April 16, 2019

A Sanford Professor Became a Principal for a Day. See How She Fared.

By Leslie Babinski

I always knew school principals had a big job, but my recent stint as “Principal for a Day” made it very clear how complex and multifaceted even just a few hours of a principal’s life can be. Thanks to the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce and their efforts to bring business and community leaders in schools together, I had the pleasure of shadowing Dr. Shaneeka Moore-Lawrence, principal of Bethesda Elementary School in Durham Public Schools, on her morning rounds.

Within the first 15 minutes, Dr. Moore-Lawrence handed me the school’s intercom speaker and the hand-crank tornado siren. My task was to first introduce myself as “Principal for the Day,” then announce the state-wide tornado drill – all while cranking an incredibly loud siren, which immediately halted all school activities.

I was very impressed with Dr. Moore-Lawrence. She was extremely welcoming, and I could tell she had given some thought to what I could experience in my short time as principal. I quickly caught on to the breadth of her principal duties when we started our classroom visits during the tornado drill that morning.

Dr. Moore-Lawrence and I visited each wing of the school to make sure students were in their safe, tucked positions lining the interior halls. She briefed teachers on how to improve the safety of their students in a constructive, straightforward way. As principal, Dr. Moore-Lawrence has to be the expert on students’ physical safety – among innumerable other things – and teachers look to her for advice and feedback.

I noticed during each classroom visit that Dr. Moore-Lawrence was taking notes on her phone. She later explained that she’s writing one positive observation and one constructive piece of feedback that she can email the teacher about his or her classroom later that day. She explained that teachers have come to expect her feedback, and she is even careful about her body language when visiting a classroom.

She walks fast in between classroom visits and brings lots of energy. As we walk, she stops to greet students we pass in the hallway. She knows each one by name. She clearly enjoys her interactions with students, which she told me she considers among the best parts of her job.

Dr. Moore-Lawrence is well-versed in every aspect of Bethesda Elementary – from student safety to curriculum implementation. She explained that when she first came on board nine years ago, her strategy was to begin with addressing big picture things, such as school culture and structures and routines, in order to create a strong foundation.

Her current focus is on curriculum and ensuring effective implementation of two new packages that the school added this year. Each week, she meets with teachers to make sure the implementation process is going smoothly and that students are progressing and have the support they need.

As an education researcher, I often work with teachers, but I found this experience to be surprisingly eye-opening. Throughout the visit, while walking down the halls and visiting classrooms, I was reminded of how rich and dynamic the environment of a school setting is and how the job of the principal encompasses all aspects of school life from curriculum leadership, to school safely, to creating meaningful personal connections with students, families and teachers.

As researchers, we often have ideas of what we’d like to see in a classroom based on studies of best practices. However, it is important that we respect the tensions that arise in classrooms every day and the multiple demands on teachers. We have to remember that teachers – and school administrators – are always balancing long-term and short-term goals, as well as situations that require them to respond in the moment.

When I tell people that I do research in schools, they often share their strong opinions about what should be done to improve education. They went to school, after all, and feel like they know what would make things better. But the complex and dynamic everyday life of principals and classroom teachers demands a high level of skill and sophistication to create a warm, inviting, and positive place for students to grow and learn. I was humbled by my visit to Bethesda and reminded that even those of us studying schools and education need a reality check once in a while.

My sincere thanks to Dr. Moore-Lawrence for providing me with this valuable opportunity.

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Leslie Babinski, Ph.D., is an associate research professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy and former director of the Center for Child and Family Policy.