By: Coleman Marshall, Principal
6th Grade Academy and Junior High at Lexington Christian Academy
“Toto, I have a feeling we are not in Kansas anymore,” Dorothy Gale said in astonishment as she looked around her new environment in the Land of Oz. This was close to how I felt a little over a year ago, when I made the jump from the classroom to administration and found myself in a whole new territory. In July 2018, my alma mater, the school which previously employed me as a teacher, approached me about becoming the interim principal for the 2018-2019 school year. There were many emotions and thoughts running through my head, but ultimately I accepted the position. In March 2019, the school removed the interim title and I was named the principal for our 6th Grade Academy and Junior High.
I know some teachers out there are thinking that I crossed over to the dark side. I tend to see myself more in the light of Obi Wan Kenobi. Yes, a clear bias exists here, but give me the chance to make my case before you cast the verdict.
I served in the classroom for six years, and five of those years I implemented project-based learning (PBL) with my curriculum. I had first hand experience of the power that PBL brought not only to me, but my students, their parents, and my school. I began facilitating trainings for Magnify Learning, and it was through this experience that I decided to pursue administration. I loved working with teachers and seeing the light bulb go off for them when they understood how project-based learning could transform their pedagogy. I realized I wanted to pursue administration, but I promised myself not to forget my time in the classroom and the mindset of a teacher (also my first grade teaching wife reminds me weekly not to forget).
Within my classroom, I was king. I called the shots and I led myself. Now, not only am I leading myself, but I am responsible for leading my team of 30 faculty and staff. It is easy when you are leading yourself, but when you throw others into the mix, things get complicated quickly. Therefore, if you are an administrator wanting to bring PBL to your school or district here are five tips to help you on your journey.
#1 Develop a Solid Plan
As a young boy, my father enjoyed watching classic western movies, and he shared that love with me throughout my childhood. The Magnificent 7, one of my all-time favorites, tells the story of seven gunslingers hired by a village to free them from the oppressive rule of local bandits led by the outlaw leader, Calvera. If you have seen the movie, you will remember that these men do not simply come into town and rid the villagers of their problem immediately. They assess the problem, train the villagers to fight back, and lay a trap for the outlaws.
Implementing PBL in your school or district should follow the same logic of the gunslingers. Most administrators know their end game, but it is imperative to develop a plan. Rushing into new territory or a new initiative without a plan is simply bad practice. Within each school and school district, one will find different cultures, achievements, and failures. As the leader of your school or district, you better know your culture. It is easy to get sucked into the idea that you must unveil your initiative immediately. Do not do it! I spent a year planning what PBL would look like for my team. Thanks to the intentional planning, my team trusts me to take them through the process and provide proper support for their success. Take your time when developing a plan, it serves as your foundation and it must be solid.
#2 Cast a Vision
I love The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. The films do an excellent job of revealing the power of a vision. Thorin and his band of dwarves had the vision of returning to the Lonely Mountain to restore their kingdom. Frodo and the fellowship all had the same vision in destroying the one ring and defeating Sauron.
Visions compel people to act. Teachers will not follow you if they do not know where you plan to take them. When you first introduce your staff to project-based learning, clearly explain your vision. If you do not show enthusiasm or interest, then your staff will follow right behind you in the exact same manner. When leaders do not cast their vision, their followers often feel that they are wandering aimlessly, wasting their time. No one likes to waste a commodity as precious as time. Do yourself a favor, cast a powerful vision for PBL in your school or district, and then prepare yourself for great things to happen.
#3 Set Realistic Expectations
In Return of the Jedi, the Rebel Alliance launches its attack on the reconstructed Death Star, when Admiral Ackbar exclaims, “It’s a trap!”. As a principal or administrator do not be like Admiral Ackbar and fall into the trap of setting unrealistic expectations, especially in regards to implementation. Time and time again, teachers either become burned out or turned off to PBL because of unrealistic expectations set by their administrators or the school district. In our defense, the administrative team would like to see a return on investment when funds go toward PBL training for teachers.
Still, the benefits of a slow rollout far outweigh the alternative. If PBL is new to your staff, think about having them work in their grade levels, departments, or even PLCs for the first year in developing projects. If other teachers are ready to launch, then let them launch. When the second year comes, have each teacher complete at least one or two PBLs for the year. Trust me, your teachers will appreciate the time. If your staff resembles my team, you likely have many teachers who strive for excellence. When you give them enough time to plan and prepare, it will cause less stress and lead to better results.
#4 Link Other School or District Initiatives
Indiana Jones put his hand across his heart and put his foot out, and with a leap of faith he discovered the bridge that would take him to the chamber of the holy grail. This was no easy task, but he did not do this on his own. Dr. Henry Jones, Indiana’s father, dedicated his entire life to discovering the grail. The integration of his father’s research book along with Indiana’s wisdom and strength made their crusade a success.
When I became the interim principal, I walked straight into a school-wide initiative on Biblical worldview integration (I work at a private Christian school). When training other teachers on PBL, one question consistently arises, “How does PBL fit into our district’s reading initiative?” Feel free to replace the word reading with some other initiative. Often teachers try to meet the expectations of several school-wide or district-wide goals. Project-based learning integrates well with other initiatives because of the flexibility and the different elements within the PBL framework. Do not expect your teachers to connect the dots. Just as you cast your vision and set your expectations, connect the dots for them. Provide examples and emphasize the ability of PBL to retain its relevance throughout the years. While not a silver bullet, PBL serves as a powerful tool that can help your school or district bring authenticity to the classroom.
#5 Create a Supportive Culture
In the entire cinematic universe, I cannot think of a more tight-knit group than the Goonies. From confronting the reality that they might have to move away from their town and leave friends behind, to confronting felons trying to steal hidden pirate treasure, the Goonies had each others’ backs. As the leader of your staff, you must make it known that you have their backs and you will support them. I understand that if my teachers experience support and care, that will inevitably lead to an environment where students experience the same.
Effective principals and administrators create layers of support for their staff as they work on project-based learning. One of the best things that you could do to create a supportive culture for PBL to thrive is to provide project tuning time for your staff on a weekly, bi-weekly, or even monthly basis. Create systems in which your teachers can grow and develop their PBLs.
I love it when teachers come to me wanting to try something new. Typically, I sense their apprehension. Yet, if I see their logic and the potential student impact is high, then by all means try it. If the project is successful, great, but even if it fails, then my teachers learn from it. Whether you’re implementing PBL or not, your teachers need to know that you have their backs, and that you will do everything in your power to help them succeed in their classrooms.
Coleman Marshall is the Principal for the 6th Grade Academy and Junior High at Lexington Christian Academy. He is a certified trainer through Magnify Learning. He loves collecting bow ties, reading, and serving as an unofficial ambassador for the great Commonwealth of Kentucky. When he is not working, he loves spending time with his wife and traveling.