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Principal gave class all A's but 'no class was taught'

Conducted with the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, Public Agenda's recent study of first-year teachers— Lessons Learned —showed that most new secondary teachers are confident in their knowledge of their subject area and that most new elementary teachers are confident about their ability to teach reading and math. The confidence level of new elementary teachers is somewhat lower for science. Teachers are also concerned about how to help students whose skills and achievement lag. Although roughly 9 in 10 teachers are confident that most of their students will learn what they are supposed to learn by the end of the year, fewer than 7 in 10 say the same for their struggling students.

In fact, only 14 percent of teachers are "very confident" that they "can turn around their hardest-to-reach students by the end of the year. According to the National Center for Education Statistics , nearly all school principals have significant teaching experience. Ninety-five percent of elementary principals have at least three years of teaching experience, and two-thirds have 10 years or more.

The numbers are nearly as high for secondary principals—94 percent have taught more than three years, and more than 6 in 10 have taught for more than a decade. Clearly, the vast majority of principals bring strong teaching experience to the table. But in Public Agenda interviews, principals often talked about the challenge of helping others improve their teaching. One principal who was confident in his ability to teach pointed out the challenge of turning on "the eyes of observation" and reflecting on what was and wasn't effective.

Another described her learning curve on how to coach her teachers and help ramp up their effectiveness: Every piece of feedback … has to be very specific: "This is what happened. This is the outcome. If you're not moving the work, then you're not doing what is necessary to move a school. Given the importance that coaching and training teachers has assumed in schools today, it's not clear that principals get the coaching and training they need to fulfill this key function. Principals noted that their own preparation for their jobs would have been much more useful had it focused more clearly on the challenges they actually face on the job—including the challenge of instructional leadership.

One principal complained about "the university classes I've had with professors [who] haven't been at a school site in years. They're really doing it from a textbook. Two-thirds of principals 66 percent agree that "typical leadership programs are out of touch with the realities" of schools today.

Even more 78 percent say that the requirements for certifying administrators should focus more on "practical, hands-on experience. According to our surveys of principals, 75 percent report that they spend more time "than they used to when it comes to working on the substance of teaching—for example, curriculum, teaching techniques, mentoring, and professional development. Just 1 in 10 principals is satisfied with the time spent on this area; 70 percent of principals say they would like to do "a lot more" here; 19 percent would like to do a little more.

In fact, fighting for time for instructional leadership appears to be one of the main frustrations of being a principal today; nearly three-quarters of principals say that daily emergencies rob them of time "that could be better spent on academic or teaching issues. Making the time to invest in this important area was one of the distinguishing characteristics of the "transformer" principals working in high-needs schools.


One transformer told us, At the end of the day, with high-needs schools, it's really about student achievement and the instruction. If we're not able to be in the classrooms to observe instruction and make sure that our students are receiving high-quality instruction, then … moving the budget is not going to do anything. Another talked about the need to make getting into the classroom the top priority: I may have two or three teacher observations lined up to do. I just have to turn off my phone, close my door, and leave [because if I don't] I'm going to be obstructed from doing them.

Copers, in contrast, often admitted that instructional leadership was the facet of their work that they often sacrificed to the distractions and emergencies of the day. The vast majority of principals seem to relish the idea of being an instructional leader. One especially promising sign is the degree to which principals and teachers share a common definition of where teachers need help.

The overlap is quite notable. If principals were focused on one set of challenges and teachers were focused on something else, the prospects for working together constructively would be considerably less rosy. Public Agenda has not looked closely at teachers' views on instructional leadership and the degree to which they are receptive to having principals coach and mentor them. Right now, teachers tend to look to principals for administrative support and help in handling discipline issues.

The Easiest Way For Principals to Respect Teachers

New teachers, especially, look to colleagues rather than to principals for help with lesson plans and teaching techniques. Teachers' initial comfort level with principals as instructional leaders will likely depend on whether they see the principal as a coach and mentor or as a "boss" coming into the class to "judge them.

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According to Public Agenda's research so far, the most serious hurdle facing instructional leadership is whether communities and districts are willing to reorganize schools so principals have time for this work. In the Public Agenda and Wallace Foundation study of the transformers and copers, this question came up repeatedly. Some of the transformers had received district administrative support that enabled them to focus squarely on academic and teaching issues; these districts wanted their principals freed up to "transform" troubled schools.

Subscribe to the podcast in Stitcher. Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years experience in the classroom, plus over a decade of experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources , online courses , 5 books , the Truth for Teachers podcast , and the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club.

She's been supporting teachers through this website since Such a wonderful point about there not being ONE solution to any challenge. That perspective makes it feel less daunting to try to solve the problem—knowing that you can just focus on solving one aspect of it, and not being responsible for figuring out how to fix everything all on your own. Thank you for this post, Angela! Every word of this post rings true!! I came across your blog a little over a year ago.

I was probably at my lowest point in teaching, wondering if I should continue in this profession. After spending a weekend going through your blog, I was able to start seeing things that were withing my control, things that I could actually change. Last year was incredible!

It reminded me of my first year of teaching. I was able to enjoy my students and my profession once again. Robin, I am so appreciative of you sharing your story. Though my principal is wonderful, I read this to see what I could take away from it.

The Principal's Priority 1 - Educational Leadership

Even when one has positive administrators, we still have crazy requirements from our politicians that make us so frustrated. I can, do, and will follow the advice you give here to deal with those things. Thank you, Angela, for consistently being a positive leader in our field. You are a good teacher who I trust. Thank you for this podcast.

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I have a couple of questions that were not discussed. You talked about switching jobs. How does a teacher cope when switching jobs for financial reasons is not an option.

I am at the top of my pay scale and would lose a lot of money if I switch jobs. Sometimes I feel trapped. Secondly, I am on my 3rd. Change is hard, I get that. I get that our principal has a vision, change is hard. I am a 22 year veteran, 18 in my current building.

I have seen a lot come and go and have done as you suggest, close my door and do what is best for kids.