As principals, we tend to think a lot about the big moments like staff meetings, welcome-back letters, and assemblies. But, in truth, leadership doesn’t happen in grand gestures, sweeping announcements, and whole-staff meetings. Rather, lasting change happens in the impromptu conversations in the hallway, the five minutes when I drop into a classroom during a planning period or sidle up next to a teacher as she picks up her class from the cafeteria. These are the truly critical moments in the life of a school leader. These moments are a large part of what builds a school culture. What I choose to talk about, who I choose to talk to, and even the fact that I slow down enough to talk, all impact the school climate and culture. I am leveraging these moments to build a culture of enthusiastic math learning, where everyone can see themselves as “math people.”
One morning this year, I spotted Sarah, a kindergarten teacher who had once told me she was afraid of teaching math, as she arrived at school. I went up to her in the front office and exclaimed, “Sarah, that math lesson I saw in your class yesterday was wonderful.” She proceeded to tell me all about how much she had learned about how children see numbers under ten, how she had requested a coaching session with the math coach to learn more about the rekenrek, a tool for modeling numbers up to twenty, and was starting to feel much more confident about her math teaching in general. This was a very public conversation, with other teachers coming and going, signing in, and saying their good mornings. It didn’t need to be private. I wasn’t necessarily trying to shift anything in her practice, or even really give her feedback. I was just excited to talk about math instruction. Anyone walking by could have heard the enthusiasm in both of our voices as we got excited thinking about how important it is to build a solid sense of how much five is before moving to bigger numbers. And when you hear this in the hallways at school, the message you get is that at this school, we try new things. At this school, we get excited about children’s learning. At this school, we talk about insights about children and teaching.
Our ongoing conversation about math instruction has become so powerful, and so public, that it has begun to seep beyond simply what happens in classrooms behind closed doors. Staff throughout the building recognize the importance of our passionate conversations about math and math enthusiasm.
Impromptu conversations like these don’t only help to spread enthusiasm for a new directive; they also give us, as principals, ways of seeing how the work is rippling throughout the school. For example, Tanya, a student success specialist, stopped me recently to share a beautiful story: she had overheard an exchange between two fifth graders who were arguing with some degree of tension about the order of operations rule. Tanya explained that one of the children—a girl who sometimes lacks confidence as a mathematician—spoke with conviction and was correct. Tanya recounted how the girl had turned to her, beaming, and exclaimed, “I just constructed a logical argument, and I was right!” To hear this story from a classroom teacher about an experience she saw during a math lesson would have been a welcome sign of growth. Hearing it from a specialist whose responsibilities don’t include teaching math was even more gratifying. Truly, our message was reaching everyone in the building!
Our children are finding greater success as mathematicians. This is causing them to feel proud and more engaged, and it all makes teaching math more exciting for teachers. It makes THEM feel proud and more engaged in the teaching of math. And the more we talk about, honor, and celebrate these moments of mathematical enthusiasm and engagement, the harder we are willing to work to create more moments just like these.
Every day school leaders are faced with hundreds of decisions. We can recognize these as opportunities to nurture the school culture we are committed to building. We spend time in the hallways, making ourselves available and engaging with staff, students, and families. The kinds of conversations we choose to have in these spaces matter. They have the potential to shift culture.
Katie Charner-Laird is principal at Cambridgeport School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Katie views her role as an instructional leader, spending large amounts of time in the classroom because “There is no perfect lesson. There is only a lesson that perfectly matches the needs of the students.” Recently, Katie has worked to create an approach for teachers to be in one another’s classrooms, engaging in what her school calls “collaborative observation.”
cover photo credit: rawpixel