Ryan Fellow Blog: Setting the Stage for Principalship

Ryan Fellow Blog: Setting the Stage for Principalship

Gretchen Larsen
Class of 2018 Ryan Fellow


When I was in my second year of teaching, I launched a drama club at the middle school where I worked. Because the program was new, I had no budget, no materials, nothing but a crew of eager kids. In some ways it was nice to start from scratch, but it was also really difficult to have to do everything alone. I wrote the plays, built the sets, and found every costume and prop by myself, and the result was a production that was entirely mine. The pressure was intense—if the play failed, it would be nobody’s fault but my own—so I spent every non-teaching hour immersed in preparation for our production.

A large part of my work for the Ryan Fellowship is creating a “Leadership Playbook” that reminds me a lot of my work as a play director. The playbook is a detailed, exhaustive account of my plan for running my own school. Its structure follows the guidelines for change management in the setting of a fictional school, where I outline expectations for everything from how we walk in the hallway to the process for referring children to special education. Although the school I’m writing about does not exist, the text will guide every action when I am a school leader in the coming years; it helps me establish clarity and create systems of accountability for a real school.

My field study year is a very long rehearsal. My play ends not in curtain calls and flowers thrown on the stage, but in measurable growth for students and adults.

Much like my time immersed in the drama program, I have spent all of my time away from my field study immersed in my playbook. It has been through six revisions and it’s not done yet. The amount of time invested is similar to the amount of time I put into working on my master’s degree. While I don’t have an “opening night”, I will have to defend my playbook to Accelerate Institute’s staff in February. One notable difference is that I don’t have to do this alone. My advisor has shared resources and feedback that have helped me along, so I don’t have to wait for the curtain to rise to know that I’m on the right track.

Many of the ideas I’ve used in my playbook have come from my action research. We started with 6% of students mastering daily exit tickets, well below the school’s goal of 80%. While our lesson studies, data reviews, and teacher coaching did affect student achievement, our most successful data came from a one-day trial run of departmentalization that resulted in 57% of students mastering the objective. This was a huge win for us, and was a factor in the principal’s decision to departmentalize our 5th grade team.

The principal was the director of this play, and ultimately it is she who is responsible for the success or the failure of the production. Fortunately for our students, most school leaders are not running the show alone; they have assistant principals, coaches, teachers, and parents who are all supporting the final outcome. When I am a school leader, I will have the added benefit of a 300+ page document that is essentially the script for my school. My field study year is a very long rehearsal. My play ends not in curtain calls and flowers thrown on the stage, but in measurable growth for students and adults. When the time comes, I’ll be ready for my Tony.

Gretchen Larsen relocated from the Phoenix, AZ area to join our 2018 Las Vegas cohort. After working as a teacher’s aide and obtaining her BA in Secondary Education/English, Gretchen taught for Tempe Elementary School District for three years, then Mesa Public Schools for three years. She stepped into a leadership role as a Lead Teacher with Maricopa County Regional School District, where she managed day-to-day operations as well as observed and coached teachers. Since 2014 she has served as the Founding Dean of Scholars with EAGLE College Preparatory Schools: Mesa. In this role, Gretchen led a staff of 20, using data to drive coaching and targeted professional development. Gretchen took a culture focus in this role as well, teaching social and emotional management skills, fostering relationships with parents and students, and building community partnerships.