Throughout the summer, SCORE conducted focus groups with principals across the state to hear honest, on-the-ground perspectives of what school leaders are seeing and experiencing in their schools. Hearing from educators in schools is critical work for SCORE so that we can incorporate these voices into our annual report and ensure that the needs of all Tennessee educators are met.

Developing school leaders who can lead learning and people was one of the five priorities identified in SCORE’s 2016 Excellence for All: How Tennessee Can Lift Our Students To Best In The Nation report. As we prepare to write the annual report for release in early 2019, we have kept this priority at the forefront of our work.

From our conversations with school leaders, three themes emerged:

Instructional Leadership. School leaders understand their critical role as instructional leaders in their buildings. One principal said, “School leaders have to be instructional leaders and not just operational managers.” Many principals acknowledged how important it is for them to know standards and be familiar with content so that they can know what to look for when doing teacher evaluations and visiting classrooms. School leaders who use walk-throughs described them as a way to increase their presence in classrooms and hold high expectations for curriculum and instruction. When school leaders engaged with teachers on learning walks and worked with instructional coaches on understanding instructional practice guides (IPGs), they said they were able to build their own instructional leadership capacity.

Building Relationships. One school leader noted, “Nothing prepares you at all [for becoming a principal] since it’s the loneliest job in the world.” The best way to combat this? Build relationships. In every school leader focus group conducted, participants mentioned the importance of networking with other principals and building relationships with principals in and out of their districts, a particular struggle for rural school leaders. A focus on collaboration and learning from principals, both active and retired, is something in which more school leaders said they want to engage. Many school leaders mentioned pairing principal candidates with mentor principals, so they can receive feedback on how to manage competing priorities and establishing work-life balance.

Principal Pipeline. School leaders made it clear that the principal pipeline needs work. Principals said that future school leaders should have the opportunity to be in schools before completing all their coursework, so they can start to make connections and apply the theories they have learned to the practice of actually being a principal. One school leader pushed programs to ask future leaders, “How will you [the principal in training] make competing priorities come together?” Current principals identified a deep need for quality principal residency programming in Tennessee, which needs to be comprehensive and include voices from the education and business worlds for school leaders to be well-rounded, thoughtful managers of their buildings.

These and other findings from our administrator focus groups will help SCORE identify how Tennessee can best support school leaders in their development. As SCORE continues its work in the school leadership space, these voices will inform our research on school leader recruitment, development, and retention so that Tennessee can be a thriving place for school leaders.