How Principals Can Focus on Learning and Not Performance | Thought Partners Educational Leadership Coaching

How Principals Can Focus on Learning and Not Performance (10 Steps to Change the Narrative)

With the 2019 School Year coming to a close, school leaders have a great opportunity to start planning for a focus on learning in the coming school year.

With so many ever-changing challenges faced by schools and districts on a daily basis, it’s more important than ever to focus on learning rather than performance.

Today’s students, no matter if they are in kindergarten or graduating from college in 2019, are the future of our country. And what they learn in elementary, middle, and high school, and possibly college, has a tremendous impact on shaping who they become.

Learning does not stop with students.

It is still necessary for teachers and leaders at both the building and district level to continue learning. The past decade has revealed a plethora of research studies on hundreds of influences on student learning and achievement.

And there’s that word – achievement.

Student learning results in student achievement.

Student learning is the vehicle to increased student achievement.

But, too much focus has been on a single high-stakes assessment given once a year.

You can learn more about student learning and progress through formative assessments and feedback. Feedback has a .75 effect size which almost doubles that rate of learning for a student.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was a needed relief from No Child Left Behind and its focus on school and district performance with numerous and punitive accountability measures.

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the yearly testing measures in grades 3-8, middle and high school grade levels came under fire from states, districts, and parents.

ESSA provided an out from the Common Core State Standards. However, it is interesting that a handful of states outright abandoned the standards to write new ones, and 21 states made clarification revisions, additions, or deletions to the CCSS and renamed them.

Essentially, most states have a version of the CCSS and are calling them things like, The Next Generation Standards or The Common Core Readiness Standards. ESSA also provided relief from the punitive measures even though the yearly assessments will continue.

The point is, the window has been opened a few inches to let in some air, so districts and schools can breathe. We now need to open it up all the way and let a full breeze into the districts and schools, so students, teachers and leaders can learn and thrive. 

10 actions to change the narrative and focus on learning, not performance

Are you ready to focus on learning? Take the challenge.

There are ten actions that building or district leaders can take to change the narrative and focus on learning rather than performance. Each action will open the window up a little more to breathe life and learning for all through your buildings and district.

The result? Increased student achievement. It’s time for you to lead the charge and make your school or district THRIVE!

Leadership Actions to Change the Narrative

  1. Conduct formative walkthroughs with a focus on student learning.
  2. Flip your faculty and leadership team meetings.
  3. Participate in professional learning provided to teachers.
  4. Schedule opportunities to teach in classrooms.
  5. Narrow the focus of School or District Improvement plans.
  6. Revisit your hiring process.
  7. Collaborate with teachers on decisions and professional learning.
  8. Change the focus of common teacher planning time.
  9. Revamp your website and hallways to reflect learning.
  10. Bring parents into the learning conversation.

Are you ready to go deeper with each leadership action?   

Good! You don’t have to follow these recommendations in any particular order. You can decide what action you want to start with and map out your own learning path and try them out.

And, I want to hear about your success stories in the comments below! Let’s get started…

1. Conduct formative walkthroughs with a focus on student learning.  

I have always known short classroom visits as walkthroughs. If you’re a school administrator, you visit a classroom for a brief period and then provide constructive feedback to the teacher, based on your observations. The focus is usually on improving instruction. You may or may not have chatted with students, but if you did you tried not to interrupt the teaching and learning.

To change the narrative from a focus on teaching—which essentially is performance—to a focus on learning during a walkthrough, start with the students.

Student responses will tell you how a teacher impacts their learning.

There are three standard questions to ask them:

  • What are you learning? The teacher should be informing students what they are learning during the lesson or at the start of a unit. This is known as the learning intention. You do not want to hear students describe what they are doing. You want a description of what they are learning in the lesson.
  • How are you progressing in what you are learning? Students are only able to do this if the teacher has shared what his or her students need to do to be successful, known as “success criteria.” Students should be able to discuss how they are progressing in attaining success criteria.
  • What do you need to learn next? This relates to how they are progressing, or if they are progressing well, what they think the next step is in their learning.

 Why are these questions so important?  

These three questions are emphasized in Dr. John Hattie’s Visible Learning work. If students can answer these questions, the teacher has clarity.

Teacher clarity has an effect size of .75 which almost doubles the rate of learning.

Students should not have to guess what they are learning. They should be informed by the teacher what they are learning for the time period of instruction. And they should also know how they are progressing against the success criteria, something that should be shared by the teacher or possibly co-created with the students.

2. Flip your faculty and leadership team meetings.

I learned this action from Peter DeWitt, a colleague, author, and blogger for Education Week.

As a principal, he began to “flip” his faculty meetings—another action to change the narrative from a focus on performance to a focus on learning.

Too many faculty meetings discuss housekeeping tasks or mundane tasks and forget about teacher learning that could be occurring. Dedicate just 8-10 minutes of the faculty meeting to these mundane tasks, or place them in an email, information log, or weekly newsletter.

And instead, use valuable faculty time for actual teacher learning!


The change in the narrative is not just about student learning. It is about teacher and leader learning as they are the people who can impact student learning. To do so, teachers and leaders need to be continually learning.

Professional development has an effect size of .41 which is just in the zone of desired effects and above the .40 hinge point.  There are numerous learning opportunities that can occur in a faculty meeting including calibrating scoring of a writing prompt or prioritizing standards.

3. Participate in professional learning provided to teachers.

Vivian Robinson identifies five strategies associated with being an instructional leader. These include:

  • Promoting and participating in teacher learning and professional development (.84)
  • Planning and coordinating, and evaluating teaching and the curriculum (.42)
  • Strategic resourcing (.31)
  • Establishing goals and expectations (.42)
  • Ensuring an orderly and supportive environment (.27)

Your actions as a leader, promoting and participating in professional development, with a focus on learning, not performance will have the greatest impact on student learning and achievement.

I’m certain that most every teacher and leader will say that they are life-long learners. But you need to walk the talk and actually apply these practices daily.

I have presented in many schools where the administrators are there at the beginning of the professional learning session, but leave about 20 minutes in. And I don’t see them again until the lunch break to see how things are going.

I have also presented to schools in which the principal and superintendent are present and participate alongside the teachers, doing what the teachers are doing.

Why is this important?

Promoting and participating in teacher learning and professional development has the greatest effect size of .84 which over doubles the rate of student learning and achievement.

As a building or district leader, you are also responsible for implementing professional learning back into each and every classroom.

If you have not attended, how are you going to support implementation or provide feedback to teachers?

Your attendance and participation will provide you credibility when you go into a classroom and provide feedback to a teacher. There are a number of instructional practices that you as the leader can model in different meetings.

4. Schedule opportunities to teach in classrooms.

As a leader, you should be able to take over a classroom especially one in which you originally taught.

You need to experience periodically what it feels like to teach in a classroom. And this experience also gives you many opportunities to connect with students.

As a building leader, I’m certain there have been times when you’re short a substitute or a staff member has a family emergency and needs to leave in the middle of the day. So, instead of scrambling to rearrange staff and disrupt everyone, offer to teach a class or two to keep the learning going in the right direction.


Teachers will have greater respect for you and see you as a person who they can collaborate and trust.

They will recognize that your focus is on learning and you are willing to get in the trenches to keep that focus on learning.

Teachers have the greatest impact on student learning, so never stop being a teacher of students and teachers.   

5. Narrow the focus of School or District Improvement plans (Strategic Planning).

Michael McDowell is Superintendent of an Elementary District in California and I have had the opportunity to hear him present on a few different occasions.

Because of his actions, his district has become one of the most improved school districts in California.

One of his actions is to have a lean improvement plan. His district improvement plan is three pages long and their main goal is to ensure that every student attains one year of growth for one year of teaching every year.

It’s as sweet and simple as that. If that occurs starting in kindergarten, there will be minimal learning gaps as student’s progress. Focus on the purpose of the school or district – student learning.


School and district strategic plans are typically unwieldy. There are too many goals to achieve and efforts are spread too thin.

You need to have a narrow focus so you can take incremental action steps to achieve the goal year after year.

Your goal is your purpose for your school or district. And you are aiming to move forward year after year to achieve that goal.

The general purpose of school is to promote learning. So, your goal should be to focus on learning.

Every student deserves a year of growth for a year of learning.  However, that is not always the case resulting in student learning gaps.

6. Revisit your hiring process.

Hiring the right people for teaching positions can be a daunting task.

Sometimes due to budget issues, you have to hire late, and the pool of candidates may not be as strong.

It is understandable that depending on the size of your district or district policies that Human Resources is the first gateway to getting an interview in a school.

Teachers have the greatest impact on student learning and principals have the second greatest impact on student learning. Who you hire can make a difference in student learning.   It can either be for the better or for the worse.

Hiring is a very important aspect if students in your building are going to be learning and gaining a year of growth for a year of time in each classroom.


Teachers have the greatest impact on student achievement. And, as John Hattie and Klaus Zierer state in their book 10 Mindframes for Visible Learning: Teacher for Success, “This book is less about repeating the story and more about searching for the core of what makes the greatest difference – and as we will see it comes directly to HOW educators think about their jobs, their interventions, their students, and their impact (p.xviii).”

 So, only teachers and leaders with certain beliefs, pedagogical knowledge and application can really have the greatest impact on student learning and achievement.

I’m certain you remember a few teachers who really made a difference in your learning over the years. I can think of several, from elementary to graduate school.

Hiring is the first step to obtaining the right teachers for your school and students. It is how educators think that truly makes the difference.

What is the focus of the questions you ask teachers in interviews?  Could you provide scenarios for candidates to respond to in order to ascertain their mindframes?

7. Collaborate with teachers on decisions and professional learning. 

Collaboration does not just mean getting a group of teachers and/or other stakeholders together and knowing what you want the outcome to be and directing the meeting in that direction.

That is manipulation and not true collaboration.

True collaboration allows teachers to help plan and facilitate faculty meetings, so they focus on either student or teacher learning.

True collaboration is when a leadership team meeting or school improvement plan meeting with parents and community members encourage everyone to have a voice and they are not dismissed.

Everyone has a voice and encourages participation by all members.  Teachers deserve to have a voice on decisions that affect them.


Cooperative learning is an effective instructional strategy with an effect size of .53 because as the saying goes “two heads are better than one.”

Collaboration is when a group of teachers are working cooperatively on a task such as lesson planning, developing a formative or summative assessment, performance task, or analyzing data to make instructional decisions.

Every person has a different level of experience, educational background, level of education, and perspective. Having multiple teachers working together brings the best thinking into one location.

As for professional learning opportunities, if they are shared with the staff before the professional learning and input is received, you will have greater buy-in than if the professional learning topic is shared with them and they are expected to attend with no input.

There’s an old adage, that rings true: “It takes a whole village.” And in this case, “It takes a whole school,” no matter the position.

8. Change the focus of common teacher planning time to learning.

It’s very common for teachers in a grade level or subject area or department to meet together for a specified time weekly or bi-weekly.

The focus of the meetings can vary from school to school, grade level, or subject area team to grade level team.

Teachers could be planning a common lesson, discussing instructional strategies, grading a common assessment, discussing students who are struggling, or taking care of housekeeping items such as field trips, budget purchases for next year, or upcoming parent-teacher conferences.

What is the focus on your teacher common meeting times? How much time is focused on  learning (student or teacher learning)?


Too much time has been spent on what percentage of students are proficient and what to do instructionally for those students who are not proficient.  Proficiency is the floor. Being proficient means a student has attained the minimum level of understanding and application.

Now, I understand this may be a great achievement for certain students, but the question that needs to be answered is: How much learning occurred for each student?

This also brings into play the need for a common pre- and post-assessment to make visible the learning that has occurred.

In the words of John Hattie, “Know thy impact.” The learning between a pre- and post-assessment shows your impact on student learning.

If Sylvia scored a 72% on her math pre-assessment on angles and a 75% on her post, she did not learn very much.

Student learning is a result of teacher instruction and if you are only talking about instruction and not student learning, you are missing the boat.

Student learning is caused by teacher practices. If you do not know if a student learned, and how much they learned or grew, you do not know if your practices impacted student learning or not.


9. Revamp your website and hallways to reflect learning.

Your website and hallways are what teachers, students, parents, and community members see first.

What you display on your website and in your halls should be reflective of a focus on learning.

The website and halls should also reflect your student population and community which will nurture your school climate.

In certain areas of the country, student populations have changed over time and so should your websites, hallways and display cases.

If there are multiple display cases with sports trophies, pictures and accolades and only one with an academic focus it shows clearly what is valued in the school.


First impressions are lasting and if you have your state assessment scores posted on your website or displayed in the front hall entrance you are indicating that performance on those state assessments is more important than student learning.

Your website is a place parents visit! Potential teachers, other employees, or community members also visit your site.

You want it to make a first good impression—that this school’s main focus is on student learning.

Learning is the main intention of schools and thus actions and displays should emphasize a focus on student learning.

With student learning, performance will follow. But performance should not be the end all— learning is the end all.    

10. Bring parents into the learning conversation.

Parents want to be the best parents they can be. And, when it comes to their child’s learning, they need to be a part of the learning conversation.

Not all parents are able to do this. They might have busy work schedules, or not feel comfortable meeting with teachers or administrators.

But parents need to know what their children are learning and how they, or another family member, or caretaker can support the child’s learning at home.

Parents may need a glossary of educational jargon and terms that will give them a better understanding and bring them into the learning conversations.

Why is this so important?

Parents need to understand what their child is learning because that is the only way they or another adult can support the child at home.

It is understandable that there are many students with working parents who may have limited time to support their children at home. But parents still deserve to be included in the learning conversation no matter what level they are able to support their child’s learning or participate in school events.

All parents need to feel welcomed into the school, no matter their level of support for their child or participation in school functions. They are all doing the best they can and need to be respected.

Take the Challenge and change the narrative! 

The traditional narrative has focused too much on student performance.

But all 10 actions above are intended to change the narrative at your school. One that will shift the focus to student learning.

You can gather some evidence on each of the actions to determine which action needs to be a priority. Or you can choose an action that you may already be partially doing.

Which action will give you the greatest impact on student learning?

Create a plan of action based on the evidence you have gathered on each of the actions discussed.

Changing the narrative to focus on learning will result in achievement.

Remember, the purpose of school is learning, and teachers and administrators are charged with making that learning possible.

What you do does matter! And changing the narrative will make it matter even more.

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Tracey Shiel

Tracey Shiel is an author and consultant with over 20 years in the field of education. Through Thought Partners, she provides research-based educational services including balanced leadership coaching, professional development, implementation planning, and execution support, and special educational projects of the highest quality. Her passion is with coaching educational leaders to achieve school and district improvement goals while enhancing leadership capabilities.