Principal as Instructional Coach: Student Data and Teacher Summits
In recent years, a district-level trend in some areas has been to institute “principal summits:” sessions held monthly or bimonthly, with individual principals making formal presentations to their superintendents, or sometimes the full cabinet, focused on student data.
This compels principals to become more savvy about various kinds of achievement data in order to become comfortable discussing trends in specific subject areas, especially mathematics and English language arts, and to report accurately on the status of efforts for achievement-gap-closing for student subgroups. More importantly, it has caused them to become increasingly knowledgeable about teachers’ classroom practices, since the point of the summits is to spur improvement.
To increase their own knowledge and expertise, many principals have increased the frequency of classroom walk-throughs, and have made these visits more focused on specific teacher practices. This has helped them clarify their expectations for teachers and provide more targeted feedback.
Teacher summits mirror principal summits
Another practice some principals have instituted mirrors principal summits. “Teacher summits,” sometimes called instructional conferences, are held just prior to the principal’s own summit at the district level. One principal refers to these as “fast talks,” because as her teachers gained familiarity and comfort with meeting to discuss student progress from one session to the next, the conversations became shorter and more efficient.
I asked one principal how he went about beginning teacher summits. What preparations did he make? How did he communicate with teachers about the plan to start holding them?
He said, “Quite frankly, I really believed that the important thing was just to start. The teachers and I quickly figured out how to make these work as we went. To lay the groundwork, I did tell them that I was doing principal summits, and that we were going to start having teacher summits so that I could be prepared, and they were good with that, even though I didn’t have it all mapped out.”
Launching teacher summits: start small, keep the focus specific
As with any change that is a dramatic departure from past practice, it is best to start small, for example, focusing on just one subject area. While the ideal teacher summit would surface the same kind of data and issues as a principal summit, teachers may not be prepared for the same scope of discussion principals engage in with district leaders.
While elementary teachers may realistically be able to discuss each student in a concise “fast talk,” secondary teachers have too many students to make this workable. Focusing instead in middle and high school on specific student populations — English learners, students not showing mastery on district benchmarks, students who do not complete homework, and so on — is a more successful beginning.
Helping teachers connect the dots between classroom data and instructional practices
Finally, helping teachers connect the dots between their classroom data — grades, benchmarks, test, quizzes, and informal measures of daily performance such as papers and other classwork — and their instructional practices is the key to improving outcomes.
Coupling these one-to-one conversations with school-wide professional development, and teacher collaboration within grade level or course-alike teams, is a powerful formula for making gains that any principal will be proud to report at principal summits, and for improving student learning at any school, whether or not principal summits are part of the driving force behind them.