For two years, five principal supervisors, or “directors,” in the Ft. Wayne Community Schools in Indiana have been learning how to better support their principals in their efforts to improve their schools. In 2016, the district received a multi-year Turnaround Leaders Program grant from the U.S. Department of Education and contracted with the NYC Leadership Academy to offer professional learning support in the district’s lowest performing schools. As part of that effort, this handful of principal supervisors attended the NYC Leadership Academy’s Foundations of Principal Supervision program two summers ago and have continued the work with Leadership Academy facilitator Francis Yasharian. In a recent conversation, the team – Hayley Sauer, Jennifer Mable, John Key, Timothy Rayl, and Melissa Richards – reflected on some of the skills they have gained, and how they have seen these learnings show up in schools across the district.

How has your work supervising principals evolved over the last few years?

John: I’ve been a director for several years, and my work around coaching used to be much less intentional. It was more about putting out fires and giving people answers to their questions. Now we help principals resolve their own issues. We model how they might have conversations with teachers and other staff members. We moved from being just a broker of supports and services to offering more direct coaching.

Jennifer: In my first year of doing this, my visits to schools were just a check-in, they were not scheduled, not frequent. Now we create touch-points based on tiered levels of support that we’ve identified for our principals and we really try to stay true to that piece. We focus on building capacity of the principal leadership, spending time walking the building and having conversations around adult behaviors that influence the academics for kids.

Melissa: We have learned and are using with principals very specific coaching strategies. With the SBI model, for example, we state the situation, note teachers’ and principals’ behaviors, and debrief to examine the impact of the principal’s choices. By stating facts, you eliminate personal, judgmental comments. In another exercise called the pressure cooker, we consider how much pressure to put on a principal when pushing back on a specific topic. Use too much pressure and the person can blow! Not enough, and the work doesn’t lead anywhere.

How have you changed how you work as a team, and how has that affected your work as a principal supervisor?

Tim: Coming in as a new director, it was nice to have a model for what our work could and should look like and not have to create it all on my own. When we meet, we work on common tasks and topics with support from a facilitator.

Melissa: Sometimes we role play. I talk through what I’m going to say so that everybody can hear it to see if I’m on the right track. It’s nice to be able to bounce ideas off each other. I know I can always come to the team and say, “I’m really struggling with this. I’ve tried A, B, and C and I’ve gotten no movement…now what?” And everybody at the table has something to say.

Jennifer: We’ve created our own learning community to continue the professional learning ourselves. It’s something we’ve all invested ourselves in.

How have the changes in how you supervise and support principals affected what principals are doing in schools? What changes are you seeing in their practice?

Hayley: At first, our principals thought we would just tell them how to be the building leader and what to do when leading change. When we stick to the strategies and protocols provided in our learning with NYCLA, we are able to shift their practice as leaders. It is our plan to push their thinking, guide them to make decisions and for them to utilize our coaching focus to impact adult practice and student achievement in their buildings. We are beginning to see how they coach their staff members based on how we coach them.

Tim: When I have had to cancel a school visit because of scheduling, it’s been a good surprise when the principal actually asks to reschedule the coaching visit. In the past, I don’t want to say it didn’t happen, but not much because it was more of a supervising visit. That’s been a good shift.

And how are you developing your ability to work with your principals to specifically address inequities in their schools?

John: Learning and understanding mental models helped us work with our principals. Everyone develops beliefs about people based on a simple, and often single, interaction. Future interactions with that person can reinforce our beliefs in a potentially negative way. We have learned to look within ourselves to challenge those beliefs when they are detrimental to relationships and positive outcomes. We have worked with principals and their teams to get to the root of some negative mental models so they are better equipped to address potential issues around equity and access.

Jennifer: Equity has become a huge piece to the work that we’re doing at the secondary level with principals. With our new Graduation Pathways program, we have shifted our course progressions in math to ensure that students have a greater opportunity to take more high-level math in high school. All 8th graders will be enrolled in Algebra I. We are having a lot of conversations around providing opportunities for all kids. We are making sure that we use the lens of equity as we work through the curriculum, the schedules, and the processes.  

Melissa: At the elementary level, we have looked at implicit biases and how they affect disproportionality, behaviors, and special education placements. We talk with principals about how important it is to look at every single student without bias, and to recognize that we all carry some implicit bias. Through our own training, we have each gotten more comfortable having difficult conversations with our principals.

How has your work as supervisors changed?

John: Through working with Francis, we identified what an optimal principal supervisor should be and found it was probably the polar opposite of what we were doing. I remember when Francis first told us our visits should be two hours, I was like, “There’s no way.” We were used to 30-minute visits. Now, we find ourselves struggling to do it all in two hours, to see the instruction, to spend time talking about issues, and go through a coaching cycle.

Our relationships with principals have improved because of the number of visits we’ve been able to conduct and the amount of time we are spending with principals. Now I can speak to what’s happening in their buildings, what they’re doing, and even perhaps what some of their needs are much better than I’ve ever been able to before.

Jennifer: I would add that we wouldn’t be able to do our jobs if our superintendent hadn’t said it is a priority for us to be out supporting our schools. And our principals do appreciate it. Now they’re saying, “I really need you to push me.” And we are seeing them use some of the coaching with the administrators on their team and their instructional coaches, and even some down to the teachers.

It’s great to see that the skills we’re using with them are being recycled.

As told to Tiffany High.