Like many people, January finds me with a long list of resolutions for the new year. This year, I’ll be eating out less, going to the gym more and starting to relearn Spanish. This is of course until the complexity and urgency of life leaves me with a pair of tennis shoes that haven’t been worn in a week and daily emails from the language app I downloaded asking me, “Where have you been?”
For individuals, keeping long-term commitments can be hard. For organizations, especially those doing high-stakes, mission-driven work, it can be even harder.
Yet, at Achievement First (AF), because we make a long-term commitment to our students—one that extends from kindergarten through college—we must also make a long-term commitment to building the team—teachers, operations staff and school leaders—to continue this work well into the future. Over the past year, AF’s Principal-in-Residence (PIR) program has afforded me the opportunity to experience AF’s long-term commitment to developing principals, while also continuing to have an immediate impact on our students as a middle school leader.
At AF, we believe that highly effective school leadership can be learned over time through coaching and development in two key areas: people leadership and teacher development.
As a people leader, the principal must cultivate a long-term vision for the school and invest staff, families and students. To do so requires both an understanding of your own “core beliefs” and an ability to draw upon an emotional connection with others – to be resonant. Working with other PIRs, and guided by veteran leaders, I’ve spent full days role-playing tough conversations, reflecting upon my own values—the values that drive me to do this work—and refining my overall presence in speaking and leading large groups. This practice can be immediately applied when I return to my school to continue refining my people leadership over time.
As teacher developer, effective principals use three core tools to improve the quality of instruction and, in turn, the level of achievement in their school: observation and feedback, looking at student work, and leading whole-school professional development. To achieve excellence in these three core tools, AF partners with Relay Graduate School of Education’s National Principal Academy Fellowship (NPAF), a year-long program that focuses heavily on applying these tools at your school and then receiving feedback from expert coaches. In practice, this allows for me to both build skill for the future while also getting better at developing a team of teachers each day.
During my time as a PIR, my rate of learning and development has increased more so than at any other point in my career. Amidst the challenge of being a current school leader, I’ve been afforded many opportunities to step back and either reflect on my leadership or dive deep into refining my skill. Certainly, this comes from a long-term, personal commitment I’ve kept: the commitment to working to end educational inequity. However, my ability to lead and enact change owes a great deal to the long-term commitment AF has kept—the commitment to building a pipeline of future principals that will sustain our shared work into the future. For that, I’m forever grateful.
Zachary Segall is an Academic Dean, Special Services Leader and Principal-in-Residence at AF Crown Heights Middle School.