Crossing the Boundary For Meaningful Teacher and School Principal Meetings

How often do principals and teachers get together in teams to talk deeply about student achievement, curriculum, instruction, or assessment? Once a month? Once a quarter? Maybe once at mid year and again in June? Or perhaps, not at all? Truth is, the busy schedule principals and teachers hold can be a major impediment to teacher-principal team meetings. Confound time issues with a lack of perceived value for such meetings on either party’s part, lack of instructional leadership skills or understandings, credibility issues, distrust, etc, and the likelihood of principal-teacher team meetings is further diminished.  And yet, when done well with focus and purpose, principal-teacher team meetings can be phenomenally useful in raising the bar and doing what’s best for student achievement. Smart school administrators and teacher leaders know all too well they need one another to make a positive difference in their schools, but it takes a concerted effort at all levels for teacher-principal team meetings to get traction.

When working in the Glens Falls City School District, every two weeks I’d visit six middle school teams of teachers for what would be the richest and most useful day of professional growth during the entire two-week cycle. With six to eight teachers and counselors together with me in one room for 42 minutes, we’d talk about teaching, learning, students at risk, parents, data, curriculum, interventions, brain research, Understanding by Design, Classroom Instruction that Works, grants, technology, cross curriculum opportunities, and whatever else warranted discussion. We often did such meetings with student work samples in hand. Other times we were looking at curriculum maps, and still others with assessment reports. These meetings were a product of serious efforts by the district superintendent, assistant superintendent, and school board to raise student achievement in the middle school, and what started out as “Stamping out Weaknesses” meetings to analyze state assessment results became “Meetings with Steve.” It was a great time for doing good work.

Crossing the divide which separates teachers and principals requires something tangible. When my wife and I go to a social event, we bring something for the host. A dessert or appetizer perhaps. Inevitably during the party, the host and others remark about the dish. “I love the spicy tang in the frosting, how did you do that? Is that lemon zest?”, or “I must have that recipe. Will you email it?” You get the picture. The dish promotes conversation. Granted, at parties there’s much to converse about amongst friends, but the idea is the same. When something is brought to the table (pun intended), people in the group are more apt to talk about that something than when there is nothing brought to the table. Star and Griesemer (1989) define such tangible item as boundary objects or “objects of interest,” and Wenger (1998) defines boundary objects as, “Artifacts, documents, terms, concepts, and other forms of reification around which communities of practice can organize their interconnections.”

Boundary object are tangible items individuals use to cross boundaries between groups. Within schools, boundary objects are tools principals can use to promote meaningful professional conversations with teachers about curriculum, instruction and student learning.  Boundary object examples could include student writing folders, student work samples, curriculum maps, the Tri-State Quality Rubric, Evidence Binders, Student Learning Objects, Calibrated Classroom Videos, EngageNY Curriculum Modules, student survey results, teacher survey results, parent survey results…… With renewed focus on instructional leadership, particularly at the teacher leader level, in schools across the nation, now is the time to implement regularly scheduled principal-teacher team meetings. After all, if we truly hope to make data-driven instruction, common core instructional shifts, student learning objectives, and other school reform agenda items stick, then people need quality time and relevant artifacts to do the work. Make the time, bring the boundary objects, and people will talk.

Star, S. L., & Griesemer, J. R. (1989). Institutional ecology, “translations” and boundary objects: Amateurs and professionals in Berkeley’s museum of vertebrate zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science, 19(3), 387-387-420. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/61062484?accountid=13645

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press.

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