Learning First Alliance

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The Principal Perspective: An Interview with Whitney Meissner

Tarsi Dunlop's picture

Principal Whitney Meissner has worked in public education for a total of 22 years as a math/English teacher, an assistant principal and middle/high school principal for the past 11 years. Her observations and insights reflect the experience gleaned from her decades of experience. In an e-interview, Principal Meissner outlines her own experience in a teacher preparation program, shares her thoughts for supporting new teachers as well as components of good evaluation systems. As an instructional leader, she offers thoughts on the Common Core State Standards and the challenges and benefits associated with them. Finally, she reflects on her own continued learning and growth as a professional.

Principal Meissner has completed the University of Washington Center for Educational Leaderhship training as well as the Association of Washington School Principals Evaluation Training (2013-2014). In 2008, she was a Phi Delta Kappa (PDK) International Emerging Leader and in 2009 she received the 2009 PDK Dissertation Award of Merit. In 2012-2013, she served as the President of the Association of Washington Middle Level Principals (AWMLP). She is an active community volunteer where her newest role is serving as a Zumbathon (c) Coordinator to benefit those affected by the Oso/Darrington Landslide. She received her Ed.D. from Seattle Pacific University in 2008.

Public School Insights (PSI): Thank you so much for taking time to share your insights and wisdom gleaned from your many years in different positions in the education field. We are delighted that we can share your expertise with our readers and the wider community.

First, starting at the beginning, you've spent the past 22 years in education. What inspired you to go into teaching? Were you always interested in school administration as a part of your career?

Meissner: I think I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. I used to play school in the summer with the neighborhood kids. My mom, aunt, and grandfather were/are teachers. I don’t know if I can point to one specific thing that inspired me; it was more like a calling.

Strangely, I never thought about becoming a principal until the end of my first year of teaching. The principal and assistant principal of the school where I worked called me into their office and asked me if I’d ever considered being a principal. I was actually very surprised that they asked; I told them no, I had not. They then proceeded to tell me that they were very impressed by my enthusiasm and natural leadership and that they thought it part of their job to encourage teachers with leadership skills to pursue a career as a principal. I thought about it for a whole year, and in the fall of my 3rd year of teaching, I started my master’s degree with an emphasis in educational leadership.

PSI. Given the constant changes in teaching and learning, there is an understandable interest in preparing future teachers for the classroom. Would you elaborate a bit on your educator preparation experience, what you found most useful, and then some of the most important things you learned in the first few years after entering the classroom?

Meissner: I honestly think the teacher preparation program I participated in through the University of Washington was extremely well-designed. I was part of a program that allowed me to earn a secondary teaching credential, but had an emphasis on middle school/adolescent development. It was a year-long program with a partnership with four area middle schools. I was able to student teach during the entire school year and truly experienced everything that a teacher experiences. The program was tough on the partner schools as they had 4-6 student teachers each year the project was underway, but it was great for us. I loved having so many student teachers in the building at the same time I was there.

The specific things that were most useful:

  • Deep content exploration specific to adolescent development. This experience has served me well working with middle and high school students throughout my career
  • Small cohort of student teachers (16) working through the program together
  • Three supervising teachers on site to assist me: there were two teachers in whose classrooms I worked, as well as a site coordinator who coached us and held regular meetings with us
  • A solid team of professors/instructors with a varied background (curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, special education) who worked with us throughout our seminars and student teaching.

Ever since that experience, I have truly valued the “cohort” model of education. In both my masters and doctoral programs, working with a small group of students and instructors together has been the single most valuable part of the experience.

PSI: Classroom management is an area where newer teachers may have a steeper learning curve, and it's a different skill than instruction. Do you have supports or specific advice for new teachers to help develop this skill?

Meissner: I think classroom management has a lot to do with planning ahead. We know we have to plan lessons, assessments, and even resources that kids need. We also need to plan classroom management. For some people, building positive relationships is second nature, but for others, it can be a struggle, especially with kids who work really hard to get on your nerves.

I was just talking with a teacher the other day. She has a hard time “letting go” when kids are pushing her buttons. We talked about a lot of different strategies:

  • Pay close attention and reinforce what is going right with classroom management
  • Randomly assign seating and groups
  • Catch the students (authentically) doing the right thing
  • Reinforce positive behavior publicly, redirect misbehavior privately
  • Involve the parents by ASKING THEM for help and suggestions
  • Remember the kids are living in the world of technology;
  • Notice when classroom behavior is good and when it tapers off; be willing to change your routine to meet the kids where they are
  • Avoid whole group punishment for the poor behavior of a few
  • Be willing to teach (and reteach) the kids the behaviors they need to be successful
  • Ask for help early; don’t wait until the “I’ve had it” point when you are frustrated and overwhelmed

PSI: Research shows that great building leadership is key to a successful school. What training or resources did you find most helpful in your transition from the classroom to the principalship?

Meissner: I had the formal training, masters degree, principal certificate, internship. I actually did a second year, “unofficial” internship so that I could get high school teaching and administration experience.

During my “unofficial” internship, I sought every opportunity to be involved and take leadership, including volunteering to supervise events, activities, and athletics. I chaired the building’s Site Council team.

I became involved in the Association of Washington School Principals (AWSP) early in my career and have continued to be part of the organization. I have served on their board for 6 years, I have attended a variety of professional development events throughout the years, and I have presented at several of their events.

The best advice I was given was from a superintendent when I was looking to transition from being an assistant principal to a principal. I asked him outright, “When people have been most successful in this transition, what have they done?” He told me two things that have stuck with me and proved to be excellent advice. First, go to every workshop, class, and training opportunity you can. Never stop learning. Be thirsty for new information and skills. Second, always ponder the paradox of the principalship as it is full of moral and ethical dilemmas.

PSI: As a longtime administrator, what is your philosophy towards building a great school climate and what advice would you share with policy makers and district leaders when it comes to supporting principals in their work in this area?

Meissner: I believe that a great school climate takes hard work every day, one person at a time. Climate really can’t be addressed through policy. Climate is how people feel.

I think the biggest things we can do to strengthen school climate have to do with how we treat all people. We should listen, seek to understand, empathize, and speak truth. When we have to redirect someone, ask ourselves, “How would we want to receive this direction?” Whenever possible, let the person who has the problem solve the problem. Remember to laugh and have fun with staff and students. Be willing to do the right thing even if it’s hard, but help people understand they reason why.

The other key is to talk to people in person. It’s easy to communicate via text, email, webmessages, Twitter, etc., and these are excellent communication tools, BUT, not for everything. In fact, nothing beats a smile and a face-to-face conversation to help with climate and positive relationships. In fact, someone I know just posted something on Facebook. She said she and her daughters used to go into the grocery store and see how many people they could make smile. How about that as a measure for school climate?

PSI: There is a national emphasis on teacher evaluation right now. What does a good evaluation system look like in a school? And, what are some best practices for principals in conducting these assessments and acting on the information?

Meissner: Good evaluation looks a lot like good grading practices for kids. In fact, it’s a lot like standards based grading: there is a clear target, multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning, formative/summative assessment, lots of conversation, feedback and support, and built on a strong relationship between evaluator and evaluatee. In addition, there must be opportunities for growth and improvement, and as much as possible, it should be teacher-led, but also flexible. We should be meeting the teachers where they are and helping them improve their practice and student learning.

I have been fortunate to be deeply involved with the teacher/principal evaluation project in Washington State. I am a trained facilitator for the UW CEL 5D/5D+ framework, and I love that we have a framework to guide our evaluation and feedback now.

Our core mission is teaching and learning. Schools exist for that. We need to ensure that our time prioritizes being in classrooms and working with teachers. We need to be hungry for information about our school’s strengths and weaknesses, and we need to be even hungrier for information about our own strengths and weaknesses. We need to be willing to educate ourselves on areas of deficit and seek input from others who have strengths in our deficit areas.

For principals, we need to do many of these things:

  • Commit to becoming expert observers; learn the frameworks and rubrics for evaluation very deeply
  • Visit classrooms every single day
  • Give teachers regular feedback
  • Seek to understand – ask questions, particularly when we observe something that doesn’t make sense. Ask for clarification and “assume you are wrong” if you have an initial negative impression
  • Let teachers tell you what they want to work on and help them achieve their goals
  • Remember that this is about improving student learning
  • Conduct observations (formal, informal, learning walks) with a partner or a team. Give feedback to teachers together
  • Ask staff for feedback on your practice

PSI: In a similar arena, there are also movements towards building principal evaluation systems. As a principal, what types of feedback would be most helpful? It's also difficult to separate out the principal effect from teaching when it comes to student learning. What factors should be incorporated into the evaluation that would have the biggest impact or value for students?

Meissner: I think the Association of Washington School Principals (AWSP) has done an outstanding job developing principal standards, rubrics, and resources. I love the leadership framework and use it for self-assessment multiple times per year.

I would love it if my supervisor observed me in meetings, professional development, etc., and gave me written or verbal feedback. I think it’s also critical that the targets are clear and mutually agreed upon. Feedback, whether for principals, teachers, kids, or anyone, is best when it is timely, specific, focused on strengths and deficits.

I think we should be accountable for improving teaching and learning in our schools, after all, that is our core business. I believe there are multiple ways to ensure that students are learning, and I am not personally a fan of using test scores UNLESS it is mutually agreed upon by teacher/principal or principal/superintendent. I think there are other ways to show improvement, and everyone sees our test scores anyway so we are accountable to our community for these.

PSI: The Common Core State Standards are coming to many states in the next few years. As an instructional leader, can you provide some thoughts on the quality and benefits of these standards? As a building leader, could you address some of the implementation challenges and what you're doing to support the roll out for your staff and students?

Meissner: I like the fact that they are providing one set of standards to guide our work and that they align with “national” assessments. I also like that they provide some sample texts (fiction and nonfiction) for all content areas. The emphasis of ELA in all subjects has opened up some excellent conversation.

We had all of our math teachers attend CCSS training three years ago. The focus of that work was comparing current standards with CCSS, addressing the gaps/overlaps and realigning grade level standards.

We’ve also been waiting for solid instructional materials that align with CCSS. That has been one of the most frustrating parts of the transition. We all know that textbook companies compile their books to be “one size fits all” which creates a problem in that it doesn’t truly align to state or Common Core standards. It would be nice if teachers had high quality lessons and assessments to start from, particularly at the elementary level where they teach multiple content areas.

The biggest challenges, aside from a lack of instructional materials, have to do with the number of high stakes initiatives being implemented at the same time (evaluation, graduation requirements, certification), and a lack of designated professional development time. It would be wonderful if teachers were paid for 8 hours a day and responsible for teaching 4-5. I don’t see that happening any time soon.

PSI: What other major building level changes are you encountering today? There are a myriad of issues in any given state and district, but we don't always hear enough about them from the individuals working on the ground.

Meissner: Thinking about things this week that have bubbled up to the top of my “to do” list, they include some of the following:

  • Technology and digital literacy/citizenship
  • Bullying and harassment
  • Drug use/marijuana legalization in our state (not legal for under 21 or on school grounds)
  • Staff members dealing with health issues (theirs and also aging parents)
  • Athletics
  • Food and wellness/nutrition
  • Special education
  • Mental health

PSI: Anything else you'd like to share, or general advice you have for colleagues or the public education community at large?

Meissner: I think the other thing that I would share is that it’s important to take care of ourselves. I started taking Zumba classes about 4 years ago (and have danced almost my whole life). I’ve been a Zumba instructor for the past three years, and it’s been a great way to have regular exercise in my life.

It’s also important to put “family first” whenever you can. I lost my husband in a car accident 3 years ago; our kids were 9 and 11 at the time. It’s been a really good reminder about what’s really important. Our jobs are extremely challenging and stressful, and we need to put our families first so they get the best of us once in a while.

When I became a principal, I promised myself I’d always be able to look myself in the mirror and know, every day, that I’d done my best and done the right thing even when it wasn’t easy. I have since added to that promise that I will make sure that my kids and I have quality time together. I work in the district where they attend school, and I’m principal at my son’s school (my daughter will be there in another year!). It’s really okay to nurture our spirits and do things that bring us personal joy.