How Do Principals Model Good Instruction?

In my first year as an assistant principal, I evaluated some 25 non-tenured teachers.  One math instructor in particular was struggling.  I monitored her classroom closely as I  began to hear complaints from students, then other teachers, and finally from parents.  The problem seemed to lie with her methodology.  She typically spent 40 minutes of the 54-minute period lecturing about a new algebraic concept, then assigned homework.  The next day the homework was collected, she lectured again, and assigned more homework.  Clearly, the students had little opportunity to practice the concepts with teacher supervision.

By the end of the first quarter, I was in full intervention mode.  I addressed the issue with her and helped her write plans of action.  As a math teacher myself, I taught her classes one full day as she observed.  A substitute was hired one day so she could observe other math teachers.  Students continued to flounder.  She just didn’t seem to “get it.”  Finally, I had an epiphany moment with her that forever changed the way I viewed my role as an administrator.  In yet another conference with her, I made the comment, “Teachers, especially math teachers, should have a pretty good idea at the end of the period whether students learned the concepts.”  She looked at me with a totally blank expression and replied, “How in the world would I know that?  I don’t know if they’ve learned the concepts until I give the test at the end of the unit.”

How did I respond?  What would you have said to her?  Not long after that I posed the question to the department heads of the high school, “how do you know if students are learning in your classroom?”  There was a long period of silence as they glanced around the room.  Finally one replied, “by the look in their eyes.”  Another said, “by the questions they ask,” and one said, “whether they ask any questions at all.”  One teacher noted, “I can tell by the level of discussion that goes on.”  The math department head said, “I walk around the room as they work the problems, and I can quickly determine if they understand.”

Principals play many roles, but one of the most important is modeling good instruction.  The effective principal continually asks the question, “are the kids learning?”  along with the follow-up questions, “how do we know if they are learning?” and “what are we going to do if they don’t learn?” 

In the rush toward making decisions based on data, I fear that we may define formative assessments as being only tests.  The formative-assessment process can greatly improve student learning if schools clearly understand it, but testing is only one part of the process.  Decisions should be made on how and what to test and whether adjustments to the curriculum should be made based on the findings.  But by misconstruing formative assessments as tests or even a particular type of test, we may diminish the potential impact of the process.

 Borrowing from the world of business, Nonaka and Takeuchi in their ground-breaking book The Knowledge-Creating Company point out that there are two types of knowledge: explicit knowledge contained in manuals and procedures, and tacit knowledge learned only by experience and communicated indirectly.  How many times have you walked into a classroom and thought, “I can feel the learning taking place?”  Great teaching is very much an example of tacit knowledge, and an effective principal transforms that tacit experience into explicit words and actions that model good instruction, especially to those teachers who may have not yet mastered the process.  Understanding that teaching and learning is a tacit experience, effective principals also empower teachers as the true experts to share in making important curriculum, testing, and program decisions.

What happened to the math teacher, you ask?  Unfortunately, in spite of interventions on the part of several people, she did not make sufficient improvement for the school to hire her back for another year.  That is another important role that principals play, one that is left for another blog post.





About mprater

I'm a recently retired school teacher/administrator continuing to help people grow through personal learning. When not blogging, I do consulting work for schools and organizations, make presentations at conferences, and research for publication. At the same time, I have to set aside enough time to enjoy the "good life" of retirement!
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10 Responses to How Do Principals Model Good Instruction?

  1. justintarte says:


    Great post about one of the most important roles of any administrator. I think too often administrators get bogged down doing “administrative” duties, and they are unable to be the instructional leaders we need them to be.

    Your 3 lines about “are students learning, how do we know if they are learning, and what do we do if they aren’t learning?” are perfect, and they closely resemble the basis for PLCs. Additionally, I really enjoyed the idea of modeling effective instruction for teachers, as well as providing time for teachers to observe their colleagues.

    Great post, and I look forward to learning and reading more about your experiences as an administrator!

    • mprater says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Justin. Those “administrative” duties are vital to a school’s operation, but too many times principals get bogged down with them. All research points out the importance of principals being visible, modeling, and inspiring others to higher goals.

  2. Thanks for writing about this! Teachers are so often focused on the formal assessment that they forget about the day-to-day necessities of acquiring learning. When we focus on the learning that happens every day and ensure that our students are retaining and internalizing, the formal assessments take care of themselves. Keep up the great work!

    • mprater says:

      Great comment, Martha. Thanks. As an old math teacher, I’m all about the hard data, but I do fear that we may get too tied to quantitative numbers and forget the qualitative information that comes from master teachers who know kids and their abilities more than any test will ever show.

  3. Great post! It saddens me that a teacher thinks they have to wait until the end of a week/unit to know if students learned or not. They should know before even giving homework and be able to decide to NOT give the homework if they realize it cannot be practiced independently.

    I went through a similar experience when I was an instructional coach and was frustrated when the techer I was modeling lessons for couldn’t implement any of the strategies I modeled. So I took it a step further and again modeled a lesson, but had my principal sitting right next to him to point out the straegies I was modeling. My principal literally would whisper to him “did you notice she just did ____, because now she knows…..” It was after that, that I started to see the teacher “getting it” and using some of the new instructional skills in the classroom.

    • mprater says:

      Thanks for the comment, Jessica. Glad to hear that your teacher improved. Isn’t it interesting that some teachers seem to be more “natural” at it than others? I was one of those who needed guidance, and I appreciate leaders who have the skills to nurture teachers along.

  4. Mike,

    This is an excellent post. I liked the way in which you worked with the teacher and asked her an important question, “how do you know students are learning by the end of the period?” Sometimes in our rush to get through the material we overlook that very important question. Another important question to ask is, “what do you do when they already know it?” Rick DuFour added that question to the key PLC questions.

    I sometimes struggle getting in the classrooms to not just evaluate, but observe teachers. Thanks for reminding us all that our primary role is to improve instruction and that it comes from asking the right questions.

    Be Great,


    • mprater says:

      All of us administrators get bogged down in the office, don’t we? Those managerial tasks are vital–we need to run a tight ship for learning to take place. But even more important is our visibility and those relationships that are built on a personal basis every day. Thanks for your comment, Dwight.

  5. Scott Rebeeves says:

    Mike, great post. When I was a principal, I too had a similar situation with a teacher who stuggled with classroom management as well as getting students to learn. I ramped up observations in the teacher’s class so that I could be in better position to give solid instructional recommendations. Unfortunately, like your example, I was unsuccessful in helping the teacher improve to the level we needed.

    I am now the direct supervisor of three high school principals and four middle school principals in my district and one of my goals is to help improve their skills as instructional leaders. As many principals can attest, the adminstrative management of the building often times prevents principals from devoting quality time for instructional leadership with staff. I appreciate the reminder of the vital questions that education leaders should continually pose to teachers. I look forward to following addition posts.

    • mprater says:

      Scott, you are right that the managerial tasks can really get a principal bogged down. Those tasks are important (I posted a new blog entry today touting the value of administrative duties!). It becomes a constant balancing act for the effective principal.

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