As I arrived to begin my first year as a ninth-grade English teacher, my principal spent an hour of his busy schedule bringing me on a campus tour. At the end of the tour, we stopped in front of the auditorium in the 60-year-old campus and he told me simply, “If you have any questions, let me know. My door is always open. I know the first year is hard.”
That comment was the first in a series of coaching conversations we had over the course of the year. At the end of that first year, noting my improvement, my principal asked me to stay on board for another. I stayed on for four more years, and his coaching was instrumental in helping me become and stay a highly effective teacher.
The impact great school leaders have on teachers and students is the focus of a new report from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance (TERA), a partnership between Vanderbilt University and the Tennessee Department of Education that researches how to drive improvement in Tennessee schools. Recently, TERA released a research brief that demonstrates the important role principals like mine play in hiring and retaining effective teachers. Here are some of the key findings:
• Tennessee’s principal evaluation system does a good job of identifying effective principals. Students at schools led by principals with higher overall evaluation scores had better student growth than other schools in the same district. Also, teachers surveyed in the Tennessee Educator Survey, an annual survey of Tennessee’s teachers and administrators, gave better ratings to principals with high evaluation scores. Taken together, these relationships show that Tennessee’s evaluation system is picking up on important characteristics of strong school leaders.
• Highly rated principals maintain a better school climate for teachers. Surveyed teachers rated school climate more highly in schools led by principals with higher overall evaluation scores. These results indicate that effective principals not only help improve student achievement, but also make sure that teachers’ work environments are positive.
• Tennessee’s strongest principals do a better job keeping effective teachers. TERA’s analysis suggests that effective Tennessee principals keep highly effective teachers at their schools while retaining fewer lower-performing teachers—a practice called strategic retention. In fact, teachers with the lowest observation scores are twice as likely to leave schools led by highly rated principals than teachers with the highest observation scores. Considering how important teachers are to student success, principals who use strategic retention can help promote student achievement by improving the overall quality of teachers in a school.
SCORE’s newest research brief, Why Principals Matter: Exploring The Research On School Leadership, highlighted how strong principal leadership is instrumental to improving and maintaining effective schools. TERA’s brief sheds some more light on what strong Tennessee principals do to lead effective schools. The data confirm what I saw first-hand with my principal—the best principals make teachers feel welcome and supported, empowering them to help students achieve.