A Virtual School Principal’s To-Do List

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I began my career as a classroom teacher, and for last 20 years have focused on improving teaching and learning in urban school districts. Now, as a principal of the Connections Academy virtual K-8 public schools in Colorado, my day might look different from that of a traditional school principal, but there are actually a lot of similarities. The following to-do list shows the differences and likenesses in this new realm of education.

  1. Train teachers for their virtual classrooms. It is my responsibility to help instructors transition from teaching in a traditional classroom to teaching in a virtual classroom. One of the most striking differences between the two experiences is the teacher’s focus. In a virtual setting, the teacher focuses on supporting the learning coach (i.e., the parent or adult responsible for the daily instruction); therefore, professional development must reflect this paradigm shift. Another difference highlighted during training is that the curriculum can be personalized because the focus is on the individual student instead of on the classroom. Teachers are also trained in the importance of excellent oral and written communications, which are vital to the success of a teacher in this environment. In addition, professional development includes training on the Connections Academy Learning Management System, which allows my teachers to do everything from using electronic gradebooks to inputting lesson modifications.

  2. Create a true partnership between teachers and parents. Because of the strong collaboration between the teacher and the learning coach, there is a mandatory introductory phone call to get an overview of the child. This helps the teacher understand the student’s strengths and weaknesses, learning styles, and interests. Along with the pretest that each child takes at the beginning of the year, this discussion starts the process of developing a student’s personalized learning plan. Other topics of discussion during this call include the best time and method of communication, as well as guidance for the parent in lesson recording and other important administrative functions. In addition, we do not have to worry about a lack of parental involvement because our parents accompany their children on field trips, to clubs and to social gatherings. This gives parents the opportunity to capitalize on their child’s interests.

  3. Lead through collaboration. I incorporate the same collaborative leadership style in running these virtual schools that I used while at a traditional school. Staff development, for even experienced classroom teachers, is essential in this new environment. Although they are not the sole instructors for our students, the teachers play a vital role in working with the learning coaches. Certified teachers are central to the teaching process of their students, and they must learn how to be both proactive and supportive.

  4. Focus on student achievement - not on discipline. One of my administrative duties is to think of new strategies and activities to maximize student achievement. I also work with teachers to prepare our students for state-mandated tests. But rather than spending mornings making sure students are in class safely, I use that time to check e-mail and voice mail, answer questions, and respond to parent comments. I do not, however, spend any time disciplining children or presiding over behavior management issues.

  5. Get to know whole families, not just individual children. Another striking difference between my experience as a virtual school principal and my days in a traditional school is that I get to know the families, not just the students. Although one adult in the family is listed as the child’s primary learning coach, oftentimes another family member takes part in teaching the child. As a principal, I have the opportunity to keep each family updated on school activities and important school information through e-mail, phone calls and a monthly newsletter. At the end of the school year, we also publish a yearbook highlighting each student’s interests, accomplishments and projects.

  6. Develop the vision and spread the word. As a virtual high school principal, my own professional development opportunities have greatly increased. This is because my duties and responsibilities have expanded to include outreach and marketing to share the virtual school experience with prospective students and their families during important informational sessions and open houses.

I encourage principals who have worked at traditional schools to consider broadening their educational experience and bringing their expertise to a virtual school. Now in my third year as the principal of the Connections Academy in Colorado (www.connectionsacademy.com), I can honestly say that it is the most rewarding experience of my lifelong career in education.

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.

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