Beautiful Music

While I have not done any real, substantive research into this etymology, I understand that the term “principal” comes from “principal teacher.” Like a principal violinist or principal trumpet in a symphonic orchestra. I am a principal. I consider myself to be a part of the body of players with instruments. Yet, I am often likened to the conductor or director. Such is why I strongly prefer the title of principal – it reminds me everyday that I am amongst the musicians with instruments in hand. While I see the conductor or director of an orchestra as an accomplished musician, there is something different about standing up front, facing a different direction, and waving a wand rather than a wielding a stringed instrument, a woodwind, or piece of brass. Yes, I am a principal…teacher. A principal…learner. A principal…educator.

Consequently, I feel a visceral reaction rising from within me when I hear things that imply or directly name “us” and “them” thinking. Recently, a colleague of mine sent me a tweet (with no intent to incite, I am certain) that made reference to “admin” and “faculty” participating in something together, and I responded with this…

However, at the same time, I empathetically understand the thinking that “my principal evaluates me, so he/she is not really ‘one of us.'” I will not give up the career objective, though, to “be one of us”…co-teacher, co-learner, co-educator. I want to be in the band with the faculty. I am a (principal) teacher, a (principal) learner, a (principal) educator.

In my efforts to break down this industrial, hierarchical, twentieth-century, mental model of “us” and “them,” I believe that the way principals conduct (ironic, I realize) observations is critical. The shortest, most concise summary of my thinking on this issue comes from Kim Marshall’s extraordinary article, It’s Time to Rethink Teacher Supervision and Evaluation. If you have not read the article, I encourage you to do so. I think it is profoundly powerful. Here’s a hook that I hope grabs you: 

The theory of action behind supervision and evaluation is that they will improve teacherseffectiveness and therefore boost student achievement.1 This assumption seems logical. But the vignettes above raise a troubling question: what if the theory is wrong? This article takes a close look at this possibility and explores an alternative theory of action.

Marshall listed and explained 10 reasons why the traditional model of supervision and evaluation is ineffective:
1. Principals evaluate only a tiny amount of teaching.
2. Microevaluations of individual lessons don’t carry much weight.
3. The lessons that principals evaluate are often atypical.
4. Isolated lessons give an incomplete picture of instruction.
5. Evaluation almost never focuses on student learning.
6. High-stakes evaluation tends to shut down adult learning.
7. Supervision and evaluation reinforce teacher isolation.
8. Evaluation instruments often get in the way.
9. Evaluations often fail to give teachers “judgmental” feedback.
10. Most principals are too busy to do a good job on supervision and evaluation.

As Marshall transitioned from describing the problems and shortcomings to detailing the practices that can actually improve instruction and learning, he wrote:  

Ive argued that the theory of action behind supervision and evaluation is flawed and that the conventional process rarely changes what teachers do in their classrooms. Here is an alternative theory: The engine that drives high student achievement is teacher teams working collaboratively toward common curriculum expectations and using interim assessments to continuously improve teaching and attend to students who are not successful. Richard DuFour, Mike Schmoker, Robert Marzano, Douglas Reeves, Jeffrey Howard, Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, and others believe that this approach is a critical element in high achievement. I agree, but with a proviso: if a school adopts this theory, it must change the way teachers are supervised and evaluated. If it doesnt, the principal wont have the time, energy, and insight to get the engine started and monitor it during each school year. 

Then, Marshall provided a set of bullet-points, on page 732 of the Phi Delta Kappan article, that significantly define what I strive to accomplish in my principalship – a philosophy in short order, rather than a checklist. Moreover, he created 12 steps to linking supervision and evaluation to high school achievement:
1. Make sure the basics are in place.
2. Decide on the irreducible elements of good teaching.
3. Systematically visit all classrooms on a regular basis.
4. Give teachers prompt, face-to-face feedback after every classroom visit.
5. Require teacher teams to develop common unit plans and assessments.
6. Require teams to give common interim assessments.
7. Have teams report on student learning after each unit or quarter.
8. Arrange for high-quality feedback on lessons for teachers.
9. Create a professional learning culture in the school.
10. Use short observation visits to write teachers’ final evaluations.
11. Include measures of student learning gains in teachers’ evaluations.
12. Use a rubric to evaluate teachers.

While I do not believe in or adhere to a rigid, all-points adoption of Marshall’s 12 step plan, I have tried to serve in my role as principal teacher by doing the following as overarching goals and action steps:

1. Create a culture of collaboration.

Since the 2007-08 academic year, the Westminster Junior High School has embarked on a journey to provide job-embedded, collaborative teaming for 100% of the faculty. Over this multi-year process, we are currently providing formalized teaming opportunities for 42 of the 74 teaching faculty. I hope to provide such for everyone in the Junior High, but it just takes time. Each year, we try to increase the number, the percentage, and the opportunity. And our model is agressive – a built-in period for teaming that mimics the student schedule for learning. Because student classes meet for 55-minutes a day, 4-days a week, so do the “teacher classes.”

When we only had one formalized PLC, I attended everyday as a co-learner, a co-participant. Now that we have five formalized PLCs in the Junior High, I am unable to attend every meeting, everyday. So, I schedule a minimumof one team meeting per PLC per week. Consequently, I am able to hear the planning and strategizing of the teams. I am able to participate in their discussions of the 4 Big Questions (1. What should students learn?, 2. How will we know if students have learned?, 3. What will we do if students already know it?, and 4. What will we do if students are not learning it?). I wish I could fill my schedule with ALL of the team meetings! Participating with my orchestra is the richest time of my week. These teachers are extraordinary, and I learn more about teaching and learning from these team meetings than from any other professional development in which I facilitate or participate. Collaboration is essential, and it enables me to know what people are thinking and learning. And it allows others to know about what I am thinking and learning. We develop relationships with those with whom we spend time talking. And at its core, teaching and learning are relational. First and foremost – RELATIONAL. Building relationships demands collaboration. An administrator worth his or her salt will work tirelessly to make such collaboration the norm rather than the exception.

2. Create more opportunity for conversations about teaching and learning.

On this front, the Junior High School has undertaken a multi-pronged re-envisioning as part of the developing Faculty Assessment and Annual Review Plan. To increase opportunites to talk about our teaching and learning, we have engaged in peer visits for more than six years now. [There is an interesting story here for another blog post.] Systemically, we have opened our doors in order to break down the isolating nature of teaching in an “egg crate culture.” Peer visits can occur between two faculty members, but we have also provided for instructional rounds, so that teams of teachers can enlist multiple lenses for feedback and discussion about teaching and learning practices. Additionally, we begin each year setting goals and engaging in self-assessment. With these reflections, we talk together about our aspirations and plans to reach them. I always send out my reflections to faculty, and I enjoy conferences with each and every faculty about their reflections. Until this year, all of these conferences occurred with individual faculty members. Now, teams can conference together with me about their team and individual goals. Faculty also collect student-course feedback. A faculty committee designed a process that has guided our programmatic inquiry of students’ perceptions about what and how they are learning. As principal, I use a similar model for my own evaluation, and I always share the results of this annual collection of feedback with the faculty.

Ideally, all of these pieces should work together as a whole system to enhance the conversations we are having about our teaching and learning. And our plan is a formative assessment plan for growth and development more than for purposes of evaluation. If engaged in the spirit with which this system is designed, the Faculty Assessment and Annual Review Plan is meant to work as an ongoing system of practicing and scrimmaging. For such is the universal method of learning and growing.

3. Create an understanding that the administrators are learning, too!

 As learners, don’t we prefer to have things done with us, instead of having things done to us? In the old model of teacher supervision and evaluation that Marshall wrote about, administrators were failing in large part because they were doing supervision and evaluation TO teachers instead of WITH teachers.

On Wednesday of this past week, I was given a rare gift. Two sets of regular weekly meetings were canceled, and I found myself with four hours of windfall-profit time. What did I do with this time? I learned. I tried to practice some of the observational tactics suggested by Marshall, and I tried to get wrapped up even further with being the principal teacher, the principal learner, the principal educator.

From 8:15 a.m. until about 11:30 a.m., I practiced some mini-observations. Here was my process:
1. Take my iPad and my Flip camera and find a classroom. Prioritize classrooms of teachers who sit in formalized PLCs.
2. Spend 10-15 minutes observing in the classroom, take some notes using Quick Office on the iPad, and record a 30-90 second video.
3. Go to the next classroom.
4. After three mini-observations, use Box to transfer iPad notes to the “cloud” so I could pick them up from my office PC. Return to my office for a “download” and sharing of feedback. Copy and paste my notes into an email, transfer the video to my PC, and attach the video to the email. Send the three emails to the individual teachers and copy the department chair and the dean of faculty.
5. Start the next round of three mini-observations.

During the morning, I observed 11 teachers in 10 classes. More than anything, I practiced a new method of observation that I think complements Marshall’s article and our developing Junior High culture better than my previous methodology. When the morning concluded, I had provided immediate feedback to 11 teachers…teachers with whom I regularly sit in team meetings. There was past context and collaboration for the observations. They were part of the system. Also, I had a master document of all the observation notes, and I produced a Camtasia video of all the observations together.

I sent the following request to the observed teachers:

Dear All:
THANK YOU! This morning I was able to visit 10 classes and 11 faculty in three class periods. I appreciate you letting me come in quietly and stay for about 10-15 minutes. You had no idea I was coming, and I used a Flip video camera without prior explanation, and you seemed nonplused. By now, you should have received my brief notes and any video I shot in your room (BC and AG are exceptions because of our decision for me to return later when the sun would cooperate).
I want to make sure that you know these types of visits are NON-EVALUATIVE. They are as much about my learning as anything, as we continue to develop our Faculty Assessment Plan, which is intended to be formative assessment. I try to offer observations, not judgements, as I attempt to provide another set of eyes and ears for you so that YOU can reflect on your practice with more data and feedback. I welcome any questions/feedback from you about the helpfulness (or lack thereof) of the notes and the video.
NOW THE REQUEST: I hope you will consider letting me share the observation video, at the least. I have compiled the smaller videos into an unedited, complete video of my morning. Also, I hope you will consider an additional request of allowing me to share the observation notes as a one-document transcript. Of course, from the earlier emails, you know I have shared already with [the Dean of Faculty] and your Dept Chair. However, I would like to share the video, and perhaps the notes, with the full ALT (Academic Leadership Team) and FAAR (Faculty Assessment and Annual Review task force). We have studied Kim Marshall’s article about rethinking classroom observation (attached if you get interested), and I am trying to learn more about how this type of observation practice could work. I read a lot about various observation methods, and I think we can learn so much from each other by sharing our practices and ideas.
Also, I would like to blog about the morning, but I would not use your real names in any post that I blog.
So, can you let me know:
* Bo can/cannot use my video.
* Bo can/cannot use my portion of the observation-notes transcript.
* Bo can blog about his learning from the morning.
Feel free to talk with others from this group, and take your time (a few days) if you want to think about it. I really appreciate your time and consideration!
Everyone gave me full permission for my requests. THANK YOU! I think we principal teachers can learn so much by sharing our own practices and being more transparent with each other, and particularly with our faculties – the rest of our orchestras. Here’s the resulting video from my morning:


Two things I wish I had done differently:
1. Use some PLC meeting time to have teacher teams establish what they would like for me to concentrate on during my visits – ask the teachers to own the process by giving me my “marching orders.”
2. Set a debrief meeting in which all of the teachers and I watched the collective video together to look for “whole-morning” trends that become apparent when we see all of the sections as one video voyeuristic.

My learning was further enhanced when I read this article, My Students Help Assess My Teaching. Threads of the same tapestry seemed to come together. Can we eventually use the excellent “look fors” in the article as a way to study such mini-observations together? There is real possibility here, I believe.

If you have read this far, bless you. This post is concluding in a place that I did not anticipate when I started. Probably, I would be better off to press “Save Draft” and to return later to polish the writing as a coherent, cohesive whole. But I am ready to push “Publish.” Writing is thinking, and I am ready to think out loud so that, hopefully, others will think with me. I hope that my own faculty might read this “thinking out loud post” and offer comment. I hope that other teachers and principal teachers will survive the 2600+ words and offer comment. For I am a principal teacher, a principal learner, a principal educator. And I don’t have all the answers. But I am interested in playing with my orchestra of fellow teachers, learners, and educators.

Together, we can make
beautiful music.

11 thoughts on “Beautiful Music

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  4. From a dear friend and colleague…and an extraordinary school administrator…via email (too good for others not to benefit from)

    Hi Bo,

    I promised myself that on the next snow day I would respond to your recent
    post on ” It’s About Learning.” I am a faithful reader of your vlog and
    I enjoy reading your thoughts and learning from your posts. As you can
    imagine your recent post struck a chord with me (apologies for the pun).
    The 18 inches came and I don’t have to be at school until 1:00.

    I agree with so many aspets of your post. I, too, believe in creating an
    atmosphere in the school where I am the principal teacher and learner. It
    has taken time to garner this respect. I consider my time teaching in the
    classroom, assemblies, faculty mettings, etc to be some of the most
    impotant leading I do. Credibility in a school is extremely important and
    hard for the new kid on the block to gain.

    As you know, I have played in many orchestras around the country and the
    worst musical experience always happens when the orchestra does not
    respect the musical abilities of the leader. If the conductor is not a
    high-quality performer, the orchestra knows it right away and can be
    brutal on the leader. The best orchestras I have played in are ones in
    which the conductor takes a personal interest in the performers. He (sorry
    it is almost always a “he”) knows everyone by name, plays chamber music
    with members, motivates the players to be their best in a non-threatening
    way, and is inspiring in the process. The end result can often be

    Unfortunately, these experiences are often few and far between. Today,
    most musicians work as part of a union. From the first note, the “us vs.
    them” relationship is firmly established. Conductors are rarely able to
    critique the performance of individual players, one extra minute of
    practice triggers hundreds of dollars of overtime pay, and the “rules” of
    playing in an orchestra now often comprise an entire book of regulations.
    I have been on both sides if the podium. The beauty of making music is
    often lost in the battle of the organization. The similarities to a school
    are staggering.

    In my school, I have focussed on building relationships with the teacher.
    When we are all working on the common goal of improving student learning
    the “orchestra” sounds great. Teachers are willing to hear feedback from
    me and their peers. Our common purpose is an exciting and unifying theme.
    It is very similar to all the bows in the orchestra moving in the same
    direction. The bows signify everyone submitting to the music. I wish I
    could say we are all working well together all the time, but there is a
    definite continuum here and gives me something to always strive for.

    I hope all is well with you and your family. Give me a call sometime… Or
    let’s meet for lunch in NYC some day.

    Have a great day.

    Sent from FirstClass with my iPad

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  6. Two things about being the conductor and a player.

    If you watch our own a capella groups, the leader participates and leads. Sometimes, the leadership is shared to leverage the strengths of the individuals.

    While he is considered unorthodox, doesn’t Ben Zander perform and play with his orchestra? For me, he demonstrates joy and a sense of play. He turns and faces the audience; he interacts. He engages with his musicians as their leader and a teammate.

    I think the walk-through idea is great. Capturing 60 seconds of video offers anyone watching another window into our learning environment and experience.

    I also love that you document your reasons, thinking, and actions concerning PLCs and the faculty assessment and annual review plan. You have been given a curriculum to teach; you have determined the learning targets, and you offered them in another form for your co-learners/co-teachers.

    Isn’t the principal teacher’s work the same as any other teacher’s work? Particularly in the 21st century; this is a place of learning. We should learn together.

    We need our principal to model for us. There is much talk about 21st Century Teaching and Learning. Bo, I appreciate that you actively engage in the learning process. Thank you for writing to learn, to see what you think. And thank you for sharing.

  7. Great post. I love the idea of the principal teacher as leading experimentation. If the principal does it, it makes it feel safe for the rest of the orchestra, too. If I have a routine that seems to work, and if I’m not in a culture of exploration and experimentation, then what motivation do I have to push and grow and change based on what the students in my room actually need from me? Tangentially, I really love the idea of the video montage of classrooms… as a teacher, I don’t have much extra time to go do too many classroom visitations. Of course, I have time to do some visits, and I can make the choice to engage colleagues in dialogue about how their classroom work. But, a montage like this lets me see snipets and pull ideas… feel different energies, see other approaches, etc. Ironicially, even as a teacher, the idea of being “evaluated” makes me very nervous… especially when it is my principal doing the evaluation. I will admit that my knee jerk reaction to being evaluated is to make sure I have the “perfect” lesson planned… one where I look polished and in control… one where every transition is seemless and goes according to my pre-planned powerpoint. But, that’s not actually how my day-to-day classes typically flow. If we have a culture of community, back-and-forth, collaboration.. then I can see every observation as a chance to grow and learn. In that case the observations from my prinicpal become the visits from the teacher with the most broad-based vision. I really appreciate the Marshall article pointing out that the goal of supervision (as with everything we are doing in schools) is to keep the focus is on student achievement. I was recently observed by our Dean of Faculty. The class was “messy”. As I started to apologize to him after the class, he simply asked “was there learning today?” I knew there had been. Immediately, I was set at ease. There was learning. He had some great suggestions to offer after that opening as things for me to consider that might futher facilitate that learning. That experience left me excited for the next observation. Thanks for the great post and to all the teachers who let you share the videos and the process.

  8. Bo:

    Very thoughtful and comprehensive. You work through the question you raised in a scholarly way and make a good case to advocate for yourself as “one of the team” or the “principal teacher.” I actually find anything in your argument to take issue with, although not is not really what you are asking for. One thought does occur to me. From my understanding of music, every orchestra needs a conductor or director. I think it has to be someone standing somewhere who can listen to all the pieces, putting the sounds together, listening for all the harmonies and structures, making sure they are fitting together as the composer intended, and finally giving it the certain twist that is the orchestra’s footprint.

    So, if that is the case, and if the analogy of the orchestra to the faculty is a valid one, then who is the conductor if the principal is one of the team, one of the players. Who watches from 10,000 feet to be sure that the whole thing is playing “beautiful music’ or excellent learning environmentS.

    Is this the principal? If so, can the principal be a conductor and a player simultaneously. Maybe not in a orchestra, but I think in a school the person could. The school doesn’t necessarily have the final production, it is always in rehearsal and production simultaneously (I think).

    In my view you can be a conductor and a team member at the same time. Of course, it all assumes that your players can distinguish the one you in both roles. Cut you some slack when you have to say to the strings that they are not in unison with the woodwinds.

    Anyway, I liked you post. It is going down an important path. I hope my comments are helpful.

    Bob Ryshke

  9. Just discovered, thanks to feedback from a colleague, that one segment of video is plagued with double audio tracks. Will fix that ASAP. Mistakes help us learn, n’est pas?!

    Also, I wish I had included the following ideas in the original post:

    * Principal teachers should promote healthy experimentation to aid in that enhanced collaboration and conversation about teaching and learning. My team’s experimentation with the #20minwms project is the most recent, best example. I am a participant in a great idea! All I really had to do was say, “Of course, we should try that.”

    * Principal teachers should collect lots of data with faculty about our own practices. We are using Survey Monkey and Poll Everywhere to do this regularly within and between meetings, and the results inform future practice, as formative assessment should.

    * Responding to faculty blog posts, tweets, etc. is a great means by which to keep a “conversation” going. I believe principal teachers (and most, if not all, admin) should be contributing to the blog-osphere and twitter-sphere.

    Such is the organic nature of genuine learning, and the wonder of accepting that writing is thinking…thinking that should always be “in draft” and never really considered in “final form.”

    • Many thanks to those who have commented already. You have provided me with some great things to think about so that I can deepen my understanding of this conductor-player role that shapes a principal teacher and a faculty. I am a big fan of “both/and” thinking, so I will ponder the comments and post more later.

      Video is repaired – audio track for J.T. segment fixed.

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