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Discussion - New Roles for Iowa's School Principals

posted on February 2, 2011 at 3:55 PM

As society changes so must our schools. What worked a generation ago may not work today. Joining us to explore what needs to be done and how to do it are some Iowa educators.

Dr. Troyce Fisher is director of the Wallace School Leadership Grant with the School Administrators of Iowa. She has 40 years of experience in education. Dr. Vincent Lewis has been principal for 17 years with the last seven years at North High School in Des Moines.

Also on the program is Ben Johnson, he's newer to his position, he has spent three years as an assistant high school principal in Fort Dodge.

Yeager: First of all, Illinois and Iowa are geographically not that far apart, next to each other.  How different is The Principal Story to what goes on in your school?

Lewis: Well, I think it's very similar.  We have students who come to us with issues, we have students who have incidences that occur in their life and they bring them to school and we as educational leaders must help our students to focus on their future by focusing on their education now and helping to understand that we understand that they have some troublesome things going on outside of their lives but here today in school we're going to focus on their achievements and doing better here in school now.

Yeager: That's the story at North.  What about at Fort Dodge?  What is it like?  Is it similar to what we saw there?

Johnson: I think that across the whole country we're faced in a situation where we have students less motivated, a lot of other baggage that they are bringing in and we as leaders are having to have the conversation not only with the students, parents and the community but with our teachers as how do we re-tool for the 21st century to have the focus on the skills that are necessary as well as meeting not only their academic but their social, their emotional and their behavioral growth?

Yeager: When you got into being a principal or at least thought you were going to be a principal was that what you thought you would be doing?

Johnson: To be honest the reason I got in is to look at the instructional leadership issues but there's a lot of managerial things that go along with that and it's a trick to balance between those.

Yeager: 40 years of juggling tricks, you were a teacher at Grundy Center before and then have been an administrator since then.  Where you started to now are we seeing some of the same issues in the classroom?

Fisher: I think we have seen an acceleration of many of the issues that before perhaps a few kids entertained or exhibited and now it's a lot more intense.  We also have the net generation.  It's a very different world for them and technology has speeded up all of the interactions between kids and kids are connected in all kinds of ways on social networks and their experiences outside of school can be different than the ones inside school and so we have to help to connect those and keep the learning meaningful for them.

Yeager: You mentioned in previous discussions about technology has changed, that was kind of the big thing always adjusting to in schools and you talk about technology the students are facing outside.  Are those some of those new challenges?

Fisher: They are.  We have new challenges in terms of what is expected of them once they graduate.  Before our graduates in Iowa, the majority of them did not need to be using their minds to make a living and now that is just completely turned opposite.  But if kids are going to have a successful future as learners, earners and citizens we need to have them all think in high levels.  Before we depended on a few to be the thinkers and everybody else the workers and with globalization, with outsourcing, it is a very different world we're preparing kids for.

Yeager: We're going to get into that here in a moment but first we want to look at another school, we want to look at another situation because I want to talk about some of these issues so I don't want to give it all away but we do need to move on for a closer look at exactly how some other schools are doing this and one of those is in Tiffin, it's called the School Administration Manager Project, it's referred to as SAM or SAMS.

(Pause here for video segment)

Yeager: We're back now with our panel in studio, Troyce Fisher is here, also Vincent Lewis and Ben Johnson.  You do not have SAMS at North, neither at Fort Dodge, but would SAMS benefit you at North?

Lewis: Well, yes, I think that all of us as principals need to be, we are educational leaders and we need to help ourselves to re-train, to get out from behind the desk more and in the classrooms more.  It is good for us to be in the classroom, it's good for the students to see that we care enough about them that we are going to be in the classroom assuring that what they are doing is quality and also the teachers in the classroom helping them to know that we are there to support them in their teaching, support them, know what they are doing, provide assistance, provide material, help them in any way that they can so that they can teach the best they can possibly teach and students can learn to their fullest capability.

Yeager: What about Principal Fox there said when he first did an evaluation 18% instructional, 80% management.  Any idea what your time breakdown is?

Lewis: I would be worried about finding out what my time was.  I like to think that I'm in the classroom a significant amount of time but in reality we often times get bogged down with the minutia of paperwork during the school day.  I would prefer to do that between 6:00 and 7:00 and between 4:00 and 6:00 rather than during the time that the students are there.

Yeager: What about you?  Would SAMS work at Fort Dodge?

Johnson: Yes, absolutely.  I think one of the key things is the relationship that exists between the principal and SAMS, that you can see there is a relationship that exists, you have someone who desires to be a lead learner and an instructional leader for their school and when you have that then they're willing to give up some of those traditional rules in order to take on the paramount challenge of student achievement.

Yeager: That's always on everybody's mind, that's what educators are there to do.  Troyce, you kind of touched on it a little bit, who are the principals there for?  Are they there for the students or are they there for the teachers to help them?

Fisher: Yes and yes.  It's primarily that they are there for the students I think but we know through research that the most significant factor in increasing student achievement is the quality of a teacher.  The second most significant factor is the quality of principal.  And unless those two adults work in concert with the other adults in the building we won't have a consistent system of delivering quality education.  That's what kids need most now.  We've got to decrease the variation, we've got to make sure that the kinds of classroom experiences they have are regular, that really demand something of them and are relevant to their lives.  I think that's a huge key.

Yeager: You touched on it a little bit in the last discussion we had and it's that discussion of who are you teaching to, government demands or what the job market is demanding?  How do you juggle that in the curriculum?

Fisher: Well, that's always the tension I think but I believe schools have three responsibilities.  One is to develop learners because right now the statistics say that the kids who are graduating this next year, 90% of them ten years from now will be in jobs that don't exist.  So, we have to prepare them to learn how to learn.  Our schools, our whole public school system was built on the promise that we can't have a democracy unless we have an educated electorate and educated kids who eventually become adults who participate.  So, we've got the citizens dimension and that involves quality relationships as well and you saw some of that in the excerpt of The Principal Story where the principal was talking about all the baggage that some kids come to school with and Ben mentioned social, emotional needs that we need to help kids with and then there is the whole earner part which is preparing them for a new economy.

Yeager: How do you balance that with some of your students, Vincent?

Lewis: Very carefully, we try to address what is most prominent.  Sometimes when students come to us with some social needs that are preventing them from learning to their fullest capability there are a number of community agencies as well as agencies within our schools and services that we can assist them to address those social needs first so that we can get to the learning needs.  We need to help our students know that they have potential and there is hope for them for tomorrow.  Sometimes our students come to us and we talk about the baggage that they carry.  We struggle with helping our students to know that they are capable, that there is hope for them, they are college material and it's our job as educators to believe in them, to believe in them sometimes more than they believe in themselves thereby convincing them that they are earners and learners for tomorrow and today.

Yeager: Talking about curriculum, I don't know if that's considered a dirty word when you talk about education because it's always one of those things that is always under discussion, you're always changing it.  How does Fort Dodge or you were in the Cedar Rapids schools before, how is it when you talk about curriculum, a guaranteed, viable curriculum, how is that different from when you went to school?  Is it different or how different is it from when you got to Fort Dodge in the first place three years ago?

Johnson: A guaranteed and viable curriculum is talking about every student is going to have access to the same curriculum so no matter if they are in Miss Smith or Miss Jones' English class they're going to have some of the same experiences, the same chances to grow and that it's viable, it's able to occur within the time period  that is allotted so that is where as educational leaders I think you asked the question, do we allot our time to teachers and students and they're not mutually exclusive.  As a lead learner, instructional leader we need to create opportunities where it is job embedded professional development that is purposeful, intentional and systematic to allow for the teachers to have the skill sets within this 21st century to go into the classrooms and in turn help students not only with student achievement traditionally but within the 21st century schools.

Yeager: There is a part in the documentary where it does talk about one of the principals has a teacher who is failing basically, they have done everything they can to help her and help advance her along.  How do you pass that on to administrators at schools or how do you do that?  How do you deal with a teacher that might not be up to standard of par that you need to have?

Lewis: I don't think anybody goes into a job with the desire to fail and so I as a building administrator my first priority is to help them to be successful, what do you need, what can I do and evaluate them, observe them, give them some feedback, direct them to professional development that may assist them, provide all kinds of structured assistance.  If that does not help and it's just very obvious that the teacher is not doing well in this format or this structure it may not necessarily be that this person is not a quality teacher but they may not be able to reach our group of students.  There may be another group of students some place else that he or she may be better suited for so we have to derive that before we totally reject the person.

Yeager: Has that changed over time in how you evaluate what that teacher -- they would probably work better in a different class or a different school, how has that changed in your years?

Lewis: Well, it has changed because we have more options.  We have a greater diversity of students in different parts of our town.  I know that in our district, in Des Moines Public Schools, we have a large number of students and it's not the same at North as it is on the opposite side of town and so a teacher may be better suited for a different student population on another side of town.  That is not how it has always been.  Often times that a teacher is not successful at one school they probably will not be successful in this field and therefore they are often times without a job.

Yeager: That's teachers, let's talk about students.  Students -- there's a little bit of an achievement gap there.  Ben, how do you address that if there is a student who is labeled or deemed that they have a gap?

Johnson: I think that it's a two-fold answer.  One is there are specific things that occur that you can try and help implement, help a student figure out baseline where they're at, what kind of interventions you can do, what kind of extra help, tutoring, peer tutoring, outside resources as well, accommodations that you can make to help a student.  But the other question is what can you do to engage the student because with engagement you end up having a lot more active learning that is taking place and I think that's where state initiatives through the Department of Education such as intellectual work trying to create a classroom that is far more engaging and meeting the student's needs.

Yeager: Troyce, same question, how do you help the student?

Fisher: I think that what Ben and Vincent said is true.  You personalize the education, you hook them somehow, you make it as relevant as you can and you don't give up on them.  You literally come into this with the attitude we'll do whatever it takes and we won't let you get by with not turning in homework.  Exams aren't it, that's not in our world.

Yeager: You heard the one principal say, she says, I love you students.  That's something that obviously has worked for her.

Fisher: There is a lot of research that shows when a learner or a student knows that he or she is cared for their learning ability goes up and so we work real hard to make sure kids have the sense that there is someone in this school who cares about me, someone who will advocate for me, someone who knows what I do outside of school time, someone I can confide in and when a principal as a lead learner and a person who models that caring comes into that role consistently and says we're not going to tolerate anything less than high citizenship, we care about you, we're not going to let you fail, it would be crazy to do that, that sends a message pretty clearly.

Yeager: We're talking about high expectations, what is wrong with high expectations for your students?

Lewis: Absolutely nothing is wrong with high expectations, we need to have high expectations, realistically high expectations.  We need to help our students to have high expectations of themselves and wherever we set the bar the students will go there.  Unfortunately sometimes we set the bar low because of life circumstances, because of social economic status, because of ethnicity, because of a variety of situations sometimes in the past we have set the bar so low and the students have crawled underneath it and we as educators need and as building principals, as educational managers, educational leaders need to set that bar at a realistic height and help our students to clear that bar very easily and feel very confident about themselves.

Yeager: Will resources help to get to those points and raise those bars and get students over those bars?  What resources are needed to do that?

Lewis: Most definitely, we recently were talking about technology and the student survey clearly indicates that students are not exposed to as much technology as they feel they need.  When we can get to the point where we are asking our students to take out their cell phones to take down notes and to go to this Web site as opposed to put away your cell phones those are the type of resources and technology assistance that will help our students to be engaged and be excited about their education and to achieve at levels beyond even what they thought they could.

Yeager: What resources would help you?

Johnson: A lot of that is technology but one of the things besides technology that I think is really pertinent to education today when talking about in the intellectual world, at work, a relevant and engaging curriculum is also to get business partnerships.  In Fort Dodge we've tried, they have put a large emphasis with trying to pull in businesses, partners to talk about how can we design authentic, real world activities that are engaging to students and I think that is some of the work -- it's a lot of times you can get a checkbook or some money from people but we need time and expertise from people in the field.

Yeager: Troyce, you've got 45 seconds to answer that same question.  That's your quiz.

Fisher: I would answer it this way -- we need time for teachers to learn together, quality professional development, we need resources like technology to enhance and open up our kid's worlds, we need those partnerships that Ben mentioned, we need the public's support, not a price tag, to say our schools do need to change, it's a very different world we're preparing kids for and we support you in making these kinds of changes and I think that kind of support is priceless.

Yeager: I appreciate your time, Dr. Troyce Fisher, she is the director of the Wallace School Leadership Grant for the School Administrators of Iowa.  Next to her on the other side of the table is Ben Johnson, he is an assistant high school principal at Fort Dodge, thank you for coming down tonight.  Also, Vincent Lewis, he has been principal for 17 years, the last seven at North High, appreciate you coming in as well.  Thank you very much for this discussion.

Tags: education educators Iowa principals schools teachers