Stepping out of the principal’s office

Not every principal is like Mr. Rooney in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.

By Katherine Smith and Michelle Conerly


The principal’s office.

It’s the place that pop culture has enveloped in the stigma of discipline, where punishment is doled out, both just and unjust. The place the leader of the school retreats to and rules from with an iron fist.

But not every principal is like Mr. Rooney in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.

In the Kent School District a group of principals are bucking the institutional trend and cleaning out their offices, converting them to conference rooms and leaving the traditional idea of what a principal should be behind.

Among them are the principals at Kentlake, Kent-Meridian, Meeker Middle School, and Kent Elementary.

Packing up and moving out is the idea encouraged by Malachi Pancoast, the founder and president of The Breakthrough Coach.

Basically the idea is this: increasing time spent in classrooms equals better teacher coaching and feedback which equals higher student achievement and the organization the model demands will translate into decreasing working hours for often overscheduled administrators.

Below we take a look at what this idea means in practice for the principals at Kentlake and Kent-Meridian and how it’s changing the environment and the culture of the two schools.



If you’re looking for Wade Barringer, principal of Kent-Meridian High School, it might take some time.

Searching the office with his name printed above, you’ll find his trusty office manager, Kathi Reichert, answering phones and scheduling meetings.

Looking in the conference room across the hall, he might be there typing away on his laptop from time to time, but most likely, you can find Barringer sitting in the back of a K-M classroom, listening, watching, and interacting with students.

As of November, Barringer and Reichert now follow the Breakthrough Coach method, a model that allows professionals to be more efficient and present by giving up office space.

“It’s not rocket science,” Reichert said. “The less distractions you have, the more intentional you’ll be at your job.”

Barringer, who heard of this new model from a colleague, brought Reichert to a two-day seminar last fall where the speaker emphasized better scheduling of your time, focusing on your specific job duties, and ditching the big office.

“He used a sports manager or coach as an example,” Barringer said. “So like Pete Carroll of the Seahawks — where does he coach the team from? Does he coach them from his office ‘cause he has an office or does he coach from the field? And using the field analogy for the classroom where the work gets done, where the plays happen, where the adjustments and impact happens—it just kind of resonated with me.”

So Barringer and Reichert got busy purging old files, packing up family pictures, and relocating Barringer’s book collection to the staff lounge where it’s now a resource library.

“We threw away three recycle bins full of stuff,” Reichert said.

The next step was to move Reichert into Barringer’s office. Her old office had a window and door that faced the hallway, but with her new job duties, Reichert needed a space away from outside distractions.

Now in her new office, she’s able to keep herself and Barringer on task.

“I call her my boss,” Barringer said. “She just tells me what to do, where I’m supposed to be, (and) what I should be doing.”

Reichert screens all of Barringer’s phone calls and schedules his calendar to the minute of every day. In the mornings, they meet for 20 minutes to go over the day’s schedule and to sign papers.

“I (don’t) ever feel stressed out,” Reichert said.

The changes were made so that Barringer can coach from the field instead of getting caught up in all the “administrivia” or, “the frustrating, administrative responsibilities that tax leaders every single day” he said.

For a few hours on any given day, Barringer shuts down his laptop that sits in the conference room, picks up his iPad, and walks around the school.  He’ll then pop into any classroom he chooses, sit in the back, and observe.

“I do my emails in the classroom,” he said. “I may or may not be listening to everything that’s going on in the classroom, (but) I’m pretty good at multitasking.”

Depending on the class, Barringer might walk around during independent work time and ask the students questions or stand next to a student who should be paying more attention.

“When we started this in November, we saw an increase in teachers stepping up their game (and) we saw a decrease in discipline,” Barringer said. “(Kids) have a tendency to be a little bit more behaved when the suit walks in the room and sits in back.”

For teachers and staff, this new model allows them to speak with the principal during passing periods or right after class instead of having to make an appointment with him in his office. Most were enthusiastic about the changes, yet some are still getting used to Barringer not having a dedicated office. Luckily, he’s the principal, and can find a quiet spot if need be.

“If I need a space, I got space,” he joked. “I’m the principal. It’s my building. I can find a space. It’s not like (I’ve) got no place to go.”

Another aspect of the change is the drastic cut in hours both Reichert and Barringer spent after school. Pancoast told the conference attendees that both principal and secretary are to leave work at the same time. And now that all of his time is scheduled and work itemized, Barringer is able to head home around 4 p.m. most days to spend time with his family.

The extra time also allowed Barringer and Reichert to start a new project this year that they call their contract kids — a group of students with attendance issues, failing grades, and poor behavior who are tracked by Barringer and Reichert in an effort to not let them fall through the proverbial cracks. Every couple of weeks, these students meet one-on-one with Barringer to check in and see how they’re improving.

The switch to this new model is something Barringer hopes will continue at K-M long past his time as principal there. But the changes he’s made have breathed new life into his 6-year tenure.

“It’s brought me back to my roots and beliefs about how and why I’m here,” he said. “I wouldn’t have a job if we didn’t have kids and teachers so it’s important I’m out and about living what they’re living everyday.”



A simple question about a hat, “Is that military?” opened the door to a conversation between Kentlake Principal Joe Potts and a student in a math class. Within a minute Potts was engaged with all the students in the table group asking them about the material and helping them through a math problem.

“I didn’t know that boy before we went in,” Potts said in the hallway a few minutes later. “Now I know his name. I know he goes duck hunting with his dad, and the next time I see him in the hallway I can talk to him about that.”

I (Katherine) brought along Vanessa Hasslinger, a job shadow student from the Auburn School District, to follow Potts last week during one of his newly designated coaching days. What we saw was a day full of these kinds of interactions.

The idea of a principal giving up his office is an extremely relational one. Giving up his office means being out in the school. It means being in the hallways, in classrooms, in the cafeteria, and interacting with students and teachers.

“Ask three people, you’ll get three different answers,” Potts said of how he thinks he is seen within the school. However, to see him walking down the hallways during a passing time it’s clear that he is respected and liked by many, if not most, students. Greetings, hand shakes and quick conversations are plentiful. He knows students names and he makes the time for them, pausing to ask or answer a question in the hall.

While Potts makes an effort to get to know the students in his charge, he also is not afraid to call them out on dress code violations, being late to class or confiscate a rogue pair of headphones.

Potts first heard about the Breakthrough Coach philosophy from Jeffrey Pelzel, the principal at Meeker Middle School, who moved out of his office five years ago. Potts had also heard about the Kent Elementary principal doing the same thing. Then Barringer attended the conference and decided to give up his office as well.

It was through many conversations with the other principals and their secretaries that Potts and his secretary, Marie Wienker, decided to sign up for the conference this year.

“Secretaries are vital to this model — they’re the keys to the effective operation of the school, the day-to-day operation,” Potts said.

Under the new model everything for the principal goes through the head secretary. Wienker has taken charge of managing Potts’ calendar, answering his phone and organizing all the administrative paperwork. The goal is to have two to three days each week designated as coaching days then deal with all of the paperwork, phone calls and emails the other days.

“It’s maximizing the efficiency of the office side and the potential of the teaching side,” Potts said. “Right now (it’s) mainly my observing, taking notes and talking to teachers and being present.”

Potts said the goal is to move more and more toward coaching and mentoring in addition to observation.

And, of course, there is space available in the school should Potts need to hold meetings. Vanessa and I met with him in conference room two, the space that was formerly his office.

“I can influence very little in terms of what’s happening in the school when I’m sitting here,” Potts said. “The more times you spend in classrooms the more powerful the impact.”

The last time I interviewed Potts in March his office was home to his large collection of books and had been decorated with photos of his family, his degrees, awards and the usual array of knick knacks that you expect to find in someone’s office. Last week the place was bare except for a small pile of paperwork and a couple of faux plants. Tangible evidence of the shift from office to conference room.

“The plants are allowed,” Potts said with a smile. “You want people to feel connected so they don’t feel like they’re on a space station.”

Admittedly it took some convincing on the part of Wienker to get Potts on board with the idea.

“Initially I was really skeptical, I like my office…but the bottom line is I don’t need the space,” Potts said.

For Potts the tipping point came when he realized that they could be more efficient and that he was constantly running behind schedule.

“Talking to Marie and noticing how we weren’t on schedule…there was no efficient way of organizing all that…in this day and age I don’t feel comfortable missing anything,” Potts said in relation to deadlines, meetings, events and communication like emails and phone calls.

Ultimately, Potts said, the goal of the program is to help administrators be more efficient and effective leaders, coaches and teachers.

“The term itself (principal) was based in being the lead teacher…principal teacher is the most powerful model,” Potts said.

So far the response has been mostly positive at Kentlake and teachers are getting used to seeing Potts out and in the classrooms more.

“Initially teachers kind of wonder why you’re there. And we started mid course…there’s still a little wondering why you’re there,” Potts said. “It’s to implement these strategies and support teachers. That’s the goal.”

The model will also help administrators manage the new teacher-principal evaluation pilot model schools will implement next school year. One of the biggest changes of the new TPEP is that instead of there only being two ratings for teachers — satisfactory and unsatisfactory — teachers will be rated based off a four tier scale. According to Potts, teachers will still have two to three formal evaluations but will also get frequent, informal feedback.

“Validating the teacher is so powerful,” Potts said. “Even excellent teachers need support.”

Potts visits an average of 20 classrooms each day. Sometimes he spends five minutes in a classroom, sometimes he spends half an hour, it just depends on what is going on in each class.

“I’ve interacted with more kids in two hours, in this approach, then I used to in weeks,” Potts said as we walked between classrooms. “That makes a statement.”