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November 1, 2005
Vol. 63
No. 3

The Principal Connection / Teacher Supervision: If It Ain't Working . . .

    The Principal Connection / Teacher Supervision: If It Ain't Working . . .- thumbnail
      “Is this working?” I asked this question of 17 tenured teachers who were due for their formal supervisory visits at Pleasant Hill School in Palatine, Illinois. After years of following the traditional model of supervision, as principal I thought it was time to consider creative alternatives. “Honestly,” I asked my colleagues, “do my annual visits and follow-up conferences help you become better teachers?”
      I knew these women and men well. We had worked together for many years, laughing at students' antics and weeping at the grown-up problems that students faced. Together we had mourned the deaths of relatives and friends; celebrated weddings, pregnancies, and other personal milestones; and jointly negotiated the peaks and valleys of our professional lives. Our school resembled a community more than an organization. We shared a deep, moral belief that the care of children was at the core of our work. I had faith that these teachers were, above all, professionals dedicated to stretching the intellects, imagination, and spirits of children.
      I knew that these teachers valued my informal visits to their classrooms and the feedback about their instruction that I jotted down for them on sticky notes. I knew that the heartbeat of the school was steady and strong. It was difficult to believe that my formal 40-minute supervisory visits, followed by perfunctory conferences, made a significant difference in the school climate or in individual classrooms.
      My question Is this working? was met with muffled laughter. The teachers and I both realized that I did not have “super” vision. They knew that my rushed, mandatory visits and conferences were, at best, a meager contribution to improving teaching.
      • What actions will most help us improve teaching and learning?
      • How can the principal remain accountable—to the public, the profession, and the district—for excellence in teaching, while still trusting the professional expertise of teachers?
      • What criteria should we use to determine whether new teachers should be given tenure at our school?
      • When should we begin a more aggressive plan of remediation for struggling teachers?
      Teachers seized the chance to have a voice in deciding how they could collaboratively improve their teaching. Our school initiated a program of peer coaching. Teachers visited one another's classrooms while I filled in for the teacher who was visiting his or her colleague. This required no more time on my part than supervisory visits would have, and teaching classes renewed my skills and gave me deeper insight into classroom realities.
      I would not have taken this path as a first-year principal, and I did not include nontenured teachers in the process. The process worked because our longtime faculty members had bonded, built a shared history, and nurtured mutual trust. We all believed—and acted on the belief—that teachers are the professional experts on instruction and that the collective discernment of faculty members was our best source of wisdom.
      Our first efforts proved effective. The walls that existed between teachers' classrooms became more permeable, and I found teachers observing one another's practices beyond the formal supervisory visits. Teachers conversed more about their instruction—what worked, what didn't work, what they might try next. We not only improved our supervisory system, but we also got beyond a long-standing tradition of isolated teaching.
      With a little creativity, we were able to fulfill the requirements of our district's supervisory program while trying out this alternative method. I did enough visiting in teachers' classrooms to meet the district's mandatory number of visit-minutes. We considered group meetings to plan the new process as the required pre-conferencing; we counted as post-conferences teachers' follow-up meetings to exchange their observations. It was not exactly what the writers of the district procedure had in mind, but we fulfilled the underlying intent of the law.
      November is here and principals must begin supervising teachers in earnest. As we draw up observation schedules and dust off the yellow notepads, let's not forget to ask ourselves and our teachers, “Is this working?” If that question is met with restrained laughter or an honest “Not really,” then we need to initiate a deeper conversation with teachers. We might be surprised at their capacity for creative alternatives.

      Joanne Rooney has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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