My View

By Peering Through Windows, I Let Principals Lead
By ERICH G. MAY/School Administrator, August 2020

I’VE OFTEN HEARD that the proper vantage for school leaders is “on the balcony.” But to my mind, superintendents should be positioned “on the sidewalk” to carry out their work.

As the leader of a 1,500-student district in northwestern Pennsylvania, I try to be helpful, grateful and visible. To me, visibility means visiting every school every week and attending at least one evening event each week.

Sometimes, a school visit takes the form of a formal walkthrough conducted in the company of a principal or director. I do classroom walkthroughs partly to model the method and partly to communicate to principals the importance of visiting classes.

Teachers can tell it’s a real walkthrough when two administrators are touring together, talking to students and taking notes. Afterward, feedback is delivered to teachers and staff by their immediate supervisor, not by me.

Conveying Care

More often, however, my school visits are informal walkabouts. Flying solo, I stroll the halls of the schools and pop into kitchens and classrooms, engaging in friendly conversation, paying compliments and looking for substitutes to thank.

The overwhelming majority of my walkabouts result in no judgment, no criticism, no feedback. The point is not to say, “You could do this better,” but rather to convey, “We care about you, and we appreciate your efforts.”

A mentor of mine once told me that the most important thing for a superintendent was to have “trusting relationships with good principals.” If you have the right principals, everything else will fall into place. But developing that trusting relationship requires giving principals room to lead. That’s why I don’t let my regular visits turn into classroom critiques.

Instead, I’m focused on things that parents and community members could see just by walking down the sidewalk, just by looking through the outside windows.

And there’s a lot that can be learned just by looking through exterior windows. Are all of our students supervised? Are all of our teachers teaching bell to bell? Are our students engaged and happy?

If a teacher is leaving his classroom unattended while running down the hall to the copier, you could see that through the window. If a teacher is knocking off five minutes before the bell rings and wasting precious instructional time, you could see that through the window. And it’s the same if students are always seated in rows and filling out “shut up sheets.”

Defined Limits

These three domains — supervision, effort and engagement — are central to our mission. And they are appropriate topics for the superintendent in part because they are important in all grades and all subjects. Plus, these are priorities that board members share.

My argument here is that this set of issues — and limiting myself to these issues — allows me to provide instructional leadership without stepping on anyone’s toes.

That is essential. If having trusting relationships with good principals is the key to your success, then lousy relationships can lead to your downfall. The principal who doesn’t like you might disparage you to his or her colleagues, teachers or even the school board.

That’s not to say that you should fear the principals. But you should have a healthy respect for their position, power and place in the community. Respect them, and you will be more likely to gain and maintain their respect.

Cultivating Trust

Trust and loyalty matter — they inspire and empower. They shouldn’t be taken for granted. They must be cultivated. You plant the seed when you say, “I need you to be the instructional leader of your building, and I know you can be.”

You can’t be accused of micromanaging if you say, “I’m just looking at things you could see from the sidewalk: the supervision of children, good use of instructional time and high levels of student engagement.”

is superintendent at Brookville Area School District in Brookville, Pa.