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Effectively Supervising and Supporting Principals

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Supervising Principals: How Central-Office Administrators Can Improve Teaching and Learning in the Classroom: The Missing Link in Scaling Up School Improvement” by Jon Saphier and Pia Durkin, November 21, 2011, on the Research for Better Teaching website,
In this Research for Better Teaching article, author/consultant Jon Saphier and Massachusetts superintendent Pia Durkin say a key missing link in school improvement is the effective supervision and evaluation of principals. Their theory of action: When principals are supervised well, they get better at improving classroom teaching, which leads directly to higher student achievement.
District administrators who have line authority over principals “may have been successful principals themselves,” say Saphier and Durkin, “but that does not mean they were great coaches of principals or able diagnosticians of another principal’s needs.” In addition, they often have far too many schools (as many as 35-40) to provide meaningful attention, and frazzled central administrators often spend their days responding to crises and other problems.
“Those of us focused on systemic reform,” say the authors, “need now to turn our attention and accumulated learning to creating and empowering pivotal players in improving our schools – those who supervise principals – and make that a full-time job… No person or program has the same powerful leverage that a principal supervisor can have on a principal’s learning.” Among the key steps to making the work of principal supervisors successful:
- Focusing on principals as the most important leverage point for instructional improvement;
- Assigning principal supervisors a manageable number of schools, ideally 12-15;
- In small districts, if the superintendent is too tied up in board management and other duties (which is often the case), delegating principal supervision to someone else;
- Recruiting and hiring effective principals;
- Scheduling “sacred time” 1-3 hour visits to each school about every six weeks during which the principal supervisor works side by side with each principal on a number of key areas of school leadership;
- Orchestrating other district and external resources to supplement these school visits and keeping track of external messages to principals so that “clear messages and expectations are sent to principals without the confusion of too many voices.”
- Using monthly principals’ meetings effectively.
“[O]ne of the best antidotes for a superintendent’s tough day,” note Saphier and Durkin, “is getting out of the office and going to a school and visiting classrooms.”
Making regular school visits is challenging because of the myriad responsibilities of central-office leaders, constant interruptions, and political constraints, say Saphier and Durkin, “not to mention the culture in most districts of leaving principals alone unless all hell breaks loose.” But it can be done if the span of control is appropriate and it’s a top priority for the district. Principal supervisors need to “know in a very substantive way what successful instructional leaders do, be able to communicate clearly the expectations to make that happen, observe it in action, and coach their principals toward sustained effective practice as instructional leaders.” Four areas are particularly important:
• First, improving principals’ classroom supervision and coaching – The number one focus of school visits, say Saphier and Durkin, is to monitor and improve the way principals are working with their teachers. “Short classroom visits of 15 to 20 minutes that are separate from formal teacher-evaluation visits can be potent vehicles for improving teaching and learning,” they say, “and also for strengthening organizational culture. This only happens, however, if the principal uses these visits as a springboard for productive conversations with teachers that provide growth-producing feedback.” Principal supervisors need to make sure these elements are in place:
- The principal makes frequent classroom visits – an average of about two a day;
- Everyone is clear on the distinctions between different types of classroom visits – those that will be followed by individual feedback; quick walkthroughs to monitor school culture; and “learning walks” conducted by teams with a particular focus.
- The principal has a good “eye” for what effective teaching and powerful student learning looks like;
- The principal is able to gather observational and other kinds of data;
- The principal has follow-up conversations with each teacher aimed at affirming and improving practice;
Saphier and Durkin recommend that principal supervisors not take notes during classroom co-observations to make clear that they are not directly supervising teachers – their role is to coach principals on that process. The most important contributions they can make as they visit classrooms and debrief afterward are: (a) getting principals to keep up a steady rhythm of classroom visits, (b) improving their observational and debriefing skills, and (c) keeping their eye on the prize – student learning of worthy curriculum material.
In addition to classroom co-observations, the principal supervisor might also ask principals to:
- Share a sample of classroom observation write-ups;
- Describe a struggling teacher and tell what’s been done so far, what’s next, what the improvement plan looks like, and what might be helpful (perhaps a classroom visit).
- Look at a piece of student work and discuss how it can be used with the teacher.
- Show resources that have been shared with teachers.
- Reflect on what’s learned from classroom visits, walkthroughs, and learning walks.
This is an ambitious coaching agenda, but it’s central to making sure principals are consistent about getting into classrooms and following up effectively.
• Second, observing and supporting school team meetings – It is the principal’s responsibility to ensure that all same-grade/same-subject teacher teams (PLCs) are focused on the right things – that is, analyzing student work, reflecting on what’s working and what’s not, continuously improving professional practice, and following up with students who are not successful. Principal supervisors need to coach and support principals on the most effective ways to monitor and improve the work of their PLCs, including how and when they’re scheduled, how often the principal drops in, particular teams that aren’t working well together, and how teams report on their progress and concerns.
• Third, observing and supporting principals’ work with instructional coaches – Saphier and Durkin believe principals’ partnerships with their literacy and math coaches are a “game-changer” for improving teaching and learning. “This is because the principal and the coach form a deliberate partnership to build an adult culture of honesty, non-defensive examination of teaching practice in relation to student results, and continuous improvement… Just having coaches, however, doesn’t mean the role is properly framed or that the coaches are skillful. Principal supervisors must make sure principals understand the coaching model and are acting to support it and implement it skillfully.”
• Fourth, making good use of monthly gatherings with school leaders – “Principal meetings are a venue for continuous and collegial learning about instructional leadership,” say Saphier and Durkin. “Consciously designing these meetings as professional learning experiences allows for consistency and focus promoting effective instruction across schools and across levels.” Some possible activities:
- Discussing articles distributed in advance;
- Viewing a classroom video and comparing notes on key observations and strategies for working with the teacher;
- Principals sharing one area that’s going well, one that’s changed for the better, one that worries them, and one that is still “stuck”;
- One or two principals presenting a specific supervisory case in some detail, what they’ve done so far, the current status, and questions for their colleagues;
- Collective issues for all principals – the big picture of the district’s reform agenda, progress, issues, and areas for development.

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04/07/2020 - Nazarine Titre
Useful and important recommendations for supporting principals.