What makes a good school principal? It was a question posed to teachers statewide earlier this year.
From the comments submitted online to the VIVA Project (Voices Ideas Vision Action) Minnesota Teachers’ Project and Education Minnesota, 12 teachers were selected to create a report for Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Department of Education.
The VIVA Project, which was created to give classroom professionals a voice in education policy, selected Julie Miller-Hays, an Anoka-Hennepin special education teacher, and Glenn Morehouse Olson, a St. Francis School District secondary school teacher, to be part of the project.
According to a press release, the VIVA Teachers’ project complements the work of the Minnesota Department of Education’s Principal Evaluation Working Group, which recently finished its recommendations. The Department (of Education) and the Legislature will now consider the working group’s report and the VIVA results as they determine the most effective ways to evaluate principals.
The initial question to the teachers was VIVA’s way to start the conversation and collect feedback on the proposed principal evaluation report and there were 590 comments and follow up comments, said Miller-Hays.
The 12 teachers were chosen for the VIVA project based on their suggestions.
There was a lot of educational experience brought into this project by the teachers. It was phenomenal, said Morehouse Olson said.
“Everyone brought different perspective to the process,” she said.
“You could tell the people really cared about the kids and the profession,” said Miller-Hays.
After three weeks of working together, the 12 came up with 10 recommendations for the governor for what makes a good principal and how to help people obtain that designation.
The recommendations were:
• Adopt a three-track approach to principal evaluation.
• Use both on-site and off-site evaluations to ensure a full picture of principal effectiveness.
• Align invested groups’ preference for resources used for off-site evaluation.
• Create a mentorship program to support struggling principals.
• Measure a principal’s ability to set clear instructional goals that professionally support teachers and impact student achievement.
• Define and measure principal effectiveness to create a positive school climate to establish a thriving learning culture.
• Measure a principal’s skills to effectively operate and manage an educational system focused on effective instruction and student achievement.
• Measure the principal’s ability to build leadership, shared understanding and unity among staff.
• Measure a principal’s ability to lead the way in developing racial, cultural, socioeconomic and educational competencies that transcend differences.
The VIVA project brought out ways to allow teachers, community members and students a voice in education policy, Miller-Hays said.
This process, funded by the Gates Foundation and the Bush Foundation, brings the grassroots input into the legislative process, she said.
Most of the work was done in small recommendation groups based and they worked in online groups and by phone, Miller-Hays said.
“It came together harmoniously the way collaborations should,” she said.
The teachers looked at the principals’ evaluations and added pieces they thought were missing from the plan, Miller-Hays said.
Miller-Hays’ recommendation group was on school climate.
Working on the topic, the teachers in the group explained the importance of the work climate for students and teachers, the relationships and how to make things happen when things are not working, she said.
“School climate is huge. When students and teachers feel valued, it’s huge,” Morehouse Olson said.
Among the things Miller-Hays’ group suggested was adding the three-tiered approach for principals, from mentorship for new principals and ways to help existing principals that are struggling.
It also suggested ways of allowing students, parents and teachers to give the principals input, including doing surveys and having a community focus group meet once every seven years with an outside person.
The focus group would not necessarily be people who fill out the surveys, Miller-Hays said.
The point is to bring out concerns from all the stakeholders and create opportunities for the principals to improve, she said.
Looking at the data, the teachers saw the principals that do the best were ones who are in the school communities the longest.
Getting the stakeholder input is also a way to re-evaluate the culture of the school, which needs to be done periodically, so the leadership can adapt to the population of the school, Miller-Hays said.
The teacher group also recommended getting an exit survey from people as they leave the district.
Being a good communicator and creating an environment that is conductive to learning also ranked high, said Morehouse Olson, who was chosen as a decision leader.
The recommendations would give principals a support team as they think about and formulate their goals and ways to obtain their goals, she said.
Putting it together
“It was a really cool process,” said Morehouse Olson.
Once the groups finished their work, Morehouse Olson was asked to oversee compiling the information, which was edited by an South
Koochiching/Rainy River District 363 teacher.
The report was submitted to Dayton, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher Feb. 22.
Cassellius was impressed on how very caring the report was and that the teachers wanted the principals to do well, said Morehouse Olson, who introduced the report and monitored the meeting with the governor.
With the current feeding frenzy on teachers, having a voice in the legislative process and having a governor willing to listen makes teachers feel important and have the ability to empower the principals to be the best they can be, she said.
Dayton appreciated the teachers’ work on the project, Morehouse Olson said.
The teachers worked on the project with the same care as they give their students, Miller-Hays said.
They wanted to provide ways of helping the principals, she said.
As an educator, the process made her feel valued, Miller Hays said.
“Our teachers are the front-line professionals with the greatest practical insights into how to best support our students’ learning,” Dayton said in his State of the State address. “The best way for us to positively impact the learning experience of our students is to effectively solicit – and use – their expertise and wisdom.”
Teachers’ perspectives and ideas are an invaluable resource in informing critical education policy issues, said Dooher in a Feb. 22 press release.
“We are gratified that our partnership with the Department of Education and The VIVA Project has helped enable their voices to be heard,” he said.
“Every child deserves a great principal and teacher. Ensuring we have the best educators in the classroom is critical for a child’s success, because we know that how they work and interact together often determines how far children will go,” Cassellius said. “This online collaboration gives a voice to those educators, brings them to the table and allows them to help shape the evaluation conversation.”
“Our aim is to give a voice to teachers,” said Elizabeth Evans, founding CEO of The VIVA Project.
“They bring practical experience and understand what makes great schools. Their professional perspective is so important in making big changes to education policy that produce positive and lasting impacts on schools, classrooms and student learning.”
“Minnesota is an ideal place for us to partner. The leaders here are determined and bold.”
Morehouse Olson will be penning an article for the Education Minnesota publication about the VIVA Project.
Tammy Sakry is at [email protected]