I recently had a great conversation with John Puglisi and Mike Vollmert, from the Rio School District. We are both K-8 districts, neighbor each other, and face many of the same challenges to moving our instructional programs into the next phase of 21st Century teaching and learning. Our students feed into the same high schools, so it behooves the students if we can work together to provide Rio and PVSD students the best possible instructional program. We met because, as silos, our districts are not capitalizing on the collective knowledge and skills each of our districts possesses. We expect teachers to open their doors to other teachers at their school site, and we expect schools within our district to collaborate, share, and build each other up.
Why, then, don’t we expect the same of ourselves and other school districts?
This first meeting felt like a first date of sorts: each of us trying to figure out what the other one has in mind for our future together. How much should we share right away? Are there things we don’t want to necessarily share right away because they might indicate some imperfection?
As the conversation began to flow, we were ruminating on the critical role of the school principal. There are many studies that indicate that the Principal is the linchpin for instructional growth. Take the Wallace Foundation study, or Marzano’s seminal work on leadership, School Leadership That Works….both point to the immensely important role that principals play. District leaders can have the most amazing ideas and plans, and the principal decides- through their leadership- whether those ideas and plans die on the vine, or are turned into fruit bearing actions.
We spoke about the way that a principal can take an overarching theme or idea (i.e. make formative assessment an aspect of EVERY lesson) and magnify that idea by providing teachers the resources to try new forms of formative assessment. Mike referred to this in the conversation as “a pump.” We all know that pumps take something (usually a liquid) and moves the liquid from one place to another, usually with great force.
Conversely, the principal can choose not to emphasize the big idea. Whether it’s through intentional ignorance or a lack of ability to understand and promote the idea, the principal is key. Either way, this idea is moving toward a school, and either loses momentum, or is completely stopped before entering the school. At this point, I said, “Like a filter.” An idea can be moving with great momentum, then be slowed or stopped.
There was a pause….a recognition that we had just characterized the role of the principal in a new way that made sense to us. Having all been principals in the past, we recognize the absolute importance of the role. The principal can be what stands between a school and its forward momentum, or what stands behind gracefully pumping growth.