Second-year Dayton’s Bluff principal Steven Flucas has phone calls and emails to answer. He has parents to meet with and budgets to write, trainings to coordinate. But Flucas doesn’t spend that much time at his desk. Instead, he’s greeting buses, he’s checking in with kids, and he’s spending lots and lots of time observing teachers and students in the classroom.
Minneapolis and St. Paul principals and district leaders say that in the past decade, principals’ job descriptions have changed. Gone are the disciplinarians and building managers, waiting in their office for the next naughty kid or disgruntled parent. Today, principals’ most essential role is to make sure things are going right inside the classroom. That means more time in the classroom, less time in the office and hallways.
But in many cases, principals’ responsibilities as building managers have not diminished. In a typical school, principals are still responsible for staffing, budgeting, security, building cleanliness, buses, and now student success.
The heightened focus on principals as instructional leaders comes at a time of shrinking resources and increased pressure on educators to produce successful adults. Minnesota just passed legislation requiring principal evaluations, and St. Paul already revised their annual principal evaluations to include student success as a measure of principal performance.
“Each year there’s more being added to the plate,” said Joan Franks, 13-year principal of Armatage Montessori. She said most nights, she saves tasks like calling parents, answering emails or writing the school newsletter for when she gets home. “I’ll eat a little food and then be back working on the computer until 9 or 10 at night.”
New, lengthy teacher evaluations
The most daunting task on Minneapolis principals’ to do lists is this year is expanded teacher evaluations. According to associate superintendant Theresa Battle, the new evaluations typically take principals six to eight hours to complete, and there are more of them to do. Statewide, schools were not required to regularly evaluate tenured teachers until legislation passed this summer. Now, in addition to the two to three yearly evaluations required for new teachers, tenured teachers will also be formally evaluated. The new requirements won’t be enforced immediately, but Battle said Minneapolis has a head start.
Franks said the old evaluations took her two to three hours each to complete. This year, she estimates she will spend around 147 hours evaluating new teachers alone. She said this means less time to do informal classroom check-ins and more time working at home.
The difference is that the new evaluations are evidence-based. Instead of simply rating teachers on categories like student engagement, principals script an entire lesson. They then go back to their notes and cut and paste different segments of the lesson into categories like teacher-student relationship or classroom culture. Principals then meet with teachers and show them specific examples of qualities they noticed.
Despite the extra time and homework, Franks said the new evaluations are valuable. “Your conversations with teachers are very different,” she said. For example, Franks marks “t” when a teacher speaks and “s” when a student speaks. One teacher took note, Franks said. “She goes, ‘Oh my gosh, look at all the “t’s” instead of “s’s.” Oh my God, I’m doing too much teacher talk.’ She was able to elicit that on her own.”
Battle said the district is already scaling back an initial plan to evaluate every math, science, social studies and English teacher this year because of the amount of time each evaluation takes.
St. Paul currently does not require evaluations for tenured teachers, although they will update their process soon to comply with the new legislation.
At Dayton’s Bluff elementary school in St. Paul, Flucas said he tries to visit each teacher in the building twice a week for 20 to 30 minutes. Actually making it to the classroom can be challenging, though. On a recent Thursday morning walk-through, Flucas greeted kids by name, tied shoes, corrected posture. One tearstained kid explained that his reading wasn’t going well. “Make sure you try and ask for help because you’ve got to learn to write,” Flucas told him. “If you don’t learn to write how you gonna get a job?”
“Some days there are 15 things that happen on my way here,” Flucas said. “In the past, that would’ve derailed what the plan was.”
Flucas said he avoids derailing by constantly reminding himself of the school’s goals and vision and by enlisting the help of specialists that have taken over some traditional principal duties.
One of the most important is former Timberwolf Gary Trent. As the school’s “cultural intervention specialist,” he takes care of behavior, and at 6 foot 8, it’s easy to see why he qualifies for the job. Director of St. Paul’s Office of Leadership Development and Academic Support Steven Unowsky said behavior specialists are now common in St. Paul schools.
Last year, Minneapolis partnered with the School Administration Manager project. Six schools hired School Administration Managers, or SAMs, to help principals focus on instructional leadership. Battle said SAMs take care of things like building maintenance, project funding and transportation. The SAM at Ramsey Performing Arts Magnet arranged to have the cafeteria remodeled.
But even as No Child Left Behind’s popularity wanes and principals’ support teams grow, the ultimate responsibility for a school’s success still lies on the principal. “If you’re not getting it done, bye-bye,” Flucas said. “The days of retiring on the job are done.”