Classroom Time
Educator Effectiveness Spotlight


Competing priorities and increasing responsibilities mean principals are finding it harder to spend quality time in classrooms, in addition to formal observations. One Tennessee principal is navigating these challenges in thoughtful and productive ways.


In the current landscape, it’s hard for principals to manage everything on their plates and find time to informally visit classrooms, outside of formal observations for teachers’ evaluations. But consistent principal presence in classrooms can yield benefits for teachers and students.

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In the past, the formal role of a principal consisted primarily of managing things like buses, budgets and behavior. In recent years, states and districts have implemented policies related to educator evaluation and professional learning that have shifted principals’ roles to include both building manager and instructional leader.

Although these educator effectiveness initiatives have been valuable for teachers’ professional growth and development, they require principals to spend an increasing amount of time completing internal administrative tasks — therefore limiting the amount of time they are able to spend informally visiting classrooms.

  • SREB’s educator effectiveness team conducted statewide focus groups in several states. Across each state, principals shared that they were actually spending less time in classrooms under new evaluation and professional growth systems, due to increased time spent reviewing student growth artifacts, scripting formal observation records, and completing other forms of paperwork and documentation.
  • A 2009 study by researchers from Stanford University found that principals spent as little as eight percent of their time in classrooms, but upwards of 60 percent in the main office.
  • 2016 research completed by the Institute of Education Sciences found that principals spent one-third of their time working on tasks tasks such as reports and budgets.
  • Principals surveyed by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of Elementary School Principals indicated that they spent up to 15 hours per teacher completing evaluations.

Why do informal principal visits to classrooms matter? According to these studies, principals’ visible presence benefits students and teachers.

Ask a teacher! He or she will likely say that they value when administrators put forth the time and effort to build relationships and provide low-stakes, non-evaluative feedback to help them grow.

One principal who is defying trends by being present in classrooms 40 to 50 percent of the time!

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Marcia (pronounced Mar-SAY) Northern is a first-year principal at an elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee. Marcia defies current trends by spending 40 to 50 percent of her time in classrooms. She keeps in mind advice from her district’s superintendent — her manta is, “keep the noise out of your ear and stay focused on what is happening in those classrooms.”

Each day, she works hard to spend most of her time in classrooms for three big reasons:

  • Marcia wants to build a culture of trust. She is aware of the challenges that come with being a teacher today, so she wants to be a source of support for her staff, both personally and professionally.
  • Marcia wants to improve teaching. She wants to help her teachers become empowered learners who are capable of driving their own professional growth. Improved teaching contributes to increased learning!
  • Marcia wants to ease stress over formal observations. Marcia carefully considers when and how to provide teachers with non-evaluative feedback. Not only does this help teachers improve their practice, it also helps teachers and students become accustomed to having someone visit their classroom. This is an important component of her focus on building trusting relationships.

“Teachers can’t only see you for evaluations. The rubric can’t be the only feedback.”

There are a lot of different things Marcia might do when she enters a classroom to visit. All of the choices she makes during classroom visits are centered around two important themes  — better instruction and supportive relationships.

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There are lots of different things Marcia might do when she enters a classroom to visit:

  • She offers quick pieces of bite-sized feedback on a sticky note.
  • She visits the classroom with instructional coaches for 15 minutes so they can calibrate by making sure the feedback they are providing teachers is aligned.
  • She checks in with teachers. This might be as simple as poking her head in the door and asking, “Do you need anything?”
  • She models lessons. Marcia says, as a principal, “Teachers need to know you know it.” Teachers in Marcia’s school have opportunities to observe Marcia roll up her sleeves and teach. This increases the credibility of her feedback among teachers and gives them ideas for ways to improve their own instruction.
  • She provides coaching in real-time during guided reading to focus on different teaching strategies and methods.
  • She helps kids with behavior strategies.
  • She participates in circle time. This usually takes place in the morning, but she also encourages teachers to hold an afternoon meeting with their classes.

To maintain a consistent presence in classrooms, Marcia takes seven key actions.

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Making time to consistently visit classrooms is challenging because meetings, paperwork and evaluations can be hurdles. Marcia uses seven key strategies to work around these hurdles and even use them to her advantage.

  1. Marcia stays aware of how she spends her time.
  2. Marcia allocates her time with urgency. She is cautious of having too many initiatives going on at once, so she prioritizes daily classroom happenings over spending time on every single meeting, club and grant.
  3. Marcia makes teachers comfortable early on. Marcia says, “Even at hiring fairs, I tell them I’ll be in their classrooms a lot and in the trenches with them.”
  4. Marcia knows her teachers. Marcia says, “How often I’m in a room, what I do there and the feedback I provide all depend on the individual teacher.” She uses her knowledge of teachers’ needs and working styles to make a schedule that she sticks to each week.
  5. Marcia follows up. After a longer visit to a classroom, she often follows up by having a coaching conversation with the teacher. She uses a six-step feedback process that includes components such as role playing and annotating lesson plans together. She also makes a variety of resources available to teachers. Together, Marcia and the teacher choose a time for Marcia to come back to the classroom to check out progress.
  6. Marcia advocates for classroom time.  She gives the district’s central office honest feedback about what she needs from them to be able to spend her time in classrooms.
  7. Marcia sets goals. Currently, Marcia’s goal is to broaden the visibility she has in classrooms to include the community as a whole by building stronger relationships with parents.

See the six-step feedback process Marcia uses to follow up with teachers.

Marcia’s focus on classroom time is paying off — despite past struggles, the school is experiencing a variety of improvements.

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Marcia’s efforts to maintain a consistent presence in classrooms may contribute to a variety of positive changes the school is seeing.

  • Students are learning more. Third-grade math benchmark test scores increased 5 percentage points in just a few months. In September, 23 percent of third-graders scored proficient or advanced. By December, the percentage of third-graders who scored proficient or advanced increased to 28 percent.
  • The school is developing a positive culture and climate.  Dialogue and peoples’ attitudes about the school are changing for the better. Marcia says, “Kids, parents and teachers all want to be here.”

“To build culture, you need to be present.”

  • Teacher absenteeism is falling. Ninety-eight percent of teachers come to work each day.
  • Teacher retention is rising.  Marcia estimates that about 97 percent of teachers will return next school year.