When You Fail, I Fail – Approach To Leadership

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As school leaders, we must realize we are in this together.  If we can create the following conditions, we can experience success together.

Supervision of Instruction occurs between 8:00 and 3:00 or it doesn’t get done!

The power to change education, for better or worse, is and always will be in the hands of teachers. Therefore, principals as instructional leaders must separate the managerial side of the principalship with that of improving teacher effectiveness. No longer is it acceptable to sit in an office, work on state reports, complete teacher evaluations, or engage in any other activity that can be completed outside the school day. An effective principal designates school hours for students, teachers, and parents, every day.

Try this:

  • Teach a class and model technology integration, differentiation, embedded interventions and other proven instructional strategies.
  • Seek opportunities for professional dialogue with your teachers to build collegiality. Social media can be an effective tool to think, learn, and grow together with your teachers.
  • Engage in a “Lunch and Learn” with a teacher to follow-up on his/her growth plan.
  • Cover a class to allow a teacher the opportunity to visit a colleague’s classroom. Make sure to schedule a time for self-reflection with the teacher.

 If your faculty refers to walkthroughs as “drive bys,” failure may be just around the corner.

One of the most important and mandatory responsibilities of a principal is making classroom visits. Frequent informal visits with a purpose add up to a true examination of what’s happening in the classroom. However, what’s happening in the classroom differs between a good principal and a great principal. A good principal spends much of the time at the back of the room focusing on teaching. A great principal spends valuable time at the front of the room focusing on students. The primary objective is to walk away with meaningful information that will promote teacher growth and enrich student’s educational experience.

Try this:

  • Interview a student after class and ask probing questions to check for understanding. It’s always good practice to ask questions once the natural forgetting process has begun. Don’t be afraid to ask a question about last week’s lesson to check for retention.  Always share with your teacher your findings.

If your feedback is sugarcoated, expect failure to be blunt.

Feedback must be as frequent and mandatory as classroom visits. As a principal, we must be courageous and provide honest, specific feedback that articulates the desired expectation. Instead of just stating a concern, provide a solution or strategy for improved performance. Every teacher, regardless of performance level, deserves meaningful feedback. Teachers feel unappreciated when the principal fails to provide any type of feedback.

Try this:

  • To be courageous, simply say to yourself, “I must be honest, straightforward, and detailed because our students deserve the very best.” This significant act of being honest separates an effective instructional leader from an ineffective instructional leader.

Belief Doesn’t Come First; Action Comes First

Talking about great ideas and actually putting ideas into action are two very different things. Many times, good principals passionately share their perspectives and points of view with a reluctant teacher, hoping this teacher will jump on board. A few years ago, Lyn Hilt explained to me that to change one’s belief, we must first change one’s behavior. We can do this by setting high expectations and developing a teacher growth plan.

Many principals are excellent at collaborating with a teacher to develop a well-detailed growth plan but fail by not following up. A great principal intervenes immediately to address a concern rather than waiting for a post evaluation. A strong growth plan includes strategies for achieving the desired outcome, contains indicators and measures of achievement, and a completion time. Effective principals work collaboratively to develop an individual plan for every teacher and to provide support so that failure is almost impossible.

Try this:

  • Embed professional development into every day. Search for ways to replace a teacher’s duty with intensive, specific, professional development to move a teacher from good to great. Quit talking about such things as differentiation, technology integration, and interventions, and expect teachers to put these strategies into action. Once teachers experience positive results, they will undoubtedly change their belief. Remember, as an effective instructional leader, it’s your responsibility to assist and provide support to ensure a positive experience. Otherwise, you both may fail!

Failure to build trust, sooner or later, will build failure.

The best way to build trust is honesty. It is important to be straightforward with every teacher and do for one teacher as you would for any other. Provide support, detailed feedback, and individualized professional development for every teacher. Stretch and challenge every teacher to grow and to put proven strategies into action.  Be sure to commend teachers when risks are taken, mistakes are made, and lessons are learned.

If you can create conditions in which students, teachers, and principals all hold themselves accountable for student learning in some capacity, failure is almost impossible.


  1. Gordon Myers said:

    What can be done about the fact that teachers, parents and students are so busy (distracted) by so many things that they simply cannot bring themselves to take the time to do anything substantial to make that positive change, one that will actually last.
    Excuses are getting more transparent… no time, therefore not able to focus and so no expected change. This is what it is going to look like in the foreseeable future.

    January 22, 2014
    • Lisa McNeill said:

      The only constant is change. Change is a part of our world and we, as educators and citizens of the world, must accept and embrace this. Time is precious and it is up to the school, teacher, principal, and parents to foster the understanding that the student’s growth and achievement is directly related to where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. This partnership is profound and necessary! Taking the approach of “they have so many excuses” is setting up all for failure. We know that there are competing interests that are sometimes more appealing to the immediate, but we must always remember our roles to create and maintain an environment that is conducive to them being successful regardless of the competition surrounding them.

      February 9, 2014
  2. I can only imagine the feeling that a parent can no longer do anything to change a situation. “It’s out of our hands” are words that might sound like defeat. But from a Christian perspective, those are actually words of surrender. And yes, there is a BIG difference between defeat and surrender. 1 Peter 5:6 refers to casting our every care upon God for He cares for us. The moment we start seeing signs that someone’s behavior is too much for us to handle, we need to lift that person up to the throne of grace and ask God to intervene. And He will if we are willing to acknowledge His power, His wisdom, and His compassion. Nothing, absolutely nothing is too hard for Him. When we admit our helplessness and proclaim His greatness, that’s when He steps in and does His perfect work. But our job is to wait on Him and be of good courage. Don’t fret, that only causes harm. Don’t panic, and don’t make rash, highly emotional decisions. Commit this person into God’s mighty, loving hands and invite Him to glorify Himself in this person’s life and in this difficult situation.

    January 22, 2014
  3. Curtis Alston said:

    I really appreciate this article. I am a first year Principal and have struggled with balancing the time to be present in the classrooms and completing required paperwork which takes up most of my time. I used to ascribe to the position of not taking work home but mad now understanding if I am going to be a great Principal, I must devote more time to focused and purposeful classroom visits and constant engagement with teachers and students.it seems sometimes teachers get nervousness when I walk in the room and move around the classroom observing students. Many of them stop teaching and askif I need something. I tell them I am just visiting and doing my rounds. Also, because I am in an elementary school, the students get distracted by my visit and want to talk or show me their work. I don’t want to disrupt the lesson but I do want to spend time watching students learn and teachers facilitate that learning. Does anyone have any suggestions to address this issue? It is hard to bring work home because I have a young family that also requires enormouse amounts of my time.by the time I finish entertaining them I am exhausted and not much work gets done.

    January 22, 2014
    • I tell the staff that I expect to be in the classrooms and ask them not to stop when I enter. I tell them if I do need to ask a question, etc. that I will let them know. Otherwise, I am there to observe.

      January 22, 2014
    • shawn.blankenship@piedmontschools.org said:

      Thanks Curtis for your honest comment. I agree, it’s tough to find balance and I find bringing work home often results in…. my work just going for a ride. Once I get home, I want to be with my wife and kids.

      What has worked for me is getting to school early when no one’s around. This eliminates distractions and I can accomplish a lot. When the clock strikes 7:00 a.m., your entire day’s agenda may be out the window, however, you have already accomplished “a lot.” I also do not leave until everything is in place for the next day. I do not want to spend valuable time searching for things . I have everything laid out ready for a seamless transition from yesterday. Make sense?

      Frequent classroom visits are a must. If you are being a distraction to students or the teacher is nervous or stopping her instruction, this is an indicator that your visits are not frequent enough. I have been a teacher for many years and my principal was in my classroom a minimum of 3 times a week. My students or I had no idea when she was in the room because it was a part of the culture of the building. I have experienced much the same as a principal.

      Start by clearing your calendar for one or two mornings a week. Start on one end of the building and make your way to the other end, visiting every classroom. I do not know the size of your school, but I bet it could be done in 2 hours or less. Soon, your teachers will be inviting you into their classrooms! The next step will be providing valuable feedback to your teachers and checking for student learning.

      You can do it! Stay connected, Shawn

      January 23, 2014
      • Curtis Alston said:

        Thanks Shawn. I will try this. This site is a great resource for us newbies

        January 23, 2014
      • Rosary Horne said:

        Those are great suggestions, Shawn. I would also like to share this observation: your teachers and students may be distracted by your presence because your predecessor may not have been making those valuable visits into classrooms. Over time and with consistency on your part, your staff and students will come to understand and trust those visits as your way to stay on top of instruction and learning and to support both.
        I also bring much work home, sometimes just for the ride. One strategy that has helped me is to take just one or two things home, rather than a full bag. Then I know that I can still devote time to my family and get much needed rest, with a more manageable task or tasks to complete before I call it a night.

        Good luck to you, Curtis!


        January 25, 2014
      • sblankenship said:

        Thanks Rosary for sharing your knowledge and expertise and for contributing to the discussion. Your strategy of prioritizing and bringing home one or two things is a strategy I plan to implement on Monday. Thank you so much for sharing.


        January 25, 2014
    • Dr. Hoover said:

      The more you’re in the classrooms, the less they will see you. Perhaps the previous administrator visited very little so this is new to them. As far as the balance, the following helps me.
      1. When someone calls for me, my secretary tells the caller that I am very interested in whatever the situation is but that I typically return calls after the children have gone for the day. You can’t get these minutes back.
      2. I have a bag that often travels with me. I choose a place to complete what I MUST complete and do it from a classroom. Sometimes I observe while working, sometimes I do not. If the teachers need feedback from every lesson/visit, I pick up on one thing that I like and write “great writing center” on her board before I leave.
      3. Make a list of necessary tasks before you leave the day before.
      4. Do as much in the summer as possible. Examples include creating your plan of the week in the summer. Dates can always be adjusted. Also, my email client is able to schedule emails to be sent at a later date. This is helpful.
      5. TECHNOLOGY- use it to save time. Example….if I need to request a date from each grade level I will email the chairperson of each grade to request the date. The time saver is requesting they place the name of the event and the grade level in the RE. When they email me a date I can click on it and the event is added to my calendar of my iphone and ipad immediately.
      6. Hold people to the schedule!!!! Plan out walthroughs, meetings, etc. If someone comes early, remind them of the correct time. YOUR TIME IS TOO PRECIOUS!
      7. Delegate and HOLD THEM TO IT!

      January 29, 2014
    • Rob Leis said:

      When I began my first job as an elementary principal, I warned my teachers that I would be in their classrooms every day. The first day of school in my first year, I was in each classroom. I did not go to evaluate or write notes of improvement, only to see what students were doing and how teachers were teaching. That was seven years ago, I still try to make it into each classroom every day. The students look up at me when I walk in, but now it is more like they would look when someone is returning from the restroom or library. To them, I am as much a part of the class as the teacher. Most teachers just smile and keep going, some never even look in my direction, but I have been assured they appreciate my presence. I would urge you to go into each classroom daily, walk around the room, sit down with a group of students, and let the students and teachers know you care about what is going on in the classroom. It will not be easy to find the time, especially if you are in a large building like mine, but I feel it will be the most rewarding part of the day. By the way, never give a kindergarten student a hug when you enter his or her room, the other 20+ will come running expecting their hugs. Trust me, you never want to upset a kindergarten teacher. Visit classrooms, have fun with the students, and enjoy your time in the best occupation possible.

      January 30, 2014
      • sblankenship said:

        “To them (students), I am as much a part of the class as the teacher.”

        Wow Rob, well said! This one line says so much about your priorities as a school leader, the culture of your school, and the trust you have built amount your faculty.

        Well done, Shawn

        January 30, 2014
  4. Elaine Phinney said:

    We live in a world that demands our acceptance of rapid change. Fortunately the majority of my staff understand this and I try to model for them every day. I love the lunch and learn idea. I might actually get to eat! I have personally been working on making frequent informal visits with a purpose, but I disagree with being at the front of the room. Taking a small group to read with, differentiating on the spot for a special needs child, asking students what their goals are and their learning objective for the day, this is the type of personal professional practice I am leaning towards. I must admit the frequency of my feedback often takes the form of hallway conversations. I could be more diligent here.

    January 22, 2014
    • Shawn Blankenship said:

      Thank you Elaine for taking the time to comment. I love the “personal professional practice” that you are doing in order to build strong relationships with your students and to provide more one-on-one intense instruction. This strategy can make a big impact within your school.

      “Front of the room” versus the “back of the room.” My intention was to express the need to shift our focus from a focus on teaching… to a laser-like focus on student learning. We all know that engagement is a precondition to learning. In other words, if students are not engaged, they are not learning. In my conversations with outstanding teachers such as Pernille Ripp, Bill Ferriter and Josh Stumpenhorst, they all tell me the same thing: I want the principal to watch the students and give me feedback regarding engagement and understanding.

      I do realize that we can learn much from anywhere in the room and depending on the purpose of the visit, the place in the room may vary.

      Now that I think about it, the best place just may be….. smack dab in the middle of the learning.

      Thanks again for commenting and stay connected. Shawn

      January 23, 2014
  5. Firstly, this is the first time I have ever blogged in my life. LOL…I live rurally and do not get any Rogers cable networking either. It is a good life! LOL
    I too am part of a small school and the school family of staff are more than familiar with my presence in the classroom and my questions about areas of our school improvement plan but I frame questions so easily as soon as I get a chance to look at that student work. I have to show my struggling with the challenges of teaching math through problem solving so that my anxious teachers, leaving a traditional teaching stance for a relatively nouveau “learning ” stance, are okay to share this same uncomfortable zone of learning themselves. I ask about the exceptional learner in the classroom who I know is trying their best to learn despite a learning exceptionality such as Communication, Mild Intellecutal Disability, Developmental Delay Disability, etc.
    Our job as principal requires the ability and skill set to just as effectively, manage the school and the buliding itself. Our job as principal being the instructional leader was more than likely the carrot that tempted us to pursue the position. It is always a balancing act between the two demands of the job and one that we do well.

    Doing it with a sense of humour is important as well…the balancing of our approach as education leaders……well, a bit of yoga and stretching may take us right to the finish line.

    Thanks for this supervision of instruction article which has me finally concluding that we may want to look at our roles as being a facilitator of instruction….knowing we do indeed validate the teaching of our students but with the awareness always that as principals, we do this in tandem with the professional judgement and evidence of the many great teachers we have on staff.
    Good night, it is way past 3:00 pm!

    January 23, 2014
  6. Anne Marie Duncan said:

    Very apropos article. I enjoy teaching the students, so I give my teachers a block to work on another endeavour, while I teach their students. This does many good things. Staff have more time to work on school improvement goals, while I get to see what their students can do. I then know better how to support both my staff and the students.
    I endeavoured this year to have a half-hour meeting with each staff member in each term, with the focus being on them, progress toward their Annual Learning Plans, and how I can best support them.

    January 26, 2014
    • Shawn Blankenship said:

      “I get to see what their students can do. I then know better how to support both my staff and the students.” – Anne Marie Duncan

      I believe as principals, it is important to stay connected to the classroom for many reasons and one big reason is definitely to learn what students know and are able to do. As you state, we now have the knowledge to know what and how we can support both our teachers and students.

      I do this very thing, however, instead of my teachers working on improvement goals (we have time built into our schedule for this) my teachers are able to visit other teacher’s classrooms. I’ve often thought about how much more of an effective teacher I would be now that I know what I know from being in classrooms. I have learned so many effective strategies and I am trying to find ways to get teachers into classrooms so they can learn these things too.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment and for sharing a great and effective idea.

      January 26, 2014
  7. Rich said:

    I afraid that if a principal expects change by just writing an action plan and following up, he/she may miss the mark. The most effective principals that I have worked with are the ones who give the teachers unbiased facts/observations and then help the teacher discover that changes need to be made. The teacher might have some great ideas that they were afraid to implement.

    Once they believe in the need for change, they will be open to the principals suggestions and action plan. In my 20 years in education, I have met very few teachers who do not have their students’ best interests in mind. If a change can be proven to increase student achievement, most teachers will be happy to change their practices.

    January 27, 2014
    • sblankenship said:

      Rich, thanks for taking the time to read and verify what best principals do differently. I could not agree with you more. Principals must do much more than simply expect. They must be willing to answer relevant questions such as “why?” change must happen. Principals must be willing to put themselves in vulnerable positions and teach/model while the teacher observes. Follow-up may be the most important step and many principals leave this significant process out. Follow-up allows the teacher to reflect on his/her practice as well as ask questions.

      However, your statement, “Once they believe in the need for change” I do disagree with. It can take years for a teacher to change their belief. However, a change in behavior first, many times, will lead to a change in belief.

      Take a look at this post: http://connectedp.wpengine.com/archives/5876
      “A little assistance and a new way of learning can prepare educators to thrive in the ever changing environment that we face every day.” – Shawn Blankenship

      January 27, 2014
  8. Cris Blackstone said:

    It’s really comfortable when I enter a classroom and have been there often enough or the teacher is comfortable and confident enough that the tone and temperment in the classroom and amongst the students and teacher doesn’t change one iota!

    February 1, 2014
  9. Edward G Gallegos said:

    Great article & discussions! We are never too old to learn whether we’re a newbie or a veteran! Thanks for sharing!

    February 8, 2014

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