Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
December 1, 2006
Vol. 64
No. 4

The Principal Connection / Thanking Your Stars

author avatar

When is the last time you talked at length to one of your best teachers or visited the classroom of one of your strongest faculty members? If it's been a while, that would not surprise Vilfredo Pareto, the researcher who “discovered” the 80/20 rule in 1897. Pareto calculated that in 19th-century Italy, 20 percent of the population possessed 80 percent of the wealth. Slight variations of that rule have been found to apply in many different settings—including, I believe, the time administrators spend with faculty. Most principals end up spending 80 percent of their time working with the 20 percent of teachers who are wrestling with some professional difficulty.
It pains me to admit that I give far less time to teachers who are at the top of their game than to those who are struggling. Invariably, I find myself focusing on problems right in my face, dousing fires that needed to be extinguished yesterday. That's my job, of course. But what's the cost of focusing only on the things that aren't right?

Why We Need to Listen

Good teachers are the key to success in any school. But it's the star teachers, those who bring magic to their classrooms each day, who really make the difference for students. These top teachers aren't satisfied with being merely good; they aren't pleased when only most of their students achieve. Star teachers push themselves and everyone around them, and their influence extends beyond their classrooms to positively shape their schools' culture.
It's tempting to ignore our star teachers because the same qualities that make them valuable can test an administrator's patience. After all, we're the ones who receive their ideas, suggestions, and criticisms! But a big part of leadership is listening and developing relationships; we need to take time to truly hear our star teachers. The fact that we may not always like what we hear makes it even more important that we do so.
A month ago, I took what I thought was a finished report card revision to a faculty meeting. I perfunctorily asked for responses. Well, the responses weren't perfunctory at all! It was hard—but necessary—for me to hear teachers' objections. Thanks to their input, we improved the report card.

The Care and Feeding of Star Teachers

Principals need to visit star teachers' classrooms. Regardless of how talented these teachers are, they need affirmation and feedback. As we observe and talk with quality teachers about what we see in their classrooms, we learn with them. We also need to create times to just talk, to ask, “What are you doing that's working well? Which students worry you? How can I help?”
Top teachers often thrive on using their gifts in new ways to meet new challenges. So another way to support star teachers is by helping them draw on those gifts in different ways. Star teachers often develop interests beyond their classroom and discipline, and they have talents and insights that can be tapped in new ways.
Involving top-flight teachers in a peer-observation process can yield powerful benefits. Imagine the growth that will take place—for star teachers as well as for emerging stars—when teachers exchange suggestions with their peers. Who can better offer ideas to a teacher mired in a problem than someone who has successfully faced the same issue?
  • Lead a faculty or parent book group, choosing a book within the education arena or a noneducation field with implications for schools.
  • Perform the initial screening of teacher applicants.
  • Design a summer enrichment program or create a student club.
Why not ask your star teachers how they would like to work together to move your school forward?

Distributed Intelligence

I often talk about “distributed intelligence,” the notion that human intelligence is not limited to what is inside our skin but extends to using external resources to solve problems (The term originally described how people access technology). In my mind, though, the most valuable form of distributed intelligence is drawing from other individuals. Our star teachers are resources; by tapping into their talents, we help everyone grow.
How are you going to help your star teachers grow this school year and invite them to help you grow? I'd enjoy hearing your ideas.

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 107029.jpg
Science the Spotlight
Go To Publication