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Rethinking Principals

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 31 May 2012 12:20pm | comments
Intern Principal Felicia Pollard and Assistant Principal Paula Gibbs join Lafayette County Public School teachers at a phonetic training. Both principals are seeking to become instructional leaders, not just school managers. Photo by Annie Gilbertson.

Like many school leaders, Intern Principal Felicia Pollard often begins her day before dawn.

“You are on campus sometime between 6:30 and 7:00 am,” says Pollard. “You are checking your emails and then you go to duties. But on your way to duty, you are usually stopped by teachers who just want to ask you one thing!”

Then it’s supervising busses and drop-off, morning announcements and the first meeting of the day.  Pollard joins the custodial crew as they plan summer cleaning.

“They are worried because the elementary school is in a pod system,” says Pollard. “And so instead of having a starting point and a stopping point, they are going to have to figure out how to navigate the circles.”

It’s a day that bucks the wisdom of traditional education training programs – commonly thought to be theory rich and practice poor.  But Pollard is also studying to push past a managerial role and into a position that demands higher-order thinking and visionary skills – a position that will take charge in raising student achievement and fostering a culture of excellence. And she has yet to hit her 30th birthday.

“Well it’s scary,” says Pollard. “It’s scary now to be on the young end of that. And they really trained us this year to understand that you’ve got to be positive, you’ve got to be a listener. You are going to inspire people. And when you don’t inspire them, you got to have that data to back it up. [To say] this is why we are going to do that.”

Pollard’s training is coming from two directions. She’s a graduate student at the University of Mississippi and is also working full-time as an Intern Principal at Lafayette County Public Schools.  It’s an accelerated program called Principal Corps, and it challenges the traditional track to principalship.

Mentorship-based principal training programs are popping up all over the country.  The gold-standard for leadership reform schools is New Leaders, based in New York and growing throughout the nation with southern operations in New Orleans, Memphis and Charlotte.

Eric Guckian, the Executive Director of the Charlotte program, says “Education hasn’t gotten this right in the past…There are hundreds of thousands of kids being left behind. The need is so great, and the need for collaboration is so great.”

Guckian says the success of New Leaders is helping create demand, both in schools and in policy.  President Obama’s focus on turning around low performing schools, growing requirements for data driven decisions, and the trendy embedding of teacher coaches all require a new kind of leader.

Assistant Principal Paula Gibbs is one of a handful of mentors at Lafayette County Public Schools trying to develop just such a leader in principal-to-be Felicia Pollard. Gibb says her job is all about instructional leadership: teaching and supporting teachers to make learning happen. And, she explains to Pollard, sometimes that’s as basic as training a teacher to teach children how to read.

“The phonetic piece is missing in college,” says Gibbs. “They don’t teach the phonetic piece. How do you look actually look at a word, analyze a word, break that word down and the parts of it.”

Pollard chimes in, “With the word jumped, we hear ‘tah’ at the end. So [elementary students] will know its past tense, that’s an ‘e-d’ instead of just putting a ‘t.’”

And where teachers and students are falling short, instructional leaders step in. Assistant Principal Gibbs wrote a grant for phonetic training for the staff. Teachers spent the first three days of summer break in the school library, a trainer at the head of the room leading the group through model classroom exercises.

“Rack. And you are going to say ‘dash-c-k’ or whatever you have,” he says.  Pollard and Gibbs are off to the side working through the new material together.

“Are you going to teach me?” asks Pollard.

“I’m going to teach you to do it,” says Gibbs. “Rack.  Now you would sky write it.” The two use their fingers to draw out the ending letters of the word.  The idea is to train teachers to go beyond writing the rule on the board and having students copy it.

“We call that being proactive,” says Dr. Susan McClelland.  She heads-up the academic side of Pollard’s principal training at University of Mississippi.

“Many times when these change agent principals go into schools, they have to be sort of reactive for awhile,” she says. “Then when you begin to put your vision and your teacher’s vision into place, then you begin to be proactive about how you structure things.”

And that, says McCelland, is what is at the heart of rethinking how Mississippi trains principals. Model exceptional leadership, create exceptional leaders focused on fostering teacher effectiveness and recruit them to struggling schools.  Do that, she says, and a few years down the road, Mississippi may find some of its worst schools turning things around.

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Intern Principal Felicia Pollard and Assistant Principal Paula Gibbs join Lafayette County Public School teachers at a phonetic training. Both principals are seeking to become instructional leaders, not just school managers. Photo by Annie Gilbertson.


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