SURN Principal Academy Delivers Powerful Messages: Communicate, Value Relationships, and Create Your Tribe

By Jamon H. Flowers, M.Ed., SURN

By now the wave of school openings has ended and the school year is well underway. The challenges that accompany the start of the new year are now giving way to the day-to-day work of meeting the high standards we have set for ourselves, our faculties, and our students. Meeting deadlines, managing conflicting obligations, providing direction for teachers, and supporting students can be overwhelming and make it easy to lose sight of our optimism. To help mitigate this, I’d like to remind you of some things you already know but may forget in the daily shuffle.

School leaders model and discuss the importance of communicating SURN Principal Academy expectations to their teachers at the September workshop.

School leaders model and discuss the importance of communicating SURN Principal Academy expectations to their teachers at the September workshop.

Communicate, Communicate, and Communicate! 

Remember to communicate! Effective communication leads to an effective organization. Communication with all stakeholders is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for a productive school year. As a principal, I tried to balance written communication with the powerful communication of my presence. It is no longer enough to just mail documents home. We must also embrace systems such as ConnectEd and School Messenger to stay connected with all members of our community. We also need to remember to post information and publicize school events and accomplishments on the school website and on social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Technology has increased the number of outlets for us to communicate and has made information more accessible to our stakeholders. As a result, we may sometimes worry that we run the risk of over communicating, but this is a preferable position to be in than not having communicated enough. Remember, effective communication builds trust. It puts people at ease (especially newcomers!) and keeps people from having to guess about our expectations.

Being present is a powerful form of communication and a characteristic of effective leadership. It is easy to get trapped in your office, but it’s essential to satisfy the high demand for your presence from both internal and external stakeholders. First and foremost we communicate the value of education by being present for our students. This includes being in the hallways, cafeteria, and extra-curricular activities. Every organization, department, grade level, central office person, and family that is associated with your school wants a piece of your time, and it is important to provide each of them with an opportunity for a face to face meeting. Try to schedule these meetings during your least busy time.

Familiar faces in new places as SURN leaders connect, re-connect, and discover the value of relationships at the SURN Principal Academy.

Familiar faces in new places as SURN leaders connect, re-connect, and discover the value of relationships at the SURN Principal Academy.

Relationship over Achievement

 Student achievement is a source of strength, both for the division and the individual schools. Achievement creates energy which, in turn, fuels further improvement, but too much focus on achievement can actually damage student performance.  For example, as the principal of an unaccredited school, I relentlessly focused on tasks and goals. In the beginning, I commanded and coerced, and as a result, my faculty became more concerned with meeting my expectations than with meeting the needs of students. I should have heeded the caution of Spreier, Fontaine, and Malloy (2018): “Too intense a focus on achievement can demolish trust and undermine morale, measurably reducing workplace productivity” (p. 45). In other words, I should have remembered to coach and collaborate, to take time to learn my faculty, staff, and students. Relationships take time and are made one open-house, one faculty meeting, one classroom visit, and one hello at a time. With relationships and trust fully established, we can get down to the business of improving student learning for every child in our building.

Mentor leaders encourage collaboration, pride, and networking as they develop their tribe.

Creating your TRIBE!

The principalship is a high-demanding, complex, and lonely job. Therefore, experiencing a supportive community of fellow principals is necessary. Principals rarely have opportunities to collaborate with their peers to share ideas, reflect on leading and learning, and discover how to improve their performances. At the beginning of my administrative career, I worked in isolation, but I quickly learned the power of having a community of leaders as a muse. In my latter years of being administrator, I was introduced to SURN. Being new to VA, the network in the Principal Academy helped develop my VA educational leader profile. To this day, I remain in contact with members of my cohort as well as my mentor. I encourage each of you to take advantage of your cohort members and our time together during the Principal Academy. By surrounding yourself with positive people who are in the similar roles, they are going to push you towards greatness.

Learning Leaders: Find Your Joy in Leisure Reading

By Jamon H. Flowers, M.Ed., SURN

The famous Charles Dickens quote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” refers to both the French Revolution and my first year as a Ph.D. student at William and Mary. This year provided me with meaningful personal and professional growth that I never anticipated.  The first anxiety-filled day of each class was saturated with requirements, explanations of assignments, and seemingly impossible reading lists. I felt like I had been thrown into an extremely difficult culture that provided no time to become acclimated. Despite the initial impossibility of each class assignment list, each semester becomes easier to manage. In a word, Ph.D. means “sacrifice.” It demands late nights and less and less time with friends and family to survive. My initial frustration and self-doubt morphed into self-growth, and all the sacrifice was worth it at the end.

Summer is finally here, and I am no longer committed to a schedule that consumes my time with academia. What will I do with my free time? I will read; I will read for pleasure. This epiphany came to me when I realized I had read the entire May 2018 edition of Educational Leadership in one sitting. I was not compelled by guidelines of an assignment, therefore, I lost track of time while reading each article. Sure, I annotated sections that were thought-provoking, but it was what I chose to do. I became reacquainted with a familiar stranger. For the past nine months, required reading coupled with completing written and oral-speaking assignments temporarily halted my reading for pleasure. Now, I have the opportunity to resume this passion, and I am excited.

leisure

As administrators pleasure reading is often not a routine. We become bombarded with pouring ourselves into our students, staff, and community, and we tend to neglect feeding our appetite for personal and professional growth. Our blazing fire of motivation extinguishes as the school year progresses. However, a great way to rekindle our drive is to read. Reading helps to replenish and to stimulate, setting the stage for novelty and ingenuity. For example, as I read the latest edition of Educational Leadership titled, Bolstering the Teacher Pipeline, Herrmann’s article, Rethinking Teacher Recruitment, triggered in me a “wonder,” a “want,” and a “will.”

  • I wondered how might innovative practices, such as “schools offering internships through which younger college students could shadow teachers, work closely with K-12 students, and support enrichment activities” (p. 21), be implemented in more school divisions, with the hopes of attracting a wider range of candidates.
  • I wanted to learn more about hiring and retaining millennial teachers. Abrams’ article, What Matters to Millennial Teachers: A guide to inspiring, supporting, and retaining the newest generation of educators, provided 6 principles that all administrators would find helpful as they enter the recruiting season.
  • I will share the article, To Diversify the Teacher Workforce, Start Early, with peers in human resources and high school principals. This piece presented by Goings, Brandehoff, and Bianco discusses the power in grow-your-own model and 6 guiding principles to recruiting underrepresented community members into education.

Needless to say, reading something I chose to read for less than an hour resulted in an abundance of learning and pragmatic approaches to improvement. (By the way, I strongly recommend reading this month’s edition!)

The end is near for another school year. I am sure you are exhausted and in need of a well-deserved vacation. As part of self-care, I encourage you to read. Reading literature that piques your interest. If you are like me, you start books but never finish them due a long list of demands. However, this summer I have committed 30 minutes a day to reading. For some of us this time will be the only professional development we receive, so let’s do it! Practice what we encourage our students and staff to do. Reading is a magical portal.

May books always be with you.

On my shelf this summer:

  1. The Principal 50: Critical Leadership for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence

Author: Barati Kafele

  1. Closing the Attitude Gap

Author Barati Kafele

Communication: The beginning and ending of leadership

by Jamon H. Flowers, M. Ed., SURN

As a principal, what is your vision? Do staff members know what needs to be done to reach that goal? Do they know how you expect them to reach that goal? More importantly, do they know why this goal is vital to meet? And once they understand the “what,” “how,” and “why,” do you provide them with enough autonomy to get the job done in an effective and timely manner? These are pragmatic issues that principals encounter. Here are a few thoughts I have on how to more effectively address these issues and reach set goals in an authentic and enduring manner.

Collaborative vs. Solitary

Before anything else, engaging stakeholders, such as teachers, parents and community members, in conversations about where we are and why we are there, where we need to go and why we need to go there, and how we are going to get there and why we are traveling the path(s) to get there are pivotal. Notice why is included in each question. Although these conversations may be uncomfortable, the fact that you are seeking and valuing their perceptions increases their commitment and confidence which reduces resistance when it is time to implement. This collection of perspectives helps to pinpoint what needs to be done (the what), action steps needed to deliver (the how), and the reasons for doing it (the why) helps to keep everyone focused.

Telling Your Why

Principals have the best intentions but need to remember that people are not mind readers. That’s why it is important to share your why. Tell your staff and communities why you choose to lead your school, your vision for the school and how you will get it done. Often, principals, especially those new to their school buildings, are met with more resistance due to the lack of communication. People do not give support for what they do not understand or fear. In this case the fear of the unknown. State and live your commitments on a daily basis. You are being watched by all to determine if your why is at the forefront of your actions.

Give Them Space

Early in my administrative career, I discovered that my message of the importance of teachers having autonomy was not demonstrated in my actions. I was dictating the paths to achieve set goals. Staff and teachers became more concerned about meeting my expectations versus completing their work in a quality way.

The lesson I learned was that being too rigid compromises an individual’s ability to perform. There is nothing wrong with giving teachers the flexibility and freedom to interpret change so that they can get the job done in a way that works for them and the school. Remember, when we ask for change teachers are on the front lines. They have the skills and capability of executing in the moment, so let them do it and provide them with resources and support. Doing this gives them a sense of ownership, pride, and a boost in their morale.

 Celebrate

One of the simplest acts of showing gratitude is to celebrate. Celebrate those who contribute to the success. Leaders cannot change an organization alone as it takes an entire team to achieve this goal. When implementing change it is inevitable that we will experience setbacks. However, it remains crucial to celebrate whether it is a big or small victory.

As a principal, I celebrated my staff frequently, especially during testing season. During this intense period, I made sure staff was showered with gifts, food, and other incentives. For example, community partners provided faculty and staff lunch for an entire week. Additionally, the parent-teacher association (PTA) supplied teachers with baskets full of snacks and inspirational quotes. At the end of each school year, awards and trophies were distributed to those individuals who exceeded expectations. Teacher morale, their sense of efficacy, and their commitment strengthened. I was told on many occasions they felt appreciated and valued- two emotions that are sometimes absent in the education system. Let us be honest with ourselves: we all want to experience those feelings on a regular basis and when we do, we are motivated to do more for a cause. Remember to celebrate students and community members, too.

Final Thoughts

If we are not careful, visions and declarations are merely promises. As a leader, your job is to translate those promises into practical, on-the-ground performance through a complex sequence of interactions, on a daily day. It is crucial that you use each interaction as an opportunity to practice the elements listed above. Aim for improvement with each interaction. Commit to developing ever greater clarity and capabilities so that you may become ever more helpful in the moment. So, say what you care about, make it clear what you intend to do, and remain accountable.

 

A Principal Returns to SURN: Familiar Face in New Space

October 23, 2017

By Jamon H. Flowers, M.Ed.

As the SURN Principal Academy began its sixth cohort of principals from across the state this summer, we were joined by a familiar face in a new space. Jamon H. Flowers, M.Ed., joined the EPPL program as a full time doctoral student and joined SURN as a graduate assistant. Jamon was familiar with SURN as a principal participant in the Principal Academy during his tenure in Roanoke Schools. He agreed to share his thoughts on his return to William & Mary School of Education and SURN with us in the following blog post.

Jamon Flowers of SURN returns to William & Mary in a new capacity.

Jamon Flowers, center, returns to the SURN Principal Academy in a new capacity.


During my tenure as a principal, I spent most of my time coaching, supporting, inspiring, and problem-solving for others, but that all changed in 2012 when I became a participant in the SURN Principal Academy. My eyes were opened to how incredibly valuable it was to take time outside of my school for my own professional learning so that I could return and make school an even better place for learning.

Through the SURN Principal Academy, I had opportunities to connect with other principals from our network, including schools similar to mine and schools that were vastly different. Our collaboration increased my effectiveness as a principal and attracted me to actively participate in the on-going research and professional development initiatives, such as Visible Teaching, Assessment, Learning and Leading that promoted quality teaching and learning. Connecting with a diverse group of principals proved that the most valuable resource that all principals have is one other. Without collaboration, our growth is limited.

Now it is four years later and I have returned “home,” but in a different capacity. Instead of being a principal participant, I am a graduate assistant at SURN. In this role, I meet and work with principals who have a wide range of years of experiences, serve different school types, and strongly desire to improve the quality of teaching and learning within their buildings. Each peer offers fresh perspectives and a myriad of ideas. As a mentor, I am able to share my experiences, collaborate with others, and learn alongside principals across the state.

Commitment to ensuring that every student within the SURN school division network encounters an effective principal is a driving force in my dedication and excitement to work in this institute. As the old adage states, “home is where the heart is;” it is good to be home.

We agree, Jamon. Welcome back!

A Review of Effective Teacher Interviews: How Do I Hire Good Teachers?

Effective Teacher Interviews: How Do I Hire Good Teachers? (2014) answers the question with research and an interview-creation process that is user-friendly and a quick-read. This newly released ASCD Arias-formatted book equips and informs readers to construct an interview that is fair, legal, and focused on getting additional information about job-related knowledge, skills, and abilities. The process starts with aligning the interview questions to the job description, continues with writing items to solicit information about past performance (experience-based questions), and eventually concludes with a job offer.

Additionally, Effective Teacher Interviews: How Do I Hire Good Teachers? includes a section on performance interviewing. This is an extra step in the process that is rarely done because of the additional time involved. When a performance interview is added as part of the interview process, there is an opportunity to gain additional insight into candidate’s qualifications.  A performance interview must not be a surprise to the applicant and may be prepared in advance and delivered onsite or as a recorded submission.

For example, candidates could be asked to design and teach a lesson that engages students on the impact of major U.S. waterways on exploration, settlement, transportation, and trade. The interview team establishes the criteria in advance. Evidence of appropriate and challenging student engagement involves students setting learning goals, applying meta-cognitive strategies, using collaborative learning, generating graphic organizers and products, providing feedback and other high-yield strategies, all items found on the SURN Indicators of Student Engagement Tool that is informed by the work of Dr. John Hattie (2009). In this scenario, neither of the two finalists gave unsatisfactory performances. An unsatisfactory performance would have been well-behaved 6th graders neatly coloring and labeling a map of the U.S. waterways. So review the two bullets below and determine who did a better job given the performance task?

  • Candidate A hooked students with a 53-second video about Lewis and Clark’s dog (Seaman) on the expedition, used maps, and had well-organized note-taking sheets about the exploration of several waterways. She moved around the room spot-checking progress. Students listened and took notes.
  • Candidate B used the Jigsaw method. Each expert group gathered information about a particular waterway’s impact on exploration, settlement, transportation, and trade. In their home group they shared and organized the information to compare and contrast the different waterways.

Candidate A had outstanding teacher pedagogy; however, the lesson missed the mark of engaging students, though it did demonstrate the teacher’s expertise at designing a coherent lesson. Candidate B’s lesson design focused on the students acquiring, disseminating, and organizing key information within the context she established. Articulating the criteria by which the lesson would be measured in advance ensures fairness, reduces bias, and focuses the reviewer.

Key take-aways from the book are to plan and structure the interview with care and accountability.

  • The interview is dynamic and responsive to the interactions of the people involved.
  • The interview is a distributive leadership opportunity where you engage your interview panel in contributing to the decision-making process for a new colleague. Training the interview panel will enhance the effectiveness of the interview.
  • The research informs interview design with the inclusion of experienced-based queries, behaviorally-anchored rubrics to assess the quality of responses, note-taking space, and sample quality indicators.
  • The book’s layout with bold headings, bulleted lists, examples, and an Encore section summarizing the hiring process as a “Get Ready, Get Set, Go” contributes to its reader-friendliness.

 

SURN Assistant Director, Jennifer Hindman, Ph.D. wrote Effective Teacher Interviews: How Do I Hire Good Teachers?

 

SURN Principal Academy

The 2013 and 2014 cohorts of the SURN Principal Academy met in September to continue their learning about high yield strategies. The 2013 cohort dived deeper into a session on John Hattie’s book Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learndesigned by Carol Sceare. Meanwhile the 2014 cohort considered how various learning strategies aligned to teacher pedagogy using a sorting activity on the form. Both groups engaged in a simulated observation using the indicators of student engagement form led by SURN Principal Academy mentor, Tony Vladu, principal of Denbigh High School (NNPS).

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Welcome 2014 SURN Principal Academy Cohort Members!

Twenty-four principals and assistant principals from Virginia Regions 1, 2, and 3 started their two-year journey in the SURN Principal Academy, July 14-16 at The College of William and Mary. They focused on how to collect data about student engagement and provide feedback to teachers. As part of their reflection, teams wrote poems about student engagement from the perspectives of student, teacher, and administrator.

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Summer Publications

The academic school year is winding down, but that does not stop SURN Principal Academy participants and other educational stakeholders from achieving new milestones.  Yvonne D. Smith-Jones recently published a feature article in the VAASCD newsletter about coaching. Her article can be read at http://origin.library.constantcontact.com/download/get/file/1111688353693-203/JuneFeatureArticle-COT-GO.pdf, and the June newsletter can be accessed (soon!) by visiting the following link: http://www.vaascd.org/index.php/home/archives_publications.

Corwin Press published an article on the SURN Principal Academy about Visible Learning and Leadership. SURN Executive Director Jan Rozzelle and Valerie DiPaola, Williamsburg James City County (WJCC) Director for School Performance, will present at the International Visible Learning Conference on July 17, 2014 with a group of WJCC principals who participate in the SURN Principal Academy. The link to the article is: http://corwin-connect.com/2014/05/visible-learning-and-leadership/.

Principal Academy Data: From Research to Practice

By: Amy Williams

Over the past two weeks, I have had the exciting opportunity to turn the observation data collected by SURN Principal Academy participants into charts, graphs, and data sets that participants can use to look for trends, to engage in dialogue with others, and to identify areas of strength and continued focus for their schools.  Research-based instruction is aligned with the tenets of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and SURN Principal Academy participants are not only using research-based practices like those highlighted in John Hattie’s Visible Learning, they are also generating, analyzing, and using school-based data to inform their teaching and administrative practices at both school and classroom levels.

Principals in 49 schools used the Student Engagement Observation form in over 1,700 classroom observations in their schools in the fall semester.  Across these observations, student indicators of engagement were assessed in classrooms from English to Mathematics, from sign language (ASL) to automotive repair.  The wide array of classrooms in which observations were conducted provides a rich data set that reflects both SURN Academy participants’ commitment to using data to inform leadership and teaching practices in all academic domains, as well as demonstrating the multitude of opportunities administrators have found to engage in dialogue with teachers about what is working in their classrooms and what possible next steps may be for teachers to promote high-yield student engagement in their classrooms.

The collection and use of this data to inform teaching and learning in schools allow administrators and teachers to share a common language focused on what practices best support student engagement and learning.  By consistently collecting, analyzing, and using data, SURN Principal Academy participants and the teachers with whom they work are able to identify strengths and needs, and to revise approaches proactively to promote student engagement and achievement.

In working with the data collected from over 3 months of observations, I have observed that SURN Principal Academy participants are not only gathering data, they are using it.  Observations of high-yield student engagement indicators have increased from September to December, and administrators are eager to get ahold of their data sets to explore, analyze, and outline next steps based upon their data reports.  I am honored to play a role in this process, and I look forward to continuing to support the SURN Principal Academy participants in their efforts to use data that inform teaching and leading within their schools.

 

Classroom Observations: Research, Practice, and Principal Academy

For Principal Academy participants, classroom observations are emphasized as a way to support the use of high yield instructional strategies by teachers (for more on these strategies, see John Hattie’s book, Visible Learning for Teachers).  These focused observations promote conversations between administrators and teachers about teaching practices and are used as a springboard for regular communication about both teaching and student learning.  Observations in the Principal Academy are not only regularly conducted by administrators, but are also conducted by teachers as a way to encourage inter-professional dialogue focused on the use of high yield instructional strategies to promote student learning.

Principal Academy participants are not the only ones who have their eyes on this informative practice.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently funded research that led to a published paper entitled The Reliability of Classroom Observations by School Personnel.  In this paper, Ho and Kane examine the reliability between administrative and teacher observers, and examine different combinations of observations that provide reliability coefficients of .65 or greater.

The full report can be found here:

http://www.metproject.org/downloads/MET_Reliability_of_Classroom_Observations_Research_Paper.pdf

Here are some questions to consider about classroom observations.  You may want to share these questions with your staff in conjunction with the article above.  Hopefully these questions, and your answers, will inspire dialogue among professionals throughout your school!

  • What do you believe are the benefits of classroom observations?
  • What reservations do you have about using observations to inform teaching practices?
  • What benefits might there be to including teachers as observers in the process?
  • How might you encourage observations and discussions about the observations to inform teacher practice and promote student learning?