Rime of the Networked Principal
By: Adam Parrott-Sheffer, Senior Advisor of School Leadership, NTC
As a recovering English teacher turned school principal, my thoughts turned frequently to Coleridge’s “water water everywhere, but not a drop [to] drink” as I rushed from grade level meeting to observation to parent conference to student incident. As a first-year principal, I found myself constantly engaged in conversations about the work. I was, in fact, drowning in interactions or collaboration each day while at the same time parched for opportunities to connect and learn with other school leaders. The isolation teachers often experience in the classroom is magnified for principals whose nearest colleague is measured in city blocks instead of doors in a hallway.
Unlike over half of new principals, I made it past my third year and beyond. I led a school that saw double-digit increases in the number of kids at grade level and was recognized by the state as one of the first 9 programs for excellence in early childhood instruction. This was in large part due to the informal network of principal colleagues I developed. Whether it was Heather sharing her practices for student data conferences or Rene’s feedback on my staff presentation, this collaboration was a key part of my growth as a leader and my ability to stick with the work.
Unfortunately, this sort of networked partnership is a rarity for too many leaders and hastens their departure. The negative impact on student learning is significant with it taking up to 3 years for growth in achievement to resume after a new leader begins. This is why, when the opportunity arose to build an official network of school leaders, I jumped at the chance.
For the past 3 years, I have been working with New Teacher Center to expand our program pipeline from teachers and educators to school leaders. Professional learning opportunities like mentoring and coaching aren’t unique to teachers, or at least they shouldn’t be. In my own time as a principal, I felt the direct, significant impact that feedback and collaboration with my peers had on my work and the work of those around. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” if you will indulge me in one more water metaphor.
What makes the New Teacher Center school leadership work unique is that we’re working to build this network and community around the realities of the principalship. It is unrealistic to think that principals can (or want to) be away from their building multiple times a month or can meet late into the evening. Yet, the need to connect and work regularly with others who “get it” is real and it is urgent.
To address these realities, we’re leaning into technology and connecting leaders through a mobile-first application that allows leaders to share their work both so others can learn and also so that they can receive feedback on things that matter such as their instructional vision, improvement strategy, or coaching practices.
This might look like a video simulation, a virtual case study, or even a podcast with questions proposed by participants. All of this support is designed to be explored in 3-7 minute segments from any location- because we know anything more than that is more of a commitment than a leader can make- even when they are greatly committed to the learning.
I wouldn’t be an English teacher, recovering or otherwise, if I didn’t return to the water metaphor in closing. At the New Teacher Center, we envision a type of leader collaboration similar to rain. It’s life-sustaining and growing power comes in small drops with different frequency and intensity depending on need. I think it is the beginning of an exciting, and less lonely, time for being a principal.