In the months following the start of the pandemic, information came more slowly than questions and challenges. As state lawmakers worked on answers in consultation with the State Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction, the question that kept coming up was: Will this work in schools?
This was happening when the General Assembly crafted House Bill 82 – a law that required summer camps in every district and, initially, mandatory seat time (in-person learning) for every student from elementary to high school. But who do you turn to when making decisions before the science around a new virus is fully developed?
When it comes to education, perhaps one of the smartest places to turn to is a principal.
“The principal is the one who responds to concerns expressed by parents, they are the ones who hear from students and teachers on a daily basis,” said Melody Chalmers-McClain, who was the 2016 state principal of the year.
The state recognizes this vital role, seeking advice and taking advice from a specific group of principals who met last summer.
“It’s so important that we understand their point of view and their point of view,” Chalmers-McClain said, “because they are the ones who have to implement these policies and these decisions, and be the ones who have to answer the questions. and explain why certain decisions are made, how money is spent, how resources are used and allocated.
Constitution of a group of main experts
Tabari Wallace first tapped into the wealth of North Carolina managers’ experience last summer. Wallace was the 2018 state executive of the year and last year the state’s superintendent of public instruction, Catherine Truitt, hired him as a senior adviser.
He gathered a group of current and former principals of the year and showed them the summer camp bill. They talked about the problems they see in their schools. Some of the members, former principals who now hold district leadership positions, have brought their experience to the central office.
Lawmakers changed parts of the bill based on the group’s feedback, including allowing flexibility for high school students who can’t spend a full day during the summer at school because they’re employed or take care of siblings.
“And it was a boon for the field,” Wallace said. “Now after that was done I thought that was it. I was going to disband this band that got involved and Catherine Truitt said, ‘No, you’re not going to disband that. Tabari, this is an excellent initiative you have underway. Let’s keep it up.'”
Now, North Carolina’s Executive Director’s Advisory Committee meets regularly to consider a host of policy issues — such as proposed changes to primary licensure, a new licensure and compensation system for teachers, and how the state can leverage learning loss data to inform schooling for the next several years.
The committee’s main issues, he says, are human capital, teacher licensure, the social emotional state of teachers and students, primary pay and, based on feedback from field principals , learning loss.
“It’s just a powerful professional group of colleagues who, maybe we don’t always agree and we have different perspectives, but one thing we agree on is that we want what we want. ‘is the best for North Carolina students,’ Chalmers-McClain said. “We want our state to be the best and we want to make sure that we provide sound advice to our state.”
Why directors? Because they are unique
If you’ve met Wallace or heard him speak before, you know he’s prone to passionate outbursts. But the passion he exudes when he talks about directors is high, even for him. He says the type of people who can succeed as head teachers combined with the experience gained from serving in that role are key influences that would benefit any education policy.
“Managers are the true epitome of service-oriented leadership,” he said. “A lot of people think directors have to be these content specialists or this and that – the greatest trait a director can have is being an expert personality and talent manager. And we are responsible for multiplying these talents.
Current headmistress of the year Elena Ashburn said it could be a lonely job – even for her, at a large secondary school with more than 2,000 pupils. She says her staff of 200 is dedicated and praises the talents of her nine directors. But there is only one principal.
This forces him and all managers to find community with other managers. That’s part of the magic of the core advisory board, she says. While bringing diverse experiences to the table, there is an element of mutual understanding that engenders respect and camaraderie, and helps them work collectively.
“The uniqueness of management is that you’re the only one of its kind in the building,” Ashburn said. “So if you don’t have colleagues you can lean on for questions and support, it’s really hard to navigate. … The Senior Advisory Board is definitely a community where you see exceptional talent across the state. And that’s really comforting, because you see that your problems aren’t confined to your own neighborhoods. It’s similar across the state.
Become popular with policy makers
Given the caliber of the group assembled and the many principals they keep in touch with in the field, the principals’ advisory committee has become a coveted source of guidance.
Recently, they started tackling the core licensing model. All were directors at one time and some are now in charge of hiring directors. They understand what’s important, including having strong internships that prepare candidates to return to their own schools.
That contribution now goes to the Professional Educator Preparation and Standardization Commission, and Wallace will present it to the Council of State this week.
In March, Wallace invited the group to meet in Raleigh to discuss other initiatives and hear presentations from policymakers. Requests to meet with the group of directors poured in when it was learned that they would be downtown. A three-hour agenda quickly turned into a full day of meetings, including nearly two hours spent in the General Assembly.
Senator Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, for example, waited nearly an hour after his scheduled time to meet with the directors that day because the group was running late given the number of additions to their schedule. Once he met with them, he spent way more than the allotted 15 minutes because, as co-chair of the Senate education committee, he thought it was too important.
“This is one of the most important meetings I can ever take,” Lee told the group as they stood on the floor of the Senate chamber. “I want to learn from you.”
In the year since the group’s formation, they have met with Truitt, State Board members and state legislators. They know that their collective voice is not the only one these decision-makers hear, but they feel heard and valued. This is important, they said, because they are representing themselves and the many principals they speak to before committee discussions.
As the state continues to grapple with the fallout of unfinished learning, rising mental health issues, and a host of other challenges spurred and exacerbated by COVID-19, the committee is reassured to have a direct line of contribution.
“I really feel like our opinion is valued and respected and considered almost the gold standard for commentary,” Ashburn said. “Because we are the ones doing the work every day.”
Chalmers-McClain added: “I think our voices matter now more than ever because everyone – lawmakers, stakeholders, our community – they need to understand that school is different now. The job is different now. We must be aware of this.