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


  1. As the last paragraph states, there must be a focus on teacher development. Unfortunately, the article seems to imply that our teachers are not already highly effective. This perpetuates the notion, which has unfortunately been led by the Department of Education, that the problem with schools is the teachers. Sadly, the pass of blame to this easy scapegoat fails to grasp the reality of the situation on a rudimentary level. The real problem lies as a combination of students, parents, funding, and most of all, standardized testing and completely inept education policy.
    Nowhere is this more evident than in the state of Indiana. Tony Bennett, the Superintendent of Education, enacted broad reforms aimed at making teachers the enemy. He instituted merit pay based on standardized test scores, ridiculous evaluation techniques, a grading scale for teachers and schools, and was instrumental in the voucher program which threatens the public school system as a whole (Elliot). As a result, he recently lost his election by over one million votes, astonishing for a republican in a state in which republicans hold the governor’s office and supermajorities in the legislature. His combative policies were rejected largely by a significant teacher backlash. Their message was simple: teachers are not solely to blame, teaching to the test is detrimental to the students, and students and parents must have some accountability in their education. This article continues to spread the false message that teacher reform will be remotely effective in school reform. While there is a place for this, if this is the main component of the Department of Education’s policy, it will surely be ineffective.

    Elliot, Scott. “Many Seek to Understand How Tony Bennett’s Heavily Funded Campaign Failed.” Indianapolis Star. N.p., 11 Nov. 2012. Web. 13 Nov. 2012. .

  2. To Donald’s postnote, I think that the role parents play in the education field, especially public education, is something of a roadblock for many administrators. They cannot control what the students are exposed to or what they do outside of the school, and for many children that is where more instruction is needed. However, administrators like Wanda know where they can make a difference. Hearing that she has put so much focus on instruction makes me wonder why other public schools that I’ve been exposed to haven’t done the same. I certainly don’t think that it is the only area of education that needs help, but why can’t more government grants require a certain amount of that money be used to build teacher capacity?

  3. The above parent speaks graciously about the experiment known as building teacher capacity and it’s obvious that she is an educated woman herself, but what about the score of parents in our urban inner cities and rural networks of hamlets who didn’t finish school themselves or had to drop out and go to work assist a family from coming apart. Many of these parents like generations before want their children to succeed and go farther in life than themselves. So, that means a good education for children or grandchildren! And hopefully . . . national leadership . . . will get better . . . whatever the results from the Presidential Election coming on November 06th. Postnote: What about building the capacity of parents and maintaining a balance between them and an improved teacher corp?

  4. I am a parent of three DC Bilingual students. My oldest, now in fourth grade started during Wanda Perez’s first year as Principal. I can attest to Wanda’s footprint on, influence of, and dedication to high quality instruction, high curriculum standards, and investing in the best human capital possible. When other schools were implementing differentiated instruction, Columbia Teacher’s College literacy and language programs, and character curriculum, Wanda had already started it at DCB. Wanda supports her teachers in many ways that parents do not see, however what we do see is the intense level of attention our kids receive every day, the fact that there is not one student in that school who is unteachable in the eyes of the staff, and incredible amounts of detailed data on how our kids are progressing and areas of weakness that need to be targeted. I could go on for days about the high quality instruction that takes place at DCB-it is a hidden gem and a great bilingual school. I have three friends whose kids left DCB to attend an International Baccalaureate school, a private school in DC and a high performing public school in DC and all the kids were prepared academically for those rigorous environments. I think it is important to applaud Principals like Wanda who work in urban settings with many kids who come to school with little language skills, lots of issues associated with poverty and not much support at home. Wanda is an unsung hero equipping teachers with the skills to ensure all the kids at DCB make incredible academic gains, and great strides with their self confidence and loving the learning process.

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