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Commencement Marshal Sarah Fiarman: The Principal of the Matter

For Sarah Fiarman, Ed.M.'05, Ed.D.'09, it's hard to believe that commencement day is even here since her work has already begun. "[Commencement] feels particularly special because, in a lot of ways, I've moved into my next career and transitioned into the next step in being a principal," she says. "And yet I haven't paused to celebrate or reflect on the past six years to acknowledge that it's coming to an end and the dissertation did get finished. This is particularly special for that reason."

In the past six months, Fiarman completed her dissertation about teacher leadership on weekends meanwhile arising early weekday mornings to greet students and teachers as principal at the Martin Luther King School in Cambridge, Mass. "My advisor said that I would look back on those months with a combination of horror and awe," Fiarman says. "It was a great complement of theory on the weekends and very direct practice during the week."

Fiarman always knew she wanted to be as a principal — even before attending HGSE — but worried about being a good one. "I wanted to pick a [dissertation] topic that would provide direct and practical applications to the work of a principal," she says, noting that she came to the Ed School to gain a better understanding about the work of instructional improvement and education reform. Fiarman's advisor, Professor Susan Moore Johnson, told her not to be worried because there were a lot of things that make a good principal.

But it turns out that Fiarman's dissertation did inform her daily work. It investigated the experiences of 61 teachers from seven different districts who all served as peer assistance and review consulting teachers. Teacher leaders working in this role gave advice and critical instructional feedback to peers and made formal recommendations used by districts in employment decisions. As a result, the consulting teachers reported feeling successful and satisfied in their leadership roles. This is in stark contrast to what scholars have found to be the experience of other types of instructional coaches, who often struggle to feel effective and rarely give critical feedback to peers. Lessons from the PAR consulting teacher role may help district leaders learn how to design more effective peer coaching roles for teachers.

The dissertation was a small part of what Fiarman worked on during her time at HGSE. She relished in the opportunities offered to her from faculty members taking part in Data Wise, Instructional Rounds, and the Next Generation of Teachers. "I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude for all the professors who taught incredible classes, gave such helpful feedback, and included me in wonderful teaching and research opportunities. In many cases, they also engineered opportunities for graduate students to work collaboratively and that's been amazing as well," she says.

Today she feels honored and humbled by being named a doctoral marshal by her class. "This role really symbolically honors all the members of my cohort because they're all contributing tremendously and doing so many wonderful things — there aren't apathetic doctoral students here — just people who care passionately about what they do and look for ways to share that with other people," she says.

This fall Fiarman will continue as a principal at the Graham and Parks School in Cambridge. Luckily, she won't be far from HGSE.