Ten Ways to Not Make Mistakes as a School Principal

  • Always try to find a happy medium when working with staff and families regarding complex problems.
  • Announce all of your classroom visits and observations. That way teachers will have a heads up when you are coming and will be better prepared for instruction.
  • In your newsletters to families, avoid writing about topics beyond appopriate clothing for the seasons, upcoming school events, and generic forms of praise.
  • Don’t ever veer from the student handbook regarding attendance and student discipline, regardless of the circumstances or context.
  • Allow faculty issues to fester until it comes to head, and then swoop in to solve it for them.
  • Avoid the staff lounge for fear of catching unpleasant remarks about you or your performance as a principal.
  • Make no moves forward right away with an initiative to allow all staff members to feel more comfortable with the possibility of change.
  • Attend every teacher/team meeting and take copious notes. This will ensure that there are no surprises and conversations run smoothly.
  • Expect that teachers stick closely to the prescribed programs and collect weekly lesson plans. This way, the curriculum will be delivered with fidelity.
  • Have an open door policy so you can drop everything you are doing when someone stops in and asks if you’ve got a minute.

(This post is satirical, of course. Avoidance and black-and-white thinking may be less demanding cognitively, but the results are often worse than if we had acted. We were hired to be leaders and learners. So – lead and learn!)

Maximize Learning, Not Technology

One constant that teachers have in schools today is time. We cannot control whether our students had a good night’s sleep, or if they have the right amount of support at home, or if they are able to have quality time with family on a regular basis. We get around 180 days a year and approximately 6.5 hours each day with them. This estimate doesn’t account for standardized testing, fire drills, and all of the other outside factors that as a principal I do my best to minimize but still have to address.

So when we have our students, what do you believe is the best way to spend this time? I believe it’s the student-to-student, student-to-teacher, and student-with-self experiences that are the priority. Digital tools have a place, but it should not be the focus. If technology is the form, then pedagogy is the function. We need to ask ourselves why we want to use technology with a learning initiative, instead of what the technology is or how it can be used. This post is not to put down the role of technology in education, but to offer a different perspective – my own, as a frequent observer of teaching and learning in my role as an elementary principal.

When Technology Is Necessary

We implemented mobile technology into our school when a dozen teachers agreed to incorporate one iPad into their classroom as a pilot. They attended a number of after school trainings and shared what was going well and what wasn’t. This worked for us. It was context-specific and on a timeline people were comfortable with, myself included. There was no pressure to “upgrade” our instruction. Just try it and apply it.

This technology proved itself to be necessary as the year progressed. For example, primary teachers were recording student performance assessments, such as book talks and oral reports, using the iPad and then posting it online for parents to see. Intermediate students were introduced to digital word processing and blogging. They dove into high-interest literacy activities, such as collaborative story writing and providing feedback using what the web had to offer. We explored new ways to make literacy and learning go live.

Reports of these early successes spread. Even before this pilot was completed, other teachers were asking when they were going to get an iPad too. Fastforward to today: Each classroom has 5-6 tablets at the K-3 level. There is an iPad cart and a Chromebook cart available for our 4th and 5th grade classrooms. Just today, a 4th grade teacher was telling me how her students were going to culminate their personal narrative writing unit by creating a visual version of their stories using Explain Everything, and then posting them in FreshGrade, our digital portfolio tool, so families could see and hear their published work.

You may have noticed that we are not a one device to one student school. I am not sure we ever will be. This stated fact is not to suggest that this set up is not effective in other contexts. Not to repeat myself, but it’s what works for us. Our students get enough screen time at home. We are a Title I school, with two of our every three students living in poverty. Plus, kids come to school to be with their friends. Plugging them in may only serve to create distance between their important relationships. This leads into my own experience as a classroom observer who tried to maximize technology in my own practice without giving much thought to the pedagogy.

When Technology is Nice

I have been conducting instructional walks for a number of years now. These short and informal observations serve to provide feedback and affirmation for teachers and their current instruction.  In the past, I would bring in my iPad and a stylus, open up a note taking app such as Notability or Noteshelf, write what I observed on the tablet, and then save my notes in Evernote. As I left the classroom I would also email the teacher a copy of my digital notes.

After many conversations with teachers and taking time to reflect on the process, I realized that the technology cart was leading the instructional horse. Form was not following function. For instance, my time maneuvering the iPad and applications caused me to be distracted during the instructional walks. It distracted the students, too. Also, I wasn’t providing a tangible artifact for the teacher after a visit. Yes, they could print out my observational notes from what I shared with them via email. But that was one more step they had to take in an already busy schedule.

So I have dialed down technology during my instructional walks this year. I replaced my tablet and stylus with a notebook and pen. Technology did not totally disappear: I still use my smartphone to scan in my observational notes into Evernote. I’ve also explored using a Livescribe pen and companion smartphone app. While I write, the pen “talks” to the application via Bluetooth and transcribes what I write into a digital file. Both seem to work well. At this time, I’ve completed 50 instructional walks in classrooms. Last year, when my instructional walks were completed with an iPad, I did a total of 75.

Again, I don’t want to blame technology for my experiences. In different circumstances, a stylus and note taking app might serve a user really well. What mattered for me is the purpose of my visits: To observe daily instruction and serve as a collaborator and colleague with our teachers in this process. Technology was getting in the way, so I got it out of the way.

Schools have arrived at a point where access to online/digital learning is no longer the main issue. Instead, how access is thoughtfully and smartly utilized by educators will make the difference in students’ learning lives going forward.


This is a sponsored blog post. Thank you to Omninox for supporting this site. Omninox aims to “reduce teachers’ grading time and assignment creation time by up to 85%”. Click on the image below to visit their website, or click here to contribute to their Kickstarter campaign.

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When Technology Isn’t Necessary (and maybe not even nice) #edtechchat #educoach #cpchat

For the past three years, I have made a point of conducting instructional walks in classrooms on a regular basis. The purpose of my walks is to provide feedback for the teacher about their practice, as well as to get a sense of the overall instructional level of the school.

I’ve tried a number of iPad applications and styluses in which to conduct these walks. For a while I used Notability with a basic stylus. I liked both tools, but found the uploading of my observations to Dropbox to be cumbersome and inefficient. Plus, I had to print off my observational notes and hand them to the teacher afterward.

The next iteration was to purchase an Evernote Jot Script stylus and start using the handwriting application Penultimate. This solved the syncing issues, as Penultimate is an Evernote product. What I wrote in that app automatically uploaded into the teacher’s notebook within Evernote. I could now email my digital observation directly to the teacher.

Image source: blog.evernote.com
Image source: blog.evernote.com

But something was missing. After surveying my staff, I realized that it wasn’t that something was missing. It was that I had added too much to the process.

First, there was the tallies I kept. In between writing observational notes, I would also mark where instruction was at on the minute, in accordance with the gradual release of responsibility. Our school has adhered to the Optimal Learning Model, an update by Regie Routman of the gradual release of responsibility, as our instructional framework. I would note how often teaching and learning was occurring along the demonstration-shared demonstration-guided practice-independent practice continuum. Then I would take that data and upload into a spreadsheet, which provided an output of our levels of instruction.

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Very techy! I could quickly see where we were at in our collective instruction. At least I thought I could. What the survey revealed was that I was only catching small snippets of instruction. Plus, I was not intentional enough about coming in at different times of the school days. Both true. This numerical feedback helped me, but not the teachers.

Second, I found out that teachers really appreciated having a paper copy of my informal observations. It’s not that they didn’t mind receiving a digital copy of my notes. In fact, some of my teachers actually wanted an electronic version so they could save them online as future artifacts and examples of strong instruction. But there is just something about having that immediate feedback, written out on paper, that made my visits more concrete and tangible. Because my instructional walks are strengths-based and not evaluative in nature, they could physically come back to these notes, reread what I noticed, and take pride in the quality education they provide for their students.

This is why I have come back to a paper-based and unformated process for my informal and unannounced instructional walks. I still observe instruction through the tenets of the Optimal Learning Model, but within a more holistic view of teaching and learning. In addition, I have a ruled notebook on which I write my observations, ten minutes at a time. I tear out the paper copy of my notes and leave it on the teacher’s desk. If the opportunity arises, I’ll have a brief chat with them about what I saw and appreciated. If not, I catch up with them later.

The power of technology can have a firm grasp on how we conduct business, even when it is not always helpful. Case in point: I have played with a Livescribe pen that transcribes my writing onto an associated app which I can save to the teacher’s Evernote notebook within my account. A nice tool, but even this has some minor challenges. After writing an observation, I have to go into the Livescribe app and upload the note into Evernote. The pen allows me to record audio connected with my writing, which is really helpful when talking to a student about what they are learning and why it is important to them. But I can do the same thing with Evernote, by just hitting the record button on my iPhone or iPad, and then scanning my paper notes into the same note that contains the audio before sharing it out.

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This is why I ordered several Moleskine notebooks for my future walkthroughs. The kind that I can tear out without a lot of noise, that I can easily scan into Evernote and hand to the teacher in a manner that doesn’t disrupt instruction. Technology has taken a back seat to the process, enhancing it instead of leading it. I don’t know if I would have come to this conclusion if I had not asked my faculty for input about this process and how it benefits their instruction. Without their feedback, I may have tried to fix a communication problem caused by technology with more or different technology, instead of questioning whether I needed technology in the first place.

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My ASCD Arias book 5 Myths About Classroom Technology is now available for pre-order on Amazon. Makes for a great stocking stuffer for that teacher in your life! 🙂