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March 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 6

Principal Connection / Principal as Mirror

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The category is occupations," Alex Trebek on the TV game show Jeopardy intones, "and for $200, the answer is 'lighthouse keeper.' What is the question?" The contestant in the center quickly hits the buzzer. When called on, she replies, "Who is more isolated than a classroom teacher?" The host smiles, tells her that she is correct, and $200 is added to her earnings.
Chances are that this fictional contestant has had some classroom experience because the isolation of teachers isn't something people outside the teaching profession think about much. But for those of us in schools, this isolation is a reality of everyday life. Sadly, the isolation is an obstacle to growth and a deterrent to faculty collegiality.
Despite the myriad students milling around and the size of a faculty, teaching is usually a solitary activity. "Alone in the crowd" is an apt description. Teachers close their doors and do marvelous things with dozens of students every day, but another adult in the classroom is a rarity—and another adult to give feedback is rarer still.
Sure, student behaviors give feedback to teachers. However, reacting to students dozing or launching paper airplanes isn't likely to lead to reflection and significant growth. Similarly, we all know teachers who respond to students' failures by asking, "What's wrong with these kids?" and then giving them more of the same kinds of lessons. As our Jeopardy contestant would have known, teachers don't get much feedback from other adults about their performance.
That's where principals step in. Lately, when I think about how I can help my teachers, I've been using the metaphor of principal as mirror. That is, an essential part of my job is helping teachers understand how others perceive them. Whether it is my observations, comments from students or parents, or inferences from data, we need to lead teachers to reflect on their performance so that they can improve.
Giving feedback that will be heard begins with positives. Teachers need to know when someone makes a comment about some wonderful thing that they did. Teachers also need to know when you've seen achievement and growth. In my April 2009 column, "The Rule of Six," I noted that we must share six positives for every negative—or six deposits for every withdrawal. We should catch people being successful and praise them. Those positives build the trust and good will that allow the negatives to be heard. (I've subsequently learned that the rule, which is based on the work of marriage counselor John Gottman, is really 5:1. Five is a bit less daunting!)
After my formal classroom observations, teachers receive a memo that captures my observations and my questions. I give feedback about the successes of the lesson and where I think it fell short. Again, I make a point of identifying far more positives than negatives. Good things are happening, and I need to note them. Because I may not give the memo to the teacher for several hours, I make a thumbs-up sign or mouth "nice job" before I leave the classroom. That affirmation becomes an investment that will make it easier for the teacher to hear my questions and concerns. Even when I'm simply walking in and out or spending only a few minutes in a classroom, I try to give positive feedback on something that the teacher did. By letting teachers see how their work looks to an outside observer, I'm playing the role of the mirror!
Because I routinely send surveys and ask parents how things are going, I often hear feedback about teachers. I love nothing more than sharing a positive comment from a parent with a teacher. Amazingly, parents often share plaudits with me that they have not given to the teacher. Conversely, when I hear a concern—after determining that this isn't a case where the parent should first talk with the teacher—I begin a discussion with the teacher by saying something like, "Let me tell you what Mrs. Lander said, and then I want to hear your thoughts."
I may also ask a teacher how he or she thinks students are viewing the class. Usually the response is positive, and then I'll ask, "How do you know that? What else could you do to find out what students are thinking?" It's always good for teachers to reflect on how their students perceive them and their instruction.
The principal-as-mirror metaphor reminds me that I need to help teachers work against isolation by helping them understand what they and their teaching look like to their students, their students' parents, and their colleagues. Seeing their performance from many perspectives helps teachers gain an appreciation for what is effective, what needs to change, and how they can work with others. Being a principal is much more fun than working in a lighthouse.

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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