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June 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 9

Leading From the Classroom

Leading From the Classroom- thumbnail
For most high school principals, the crucial work of being present in classrooms to support teachers is usurped by the pressing tasks and problems that crop up during the school day. Researcher Ronald Heck notes that most high school principals spend less time than administrators in elementary and middle schools “observing classroom practices, promoting discussions about instructional issues, and emphasizing the use of test results for program improvement” (cited in Cotton, 2003, p. 54). Yet the presence of the school principal in classrooms greatly influences student achievement. Some research indicates that the amount of time principals spend observing in classrooms is one of the three most significant predictors of a school's success (Cotton, 2003).
Principal Colin Ross of Queen Elizabeth High School in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, has implemented a structure that allows him to work toward spending more than half of his workday in classrooms, monitoring and observing teachers and modeling good teaching. Ross's district, Edmonton Public Schools, expects all principals to set a goal of being in classrooms for 50 percent of their day and also expects a high level of site-based management. For example, principals are responsible for hiring teachers and support staff and for purchasing services and supplies while staying within an allotted budget. Balancing these two requirements may be a challenge, but Ross's experience at Queen Elizabeth—where he has implemented his classroom observation practice since the 2003-2004 academic year—shows that it can be done. Ross has found that committing his time to the classroom gives him more freedom to prioritize goals, delegate tasks, and organize the school efficiently. It also ensures that guiding instruction remains the principal's top priority.

How Classroom Visits Work

Ross visits 20 to 25 classrooms each week. Visits may be as short as five minutes or as long as the entire period. He usually observes a specific teaching practice or a student skill that teachers have been working on. To aid the process, Ross sends daily memos reminding teachers what practices he will be looking for. If he does not see the skill or practice in use, he asks when he will be able to observe that skill or practice and returns to the class later in the lesson. He generally provides verbal feedback to the teacher during the visit, while students are working independently or right after the class.
As members of Edmonton's Student Achievement Department, which supports schools across the district in raising student achievement, we saw Ross's classroom observation style in practice throughout the 2003–2004 school year. On a typical visit we sat in on, Ross entered a social studies class as the teacher was leading a class discussion on the development and interaction of nations in 19th century Europe. Teacher and students acknowledged the principal's presence briefly, then carried on. Taking notes, Ross observed how the teacher used questions to deepen the discussion, asking students to explain why they held certain opinions and to compare key concepts the group was exploring to similar concepts or situations. After listening for a while, Ross began to participate; he modeled asking questions and engaging students in discussion.
Ross is not the only administrator at Queen Elizabeth who spends part of his instructional day observing and guiding teachers. The school's assistant principals and department heads also spend time in classrooms. Ross expects all leaders at the school to learn not only how to manage the school and the staff but also how to conduct effective classroom visits by supporting teachers, asking questions, and providing feedback. One department head noted that Ross's involved style helps all the school's instructional leaders guide teachers more confidently: As department head, when you have someone coming in and modeling leadership, you feel more empowered to say to staff in your department, “This is the way we need to do things.”

Finding the Time


Queen Elizabeth High School serves 700 students, employs more than 40 teachers, and operates with a $4.2 million budget, so it's understandable that attending to the daily demands of running the school might thwart Ross's commitment to spending time in classrooms. But many responsibilities traditionally taken care of by the principal are delegated to the school's support staff, assistant principals, department heads, custodians, business managers, and teachers. The school takes seriously Fullan's charge that principals should try not to do anything that someone else in the building can do, because principals need to spend their time on what others in the building are not in a position to do. (1997, p. 38)
For example, Ross sees very little of the mail that comes to him; he trusts other school staff members to review and respond to his mail and supports the decisions they make. Ross actually spends so little time in his office that he carries a cell phone with him as he moves around the school.

Making Meetings Productive

Another way administrators at Queen Elizabeth carve out time for classroom observation is by making the time spent in meetings—often a highly inefficient use of time in schools—shorter and more productive. At Queen Elizabeth, whole-faculty meetings are highly structured and are organized around examining student achievement, encouraging the use of best teaching practices, and supporting one another as professionals.
The work done at monthly faculty meetings dovetails with Ross's classroom observations and guidance. This work also supports Queen Elizabeth's schoolwide focus on reading comprehension (all schools in the Edmonton school district must identify a schoolwide instructional focus on the basis of data from standardized testing and discussions about these data with stakeholders).
Ross begins every school year by stating clearly that he expects all staff to demonstrate effective teaching skills and practices throughout the year. At every meeting, a different teaching strategy—such as proximity, wait time, questioning skills, and developing rubrics—is introduced and modeled. Ross shares research that supports that particular practice, and teachers spend time discussing the practice to gain a deeper understanding of it. Teachers are then asked to try out that practice during the upcoming month, and Ross looks for that practice during his observations.
Debates and lengthy conversations are discouraged in whole-faculty meetings. Discussion is necessary for staff to develop ownership of the work of the school, but Queen Elizabeth's faculty knows that smaller gatherings open to all staff—such as teacher collaboration meetings or instructional leadership meetings—are the better forum for such in-depth conversations.

Monitoring Use of Best Practices

Thinking Maps

One best practice that Queen Elizabeth teachers have implemented as part of their focus on reading comprehension is the use of thinking maps to help students organize their thoughts and plan their work. Thinking maps increase students' comprehension by graphically organizing elements of a topic or concept and helping students see relationships among the parts. Sample thinking maps are posted in every classroom. Teachers in all content areas attend professional development sessions on using thinking maps and decide how best to implement this practice in their content areas. Seeing firsthand during observations how thinking maps are being implemented throughout the school helps Ross and his leadership team determine whether this professional development has been effective.

Making Student Marks Accessible

Ross also monitors how teachers are implementing the school's policy of making students' ongoing marks, or grades, accessible as part of assessment. Teachers at Queen Elizabeth are expected to update their students' marks every two to three weeks and to post these marks, identified only by students' ID numbers, outside the classroom. Students are expected to know their current marks in every class they are taking as part of taking ownership of their educational process.
As Ross and other administrators visit classrooms, they frequently ask students such questions as, “Are you passing?” and “What are you going to do about bringing up your mark?” Students' responses show that they have a clear understanding of their own progress. We heard one student reply, “Right now my mark is 52 percent, but we just had a quiz this morning, and I think my mark is going to go up, because I know I did well on that test.”
Ross and his instructional leadership team (a group of teachers and administrators who work to forward the school's implementation of best practices) regularly review course marks to identify the number of students at risk of failure in various classes. If they note an inordinate number of students having problems in a given class, they schedule a meeting with the teacher to review the relationship between teaching and assessment practices in the class and what interventions might be put in place. The school is currently examining the balance between summative assessments and formative assessments and has started to implement more formative assessment strategies, which Black and Wiliam (1989) have found positively affect student achievement.


Queen Elizabeth High School tackled the challenge of school improvement by getting its administration directly involved in the most important element in a school: effective instruction. The structure the school developed ensures that all teachers learn and use essential teaching practices and that assessment data are used to help students take ownership of their learning and teachers take ownership of their teaching.
The benefits of getting school administrators into the classroom at Queen Elizabeth are reflected by improvements in student course completion, student behavior and conduct, and faculty job satisfaction during the first year the school implemented the classroom observations and related procedures. As shown in Figure 1, from 2002–2003 to 2003–2004 (the first year of the new procedures) course completion rates at Queen Elizabeth increased in all core subjects—including an impressive 44 percent increase in social studies completion. Student behavior has also improved. The number of suspensions at the school dropped by 8 percent in the 2003–2004 school year.
FIGURE 1. Percentage of Students Successfully Completing Core Courses at Queen Elizabeth High School for 2002–2003 and 2003–2004 Academic Years

Leading From the Classroom - table

Course name

Percentage of successful completion 2002–2003

Percentage of successful completion 2003–2004

Percentage increase

English 10-180%84.4%4.4%
English 20-271%82%11%
Math 10 Applied63%68%5%
Math 1463%75%12%
Math 20 Pure56%91%35%
Math 2464%91%27%
Science 1065%80%15%
Science 1469%74%5%
Biology 2046%75%29%
Chemistry 2073%81%8%
Physics 2047%73%26%
Science 2473%85%12%
Social Studies 1052%96%44%
Social Studies 1369%71%2%
Social Studies 2082%94%12%
Finally, teachers report improved morale and a greater spirit of collegiality and say that they feel more supported by their principal. Typical teacher comments include, “There is heightened accountability—but along with that there is caring and support” and “The tone in the school is different. Students know [Ross] and have developed a relationship with him.” Although a few teachers chose to leave, most teachers not only tolerated the presence of administrators in the classroom but also embraced it. As one teacher pointed out, “There is no way it could be the same without the principal in the classroom. I would not want to go back.”

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1989). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan. Available:

Cotton, K. (2003). Principals and student achievement: What the research says. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Fullan, M. (1997). What's worth fighting for in the principalship? (2nd ed.). Ontario, Canada: Ontario Public Teachers' Federation.

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