Take time to talk to your principal

I met with the principals from an elementary, middle and high school in the West Ada School District to ask them about how they do their jobs.

I asked them questions from the book, The Smartest Kids in the World;

  1. How do you choose your teachers?
  2. How do you make your teacher better?
  3. How do you measure success?
  4. How do you make sure the work is rigorous enough?
  5. How do you keep raising the bar to find out what kids can do?
  6. (My own question) How can parents be more involved in the school?

The responses were varied, and very interesting.

  1.        How do you choose your teachers?

To determine what new teachers to hire, each principal begins by looking at applicants who met the district standards. After the applicant meets the criteria, they looked at:

  • Do they have a love for the students and can they connect well with kids?
  • How much experience do they have (more was usually preferred)?
  • What skill set can they bring to the school (preferably new skills)?
  • What are their certifications (can they teach higher level/college credit classes)?
  • What is their teaching style?

One principal stated that before he meets with candidates he checks their references. He even reaches out to others in the education community who might know the applicant.

All of the candidate interviews are conducted with a team of people; the principal, a counselor and teachers. The team helps to evaluate the candidate and determine how well they would fit at their school.

  1.      How do you make your teachers better?

Each teacher is randomly observed. If the teacher is new, they are observed a few times a month, while more experienced teachers are observed less frequently.

When a teacher is new (first or second year teacher), that teacher is assigned a mentor. A teaching mentor is a more experienced teacher (five or more years of teaching experience) who has taken a district course on mentoring.

Some of the other methods used for teacher improvement were:

  • Filming the teacher (with their approval).
  • Collaboration with other teachers in their subject matter.
  • Checking the teachers to make sure they were connecting with every student (if the student does not think the teacher cares about them, then the student is less likely to care about what the teacher is teaching).
  • Does the teacher know each student’s name?
  • Approach teachers that need correction in a non-threatening way, give them feedback and encouragement.
  1.      How do you measure success?

One principal told me that he checks to see if his teachers are focusing on teaching to the student, or the content. Connection to the students is vital for success.

I was pleased with this answer. When the focus of education is on the scores, sometimes the individual student gets ignored. As a parent, sometimes I put too much focus on the grade and not enough focus on understanding the concepts.

Other responses included:

  • Are they aware of the students’ needs and are they meeting those needs? (They didn’t specify how they learn the student’s needs, or meet those needs)
  • Are they meeting district and state goals?
  • How does the school data compare to the district goals?
  • How are the teacher/student interactions?
  • Are the teachers giving regular daily assessments to find out if their students are understanding the material being taught (if not, then reteach)?
  • Check for holes in the data, where students may need more instruction.
  • Check small and large tests to monitor growth.
  • Are they following the S.M.A.R.T. goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely)?
  1.    How do you make sure that the work is rigorous enough?

This was a tough question. Most of the answers I got were about meeting the state and district standards. I was told that the state and district standards were already quite rigorous. One principal mentioned the fear of losing students, if they tried to push the standards too high.

Here are the other responses about rigor:

  • It is useful to compare Idaho state standards with the standards of surrounding states.
  • The ISAT has great questions, but the weight put on the results is not helpful.
  • There are so many required standards set by the state, it is important that the school focuses on meeting priority standards (set by the district).
  • The schools provide advanced and gifted classes to the students who are ready to excel.
  • The schools use academic coaching to give their (math) teachers additional training.
  1.    How do you keep raising the bar to find out what kids can do?

This did not seem to be a focus for the administrators. I was told that students in the United States could not be fairly compared to students in higher achieving countries because our students have a lot more demands outside of the classroom (music, sports, etc.). This is a good point, but does that mean that we should be content with our students learning less than students in other countries? I am not sure. We need our kids to excel in math, science and English so they can be prepared to succeed in a growing global economy.

The middle school principal said that it is important that we challenge our kids, but we need to let them be kids. The individual student needs to be the focus. The students need goals and measurable ways to track those goals.

The elementary principal said that it was important that the students had a solid understanding of the basics. Students can not build on knowledge that they do not have.

  1.       How can parents be more involved with their kids and their schools?

I asked this question because I wanted to hear what the principals thought of parent involvement and what advice they had to share.

One principal said that parents tend to interact with the students less at the middle school (and higher) level. He tries to encourage parents to stay involved, volunteer, eat lunch with your kids, and continue asking meaningful questions of your older kids. Another said that parent involvement at the school is great.

Overall it was a great experience. I enjoyed getting to know the administrators at my kids’ schools. I have a greater understanding of how each principal is trying to manage their respective schools. It gives me hope for our students and the direction that our local leaders are taking.

Have you met your principal?

Melanie Flake

Melanie Flake

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