance of protecting each minute of learning.

EW: How can principals determine if students are engaged in meaningful work?

Alvy, Robbins: Phil Schlechty reminds us that good work is engaging schoolwork, but that not all engaging work is good or meaningful. We have been greatly influenced by Schlechtys work and review his ideas in The New Principals Fieldbook. We tie engaged and meaningful work to state standards and the importance of personalization. Also, to ensure that work is meaningful, principals need to encourage teacher grade-level and department meetings that examine samples of student work to decide what meaningful work looks like and the types of instructional practices needed to support meaningful and engaging work. Teachers must be encouraged to share artifacts and engage in formative assessments to modify their teaching so meaningful instruction occurs.

Successful strategies to monitor the level of meaningful student work include using LLBWA, systematic walk-throughs, effective teacher conferencing, thoughtful professional development, and interviewing students about their work. Examining the results of formative and summative assessments, and acting on those results, are fundamental components of the process. New principals need to consider that trust is a vital component if teachers are to successfully examine work together. Professional Learning Communities thrive when cultures support the vigorous examination of ideas to meet student needs.

EW: What are some tips to help principals balance personal and professional lives?

Alvy, Robbins: We think it is important to reflect and visually analyze how leaders use their professional and personal time. Thus, we recommend creating a pie chart or a T-chart and then listing how one actually spends time and comparing and contrasting the list to how one desires to spend his or her time. Some prefer to label the lists as real and ideal time use charts. To help guide work related to using time effectively, it is helpful to consider ones values, and reflect on a personal mission and vision. We all need values to anchor our behavior. New principals in particular need an anchor -- and must know when to lift it! -- as they can easily be blown each and every way. Leaders must keep an eye on their destination, their vision. Newcomers must be especially sensitive to their destination as teachers, students, classified staff, and the community see what principals value by their actions. A wise observer once commented, What you do speaks so loudly that I cant hear what you say!

Finally, in The New Principals Fieldbook we remind leaders that the moral component of the principalship separates school leaders work from so many other jobs. School leaders have a moral responsibility to help students and staff members -- so student learning soars. It is not about balancing management and leadership; it is about attending to culture, quality classroom time, and cultivating relationships to maximize human and material resource use and performance. That is why the principalship is a calling.

This e-interview with Harvey Alvy and Pam Robbins is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Administrators Desk: Leadership Archive

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2010 Education World

Originally published 12/07/2009
Last updated 10/20/2010