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December 1, 2009

The Principal Connection / Principal as Parachute

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How should we spend our time? I've been a principal for more than 30 years, and I still grapple with that question. I am never caught up at work (and when I'm home I find myself responding to school-related e-mails). It's a given that I don't have enough time to do everything, so where can I invest my time and energy to realize the greatest return?
The goal of education is student achievement. There are differences on how we define achievement, but everyone agrees that students must benefit from our efforts. However, that doesn't mean that students always need to be the focus of the principal's efforts.
Playing the grade-level champions in our school's spring chess tournament is one of the highlights of my year (especially when I lose a game), and it's always fun to watch students learn. Yet despite how pleasant and gratifying it can be, interacting with students isn't always the best use of a principal's time.
That's because the key to students' learning and growing is the learning and growth of the adults around them.

Fostering Adult Learning

According to Roland Barth (1990), the more teachers talk together about students, work together to develop curriculum, observe one another, and teach one another, the more collegiality becomes the norm. As principal, I try to make collegiality the norm by setting expectations for committee work and creating mechanisms that enable teachers to observe one another and offer feedback. When planning faculty meetings, book groups, and professional development offerings, I keep collegiality in mind and always make sure to allocate time for teachers to share, interact, and reflect. Every faculty member has collegiality as a goal, and it is one of the factors I note in their annual evaluations.
But even more important than these procedures are the attitudes faculty members hold about their learning. First, everyone must embrace the idea that teacher learning benefits both the teachers and the students. Lacking the time to do all that they want to, teachers need to see that the time invested in learning from their colleagues will benefit their students. Working alone may be more efficient, but it is not as effective.
Second, teachers need to accept that their learning will be messy. Like student learning, teacher learning should be challenging and meaningful. Just as children make big strides when they are outside their comfort zones, we must accept that deep learning—learning that is more than acquisition of information—requires adults to take risks, to fail, to learn from that failure, and to try again. This can be much more difficult when the learner is 36 or 56, not 6 or 16.

Growing the Right Mind-Set

Teachers must also see their learning in the context of risk taking. The work of Carol Dweck (2008) is very helpful here.
Dweck says that there are two mind-sets about intelligence: fixed and growth. Those who believe that intelligence is a fixed trait—that there's not much you can do to change it—are preoccupied with succeeding and looking smart. They avoid failure and choose to work in areas where they know they will do well.
In contrast, those with a growth mind-set believe that intelligence is malleable—that you can become smarter by trying, failing, learning, and trying again. People with a growth mind-set are willing to take risks, and they view failure as an opportunity to learn, not as a statement about their worth. Learners with a growth mind-set understand that learning is sloppy: Things don't always come easily or quickly, and failure is part of success.
When our faculty read Dweck's bookMindset (Random House, 2006) a couple of summers ago, we had rich discussions about what we could do to encourage students to hold a growth mind-set. We decided we needed to encourage students to take risks and learn from their failures. We began telling them how pleased we were with their efforts instead of how smart they were. I told parents about the importance of seeing failure as an integral aspect of student growth. Creating a setting in which students never learn from failure does them a disservice.
If teacher learning is the key to student learning, then I want my teachers to hold a growth mind-set about their students and about themselves. Many times before I observe a teacher I will say, "I'll be disappointed if it's a perfect lesson. I want you to try something new, take a risk, so you can learn." I need to offer safety when they take that risk and to be a parachute that helps break their fall if they don't succeed.
I need to hold that same mind-set about my own performance, too. Often I share with my faculty the mistakes I've made and what I've learned from those mistakes. After all these years, one thing I know for certain is that if I'm only succeeding, I'm not learning.
References

Barth, R. (1990). Improving schools from within. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dweck, C. (2008). The perils and promises of praise. Educational Leadership, 65(2), 34–39.

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