Whether it’s moving to Common Core, conducting teacher evaluations or using data to drive learning, principals are on the front line of implementing educational change.
They, too, need support to effectively lead in an era of reform, those attending a state education panel said.
The state Office of Public Instruction hosted the “effective principal panel” at Helena College Monday as part of a larger effort to prepare educators for the ongoing transition to new state standards.
“Leadership preparation, training and support is critical,” OPI Deputy Superintendent Dennis Parman said. “It’s as important that we have well-trained teachers as we have well-trained administrators.”
Five seasoned principals shared their experiences at small schools around Montana, followed by discussion about ways other entities can help prepare principals for the challenges their job brings.
“You are the school leaders. What you do in your school sets the tone,” state superintendent Denise Juneau told the panelists.
“You have so many responsibilities and we all understand that. When it goes well, it looks effortless from the outside,” she said.
Paul Furthmyre, principal at Anaconda High School, described how a can-do attitude has enabled him and his staff to improve the school even as enrollment continues to decline.
“Ever since the ’80s we’ve had nothing but a declining population,” he said. Enrollment has dropped from around 430 students to 290 in Furthmyre’s seven years at Anaconda.
By targeting at-risk students and adjusting curriculum, the school has seen steadily rising test scores during the same period.
Furthmyre said instructional leadership starts at his desk, and he works closely with teachers to make changes and hone their craft.
“I cannot sit there and say I know everything. But I’m going to find out the answer with you,” he said of his approach to leadership. “I’m not here to change my staff; I’m here to help my staff.”
“Giving staff the key” and “walking beside teachers” as they make changes in the classroom has helped principal Sherry Ann Foote build trust at Lame Deer Elementary on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.
The school has struggled with attendance and discipline problems, Foote said, but she has worked to boost morale and engage teachers and students.
She said setting clear expectations for students and staff is one of the principal’s key roles. Building consistency is something Foote said she has focused on, particularly as construction delays have students taking class in common areas and staff keeping offices in locker rooms.
Yet guiding and evaluating teachers through new academic standards is a difficult task, especially for principals who already juggle responsibilities to students, parents and superintendents.
“Time is a real challenge for principals. There is no doubt about it,” OPI assistant superintendent Steve York said.
However, York added, “I do think that sometimes it is convenient for some principals to blame time — mainly, because this is scary work.”
“We avoid being instructional leaders, and we use the excuse that we don’t have enough time to cover that fear,” he said.
Dean Jardee, principal/superintendent of 100-student Vaughn school just outside of Great Falls, said he works to understand teaching strategies himself and participates in professional training alongside his teachers.
“They need to be confident that I walk the walk and talk the talk,” he said.
Jardee said he also tries to keep his finger on the pulse of the school.
“I am constantly observing. This is more than walking through the classroom,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like a video camera myself, taking in all of the images of learning.”
Shelby Elementary Principal Peggy Taylor emphasized the importance of building relationships with teachers and community members when implementing changes.
Jardee added that principals must help teachers understand what instructional shifts mean so they can focus on what’s important.
“It sometimes is overwhelming, and it’s hard to filter and try to figure out what we really need to do,” he said.
Furthmyre said schools must also explain new learning strategies to students so they can apply the changes themselves. Meanwhile, principals must also communicate with parents, added Circle Schools K-8 Principal Helen Murphy, who she said are having perhaps the most difficult time adjusting to new standards.
As principals confront these challenges, School Administrators of Montana director Kirk Miller said investing in the “forgotten art” of professional learning for administrators is a necessity.
“Building relationships and making connectors might be the glue for all of the change that’s going on,” he said.
Miller outlined new efforts underway this year to boost mentorship for new and experienced principals around Montana.
The programs, funded by some $270,000 from business partners, OPI and the governor’s office, will put mentors in each of several regions of the state. The goal, he said, is to get principals more frequent face-to-face time with leadership trainers.
Miller said the investment is an important one, adding that the quality of a principal directly impacts teachers, students and community members.
“Our ability to make professional learning real-time and embedded into the work they’re currently doing is going to determine moving things forward within the school environment,” he said.