Empowering Principals: Three Ways Principal Supervisors Can Support Principals as Instructional Leaders this Fall – Whether In Person or Virtual

September 16, 2020

Empowering Principals: Three Ways Principal Supervisors Can Support Principals as Instructional Leaders this Fall – Whether In Person or Virtual

This is the first in a multipart series of essays that NIET is releasing this fall about the role of the principal supervisor in supporting principals to be strong instructional leaders.

As we start 2020-21, one of the biggest challenges is translating instruction to the virtual environment – and the role of the school leader is critical. With all the other pressures facing principals, keeping a focus on strong instruction is a major challenge. The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching has been working alongside schools to help educators provide effective and engaging virtual instruction and, increasingly, the role of district leadership in setting expectations and providing support for school leaders has been highlighted as the difference-maker. NIET has found that when the principal supervisor role shifts to be more of a coaching position and supervisors are deeply connected with the day-to-day life of the principal, their impact is magnified – but too often, that isn't the case.

This builds off what research is finding. The Wallace Foundation recently released Changing the Principal Supervisor Role, a report highlighting the experiences of six districts working to transition the role of principal supervisor from a focus on compliance to a focus on support and guidance for school principals. The report describes the changes that districts made to create the conditions for this new approach to be successful. Key findings are to focus on instructional leadership by spending more time in schools, providing job-embedded feedback and coaching, facilitating networks of principals, and evaluating principals for growth.

Across the country, NIET is working with districts to provide more effective support for principals as instructional leaders, and we find the same practices are highly impactful. Principal supervisors' most effective support models the same practices they expect principals to employ as instructional leaders: spending time in the classroom, engaging in reflective learning, and building capacity. Principal supervisors need to be lead learners themselves in order to support principals in mastering these skills. This work will lay the foundation for principals to translate strong leadership practices into the virtual environment.

Here are three ways principal supervisors can better support principals, especially as we start the 2020-21 school year, and some reflections from principals and supervisors about what has been helpful to them.

1. Be a visible partner in the work.

In this time of uncertainty and change, it is critical that principals and district staff be present and shift their support to the virtual environment, even if they are using a hybrid model. For principals, what used to be a classroom walk-through now becomes a virtual walk-through during a virtual lesson; what used to be an in-person PLC is now a virtual PLC. It is critical that these supports for teachers continue as learning moves online.

Just as in a normal year, principals need to plan and schedule this time or other issues will crowd it out. Principal supervisors need to be just as intentional about planning and scheduling what their support for school leaders will look like. It is equally important to be visible and to engage with schools and principals, with tailored plans of support for each one.

My supervisor, Dr. Johnson, came in and challenged me to be visible as an instructional leader. She gave me tasks, she modeled with me, and she pushed me to become more involved in instructional activities.
Dr. Roddy Melancon, Principal, Gonzales Primary School, Ascension Public Schools, Louisiana

What it looks like for principal supervisors to support a virtual school

Without the need to drive to different locations, virtual instruction likely offers a rare opportunity to attend more classroom lessons, PLCs, and leadership team meetings than in the past. However, this will not happen without intentionally planning for this time and making it a priority even in the midst of other pressures, particularly given the stressful and ever-evolving nature of the pandemic. Principal supervisors should set up weekly virtual meetings with each principal and plan to do at least one virtual walk-through as part of that time, whether that is viewing synchronous instruction, reviewing a Google Classroom or asynchronous environment, or watching a PLC meeting.

From the principal perspective: Dr. Roddy Melancon, Principal, Gonzales Primary School, Ascension Public Schools, Louisiana

"I always knew I was instructionally sound; I just didn't have the opportunity to prove myself and show what I knew. My supervisor, Dr. Johnson, came in and challenged me to be visible as an instructional leader. She gave me tasks, she modeled with me, and she pushed me to become more involved in instructional activities like PLCs and conversations around student work.

"Looking back, it was very easy to switch to an instructional leader mindset by being visible. It was being visible in PLCs and engaging in conversation, being visible when teachers were doing planning and getting involved in looking at student work, and being visible and engaged in the instruction of every student in the class. I had to show that I prioritized instructional leadership, protect that time, and not always be the one to leave the room to handle every issue or crisis."

From the principal supervisor perspective: Dr. Latatia Johnson, Federal Programs Supervisor, Ascension Public Schools, Louisiana

"I attend every leadership team meeting on my campuses that I can. From there, we follow up and I support my principals during walk-throughs. I find that if we put it on our calendars and we commit to 'this is what we're doing, this is when we're going in, these are the discussions that we're having,' that works for us. I might go into a classroom to let the principal see me giving the teacher feedback as a model for them. Then in the next classroom, I tell the principal, 'OK, now you give this teacher feedback and I'll coach you through the feedback.'

"Like anything that takes place in a school, it's about establishing trust with the principal and getting them to recognize that it's a partnership. I want results for their students and their teachers just like they want results for their students and their teachers. By establishing that partnership, teachers see me as a member of their school community. So when the principal and I are conducting walk-throughs or we're going in classrooms, everyone feels comfortable with me, allowing me to model behaviors or actions to replicate."

2. Model being a reflective lead learner.

Principals and principal supervisors don't have all the answers, just as teachers don't have all the answers. Many teachers are nervous and uncertain. This is a moment for principal supervisors and principals to model what it looks like to go first, to take a risk, to be a "lead learner" and not someone with all the answers. This provides breathing room for teachers to take risks and makes clear that principals support innovation and initiative and have teachers' backs when something doesn't work out as planned.

Similarly, principal supervisors are a critical resource in supporting principals to reflect on their own practice and plans. Most principal supervisors have years of experience in the principalship, which means they are well-positioned to provide principals with a much-needed thought partner as they tackle new challenges. District leaders can identify and share effective practices across schools, and facilitate collaborative learning and connections among principals.

I learn something in every cluster, every leadership team meeting, every time I go into a classroom, and every time I sit down with building principals. I learn, and that learning allows me to better support the other leaders in our buildings.
Bob Bohannon, Assistant Superintendent for Career Preparation, Perry Township Schools, Indiana

What it looks like for principal supervisors to support a virtual school

In addition to big-picture reflection and modeling, principal supervisors also need to consider how they can model what ultimately they want principals do to: support teachers to provide engaging virtual instruction, analyze and reflect on what works best for students, and continually improve their practice. . Principal supervisors need to learn and practice using virtual tools so they understand how they can be leveraged, and they need to build principals' capacity to do the same. For example, while leading a virtual monthly principal meeting, supervisors can use engagement tools like polls to gather real-time feedback and breakout rooms for deeper discussion, and they can pace the meeting to model the gradual release of new learning.

Buy-in to virtual learning only happens when it comes from the top, and principal supervisors play a critical role in believing and showing how it can be done. It is not enough to just talk about virtual tools in an abstract form; when supervisors understand the ins and outs of how they do and do not work, they can provide greater support and clearer expectations about what is needed. They can also better make connections for how strong instructional practices can be adapted into a virtual setting, and identify and share effective practices or innovations across schools. That will not only provide practical support for principals and teachers, but it will better ensure these shifts stay more positive and the district is in touch with school reality.

From the principal perspective: Brian Knight, Principal, Southport High School, Perry Township Schools, Indiana

"Attitude is key as a principal. Do you view things as problems or opportunities? I think that's one of the most important things that you have to look at as the principal. When an issue comes up, is it something that stops us in our tracks or is it an opportunity for us to continue to get better and look for other ways to do things? The past few months have been a good example of that. For us, it's been very challenging to deal with, but I think we've built the capacity in people to get through this. It's still an opportunity to be able to connect with kids – we are just going to have to do it differently."

From the principal supervisor perspective: Bob Bohannon, Assistant Superintendent for Career Preparation, Perry Township Schools, Indiana

"From a central office standpoint, we model instructional leadership. When I visit a school, I am there as an active participant so that I become a new learner as well. I'm there not just as a supervisor, but as a participant. The time that I am able to spend in schools, in clusters, in leadership team meetings, in classrooms, and with principals has allowed me to grow as a leader. I learn something in every cluster, every leadership team meeting, every time I go into a classroom, and every time I sit down with building principals. I learn, and that learning allows me to better support the other leaders in our buildings."

3. Build the capacity of others and create opportunities for leadership.

Tapping into the full range of experience and expertise across the entire staff is more important than ever. Even as principals share leadership responsibilities among their leadership members, they should increase opportunities for all staff to step into leadership roles. Given the demands on principals' time, creating roles for teacher leaders to engage in instructional leadership and take on tasks such a coaching or facilitating professional learning are essential to improving classroom instruction and student learning. Leadership teams can be made more robust by including teacher leaders as full participants and intentionally building the leadership experiences of teachers in order to prepare them for enhanced roles and responsibilities.

Principal supervisors can offer similar opportunities for leadership among principals and their leadership teams. For example, they can provide opportunities for principals to surface student and teacher needs and then respond to these needs and trends at the district level with policies and support. In their interactions with principals and leadership teams, district leaders should actively work to identify and recruit those with leadership skills into the principal pipeline.

Our principals realize that there's no glory in having your own private success. People are really embracing sharing and supporting one another because they realize that's really how we work best. My focus is on building our capacity as a team.
Julie Thompson, Executive Director Elementary, Knox County Schools, Tennessee

What it looks like for principal supervisors to support a virtual school

The range of challenges facing schools this fall is requiring principals to tap other staff to take on leadership roles. Delegating tasks to teams and providing opportunities for staff to participate on teams is critical, whether selecting or providing training on the virtual learning platform, developing assessments for online learning, or identifying and creating a plan to address student learning gaps. Even as districts provide platforms and district-level training for remote instruction, they can continue to support and emphasize the role of school-based learning teams in making these tools work for everyone. Principal supervisors and other district staff can step in to play an active role in supporting principals to provide school-based professional learning and collaborative opportunities for teachers in a remote environment. 

From the new principal supervisor perspective: Beth Lackey, Early Childhood Supervisor, Knox County Schools, Tennessee

"Not only do I understand the managerial part of being the principal at the building, but I also understand the instructional leader part. That allows me to be a thought partner with a principal and have a deep conversation about how are they monitor progress toward the school's goals. We have a partnership in which I can model things for principals who in turn model it with their instructional support folks, assistant principals, and teachers who ultimately model learning for their students."

From the principal supervisor director perspective: Julie Thompson, Executive Director Elementary, Knox County Schools, Tennessee

"The principal job can be a very lonely job, and so being able to support them with colleagues going through similar situations is really beneficial. Our principals realize that there's no glory in having your own private success. People are really embracing sharing and supporting one another because they realize that's really how we work best, when we can lean on each other. As we learn new things we have to change our practice. I really emphasize to our principals and teachers that, yes, I'm the director of elementary, that's my title, but I'm really here as a learner to try to understand what they're doing in their school and how I can best support them. My focus is on building our capacity as a team."

As schools start the year in person or virtually, principal supervisors can support principals by focusing on the basics: being visible whether in person or remote, modeling how to be a reflective lead learner in the midst of new and difficult challenges, and find ways to create leadership opportunities for others that takes the burden off principals to do it all. This role will continue to be critical as the year moves forward, and practicing these shifts now will help to deepen support down the road.

For more in the principal series, read the second essay, "Empowering Principals: Bringing Clarity to the Role of Instructional Leader."