A View from the Inside: ED Staff Observes the Principal’s Perspective

Shadowing a Principal

Deputy Chief of Staff Tyra Mariani visited a classroom at DC Bilingual while shadowing the school's principal. Official Department of Education photo by Joshua Hoover.

A week ago, I had the pleasure of shadowing principal Wanda Perez at DC Bilingual Public Charter School. While Wanda admitted she spends more time in meetings than she’d like, we spent the majority of my visit walking the school and observing students and teachers in learning and teaching. I also observed Wanda planning the week’s professional development session with New Leaders Resident Principal Daniela. There was so much to talk about – home visits, instructional strategies, assessments and the like – with not enough time.

My visit was part of weeklong effort by ED’s senior staff to gain a glimpse into the daily work of principals, while also providing principals with the opportunity to discuss how federal policy, programs, and resources impact their schools. At the end of the week we joined the principals and Secretary Arne Duncan for a debrief at ED.


ED's Camsie McAdams (left) shadowed the principal of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va. Official Department of Education photo by Joshua Hoover.

We asked each of the principals to tell us, if they had a check from the federal government, what would they invest in based on the needs of this school. When I asked Wanda this question, her response somewhat surprised me. She said building teacher capacity. On the one hand, I wasn’t surprised; Wanda had been trained to become a principal through New Leaders and it’s clear from my visit that she’s focused on instruction.

In our classroom visits, Wanda was on the laptop she carries around to take notes on what she observed of the classroom instruction. On one of our visits, two adults entered the room while we were there. I later learned one woman was the coach (let’s call her Monica) and the other was the coach’s coach (let’s call her Deborah). After they all observed the same teacher’s lesson, Wanda and Deborah were going to observe Monica giving feedback to the teacher so that they could build Monica’s skills but also to ensure alignment within and across teams.

We know the principal can’t do it all, so Wanda is building the capacity of her instructional leaders to help support and develop great teachers. Why was I surprised? Because Wanda walks between two buildings every day since neither of the two buildings can hold all of the students; because the playground is literally on the rooftop of the building; and because the gym may have been large enough for a standard court but nothing else.

So while Wanda could have easily focused on facilities, Wanda knew what her students were learning and the quality of the teaching to enable their learning was most important. I appreciated that.

We won’t get a highly effective teacher corps unless we have principals as instructional leaders who are surrounded by and supporting strong teacher leaders who in turn help teachers get better. DC Bilingual was one example of that idea in practice.

Tyra Mariani is deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education