New schools superintendent wants principals in classrooms more often

mtheriault@adn.comNovember 4, 2012 

Before school started this fall, new Anchorage School District superintendent Jim Browder told principals that he wanted them to visit each teacher in their building's classroom on a weekly basis.

"I said out loud that it was an expectation of mine that they do their very best to get into every classroom," Browder said.

The directive comes from the idea that a principal's effectiveness as a leader is tied to their visibility in a school, he said. Visits give principals better sense of what teachers are teaching and students are learning.

Michael Graham admits he was skeptical.

Graham is the principal of East Anchorage High School, which with a student enrollment of 2,100 is the largest in the state. Teachers and support staff number 200. That's roughly the same number of people as the entire population of Cordova.

East High has about 111 classroom teachers. That would mean more than 20 classroom visits a day.

"When I first heard this I thought, 'Yeah right,' " he said.

But he and other Anchorage School District administrators are trying to fulfill the superintendent's directive anyway.

For some at the elementary school level, the numbers are less daunting but still a challenge to shoehorn into already full days. So far, they say, it's worth it.

"The bulk of education is building relationships," said Ruth Dene, the principal of Denali Montessori Elementary. "This helps us to be collegial -- more than, 'I'm your supervisor.' "

Dene tries to make her classroom visits at the beginning and end of the week. On Friday, she started her day with a safety committee meeting. Then it was time for classroom visits -- something she says she's always done as a principal but not as deliberately before the directive. Now it's scheduled in her electronic calendar.

On Friday, Dene stopped by a kindergarten classroom where students were bundled up for a walking field trip to see a play at the Alaska Center for the Peforming Arts downtown. In another classroom, she was enlisted by a teacher to round up two stragglers on an overlong restroom visit. She became an audience for a rehearsal of an earnest group of students' fundraising campaign appeal to help save sharks from becoming shark-fin soup. The visits were quick -- sometimes just a few minutes each.

Teacher Craig Moyer said he appreciated the regular visits, though they didn't seem much different from what Dene was already doing last school year.

"She's the educational leader of the school," he said. "She needs to see what's going on."

So far administrators have not been asked to formally document their classroom visits.

Having to do that would slow the process down, Dene said.

Graham said he at first tried e-mailing feedback to every teacher he visited.

"Timewise that was killing me," he said.

For Graham, the visits happen whenever he can fit them in. He carries a binder to track the classrooms he's visited.

"Otherwise I can't remember where I've been," he said.

Getting to all 111 classrooms is still a goal.

Classroom visits are something he's wanted to do more of for a long time, he said.

"It's been one of the really positive things that has happened this year."

There are trade-offs.

Principals say they probably don't respond to e-mails as quickly and aren't in their office as much to answer phone calls.

Both Dene and Graham say they've made connections with teachers and students they wouldn't have otherwise.

"I've learned that my staff is even better than I had realized," Graham said.

Another benefit: being seen by students as more than the designated enforcer of rules.

"If I walked in it used to be like, uh-oh, what's wrong," he said. "That's not happening anymore."


Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at or 257-4344.



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