While interviewing for a superintendent position, I was asked, what was one of the key components to the success that you have experienced as a principal? Without hesitation, I answered, I hang out in the valley. This was a public interview; the venue was packed—standing room only, but suddenly, the room fell silent. Noticing the silence, and my interviewer’s astonished look, I offered this explanation.
As a principal, I am constantly running from the mountaintop, (or as you may call it—the central office), back to the valley—my school. The mountaintop, you see, is where the instructional practices are designed; the budgets are designed; the policies are formed, and where the initiatives are born. On the mountaintop, textbooks are purchased, and instructions are provided to principals as to what, how, and when to implement specific district initiatives at the school level.
Many times, on my journey back to the valley from a mountaintop Principals’ Meeting, I think to myself, this is not a good time to roll this out. Or, this may be a bit overwhelming for my teachers. Therefore, when one of these initiatives comes down from the mountaintop, I always meet with my leadership team, who eventually meet with their grade levels, and then we—the teachers and staff—the residents of the valley—we strategize as to how to implement the initiatives. This process has worked very well for me over the years.
Recently, I accept the charge of turning around the lowest performing school in the state of Georgia. I strategically formulated a plan for success that includes continuing the implementation process that begins on the mountaintop. I had extensive training on PLC’s, and this summer, I attended the Harvard School for Turnaround Principals. I have an abundance of knowledge on how to turn around a low-performing school. Despite having all the tools, this isn’t enough. In the spring, while observing a teacher, I realized the male students were not grasping the concept as well as the female students. I asked the teacher for permission to interject. She eagerly gave me instructional control of the class, and she became the observer. I modeled my instructional expectations by providing content-related examples using football, basketball, and baseball. The boys immediately grasped the concept, and their engagement increased. The teacher thanked me, and I left. Later that day, I was on lunch duty, and the boys from the class I had taught, called me over and emphatically shared, Dr. J, I didn’t know you was teacher! Then another student stated, Yeah! We thought you were just the boss. Like the president of the school—because you always wear suits. Before I could respond, another one yelled out, Dr. J—you need to get a classroom Bruh. You need to be a teacher! It was at this moment that I realized I had the most important tool needed to impact student achievement. I have the skill set of a highly effective teacher, coupled with an ability to engage, teach, and transform every learner. Seemingly, I forgot this while running from the valley to the mountaintop and back to the valley.
As principals, we are charged with being the foremost Academic Leader in the building. Some other terms often used in professional development to describe our roles are: lead learner, instructional leader, and facilitator of learning. These examples of learning are usually reserved for the knowledge exchanged from the administrator to the teacher. Unfortunately, it usually stops there. Being a principal is a very demanding job. The success or failure of the school is on your shoulders—everyone is depending on you, because you are their quarterback. The meetings; parent conferences; looming deadlines; evaluations, and consistently putting out fires can be all be overwhelming. Despite all of that, my question to all administrators is, do your students know that you are an effective teacher?
After the encounter with the boys in my cafeteria, I decided to create, “The Principal’s Literacy Center.” This is my classroom. I have made a pledge that every day this year, I will teach classes; read to my students, and ask them critical thinking questions. I have committed to greet them in the morning with academic vocabulary, and have sustained, quiet reading time in my classroom. You see, now, I’m not only hanging in the valley, but I’m putting in work in the valley as well. I’m using my God-given talent of being a high effective educator, as the bedrock of my transformational leadership strategies. If I’m asking my teachers to do it, why can’t I? Of my eight hours on the clock, at least five of my eight hours are spent on observations, planning with teachers, and teaching. My assistant principal and I rotate every 1.5 hours to achieve this. During this time, it is forbidden to interrupt us. I am adamant about leading by examples. Our stakeholders need to know that I go to the mountaintop to learn, and to advocate, but my heart dwells in the valley—with them.
In conclusion, I am excited about my new commitment, because I have reconnected with my passion: teaching and learning. It feels great! I have always been the most ardent cheerleader for teachers, but now I have a deeper appreciation for their work. As I return to my roots: nothing makes me happier than when I work with students in small groups, as I watch them struggle, as I differentiate my instruction, and they still don’t get it, I remember my teachers’ frustration. However, while working with those students, as I dig deeper into my instructional tool box, and I employ effective strategies like close reading and decoding—as I look into my students’ eyes, and see that they really want to do well—I cannot help but be energized.
Therefore, I am challenging all administrators to reconnect with your passion: teaching in a classroom. I am asking you to assume the role as a teacher to the students, and not as the principal. Instructional leaders, leave the mountaintop, and return to the valley to put in some work. Besides— you are the most effective teacher in the building. Use your God-given talent to reconnect, to restore, to rebuild. Recently, a colleague asked me, how do you find time to teach? My response? I’m the Principal! If I want it to be important to my teachers and my students, it has to be important to me. Remember—“Our Choices Affect their Chances.”