August is my favorite time of the year because it means that across the state, Tennessee students are heading back to school. As a former teacher, the first few weeks were always exciting because it was a new opportunity to learn about students and their families as well as build strong classroom culture. Anyone who has worked in schools knows that the people critical to these early successes are principals. SCORE has learned, based on research, that strong principal leadership is instrumental to improving and maintaining effective schools.
I recently had the chance to visit one such principal, Farrah Griffith who leads White County Middle School. The school is the only middle school in the entire county and serves approximately 900 students. Farrah Griffith, who is originally from White County, has been the principal of the middle school for three years. Under her leadership, the school grew from an overall TVAAS composite score of 3 to 5, the highest rating.
Ms. Griffith was in the inaugural cohort of the Governor’s Academy for School Leadership (GASL), a partnership between the Governor’s Office, the Tennessee Department of Education, and Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development. GASL is a yearlong leadership development opportunity that coaches assistant principals on becoming effective school principals. GASL fellows are also paired with an effective principal mentor who provides support during the internship.
Ms. Griffith credits GASL with developing her leadership skills and notes that the ability to network with other fellows was the most valuable part of the experience. In fact, she and six other GASL fellows are part of a daily group text where they bounce ideas and seek advice from each other.
During my visit at White County Middle School, I had the chance to shadow Ms. Griffith and learn about the many hats she wears. I’ve included the schedule of her day from when I visited her, to give a sense of how busy and varied a principal’s role is.
7:55 a.m. – Morning assembly
Today, the seventh- and eighth-grade students in the school are attending a morning assembly about dental hygiene. Students hear about free dental care that is paid for by the state. Ms. Griffith waits on a school bus that is running late and troubleshoots some technology issues during the morning presentation.
8:30 a.m. – School tour
Ms. Griffith shows me around the school and we get to spend some time in classrooms. Most of the classes are going over routines and setting up for the new school year.
10:00 a.m. – Family resource meeting
About 40 percent of the students at the school are low-income. Ms. Griffith and her family resource director meet with a local church to discuss a weekend food backpack program for students and their families.
12:30 p.m. – Paperwork
The school received a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant, a federal program that supports enrichment after-school activities for students. Ms. Griffith completes paperwork that is required as part of the grant.
2:55 p.m. – School dismissal
Ms. Griffith talks to students and parents as they are being dismissed. She also meets with one of her assistant principals to decide whether to call off the football game later that evening due to heavy rain. After discussing with the football coach, they cancel the game.
3:15 p.m. – Open house for parents
Ms. Griffith greets and meets with parents who are visiting for the school’s open house.
Ms. Griffith was previously an instructional coach in Warren County and estimates that she spends about 30 percent of her time on instructional activities, including observing teachers and providing feedback on lessons. This challenge of balancing instructional leadership with the administrative tasks is felt by principals across the state. According to the 2018 Tennessee Educator Survey, about half of administrators report spending more than 10 hours a week on administrative duties including hiring and scheduling.
Across Tennessee, principals like Farrah Griffith are having a meaningful impact on their students and teachers and it is essential that the state continues supporting these leaders. State initiatives like GASL are helping develop the next generation of leaders and this work can be a model for other states. Over the coming months, the SCORE team will continue learning and sharing about other state and districts initiatives to support current principals, with the goal of ensuring that all students have access to a highly effective principal.
Nominations for the fourth cohort of the Governor’s Academy for School Leadership are now being accepted through September 21.