As Willie and his friends explained to me and I shared with you, students know what’s up. Sadly, they know when the school gets a bad reputation. When the community leaders, the media, the neighbors give up on them. When the teachers have trouble believing in them. Go to a bad school, be bad. Who really cares? They describe this as a hamster wheel that they can’t seem to get off of and despite wanting to do better, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In low achieving schools, this is a tough cycle to break and this is what I want to write about in this fifth school improvement blog. You see, I have witnessed it changing right before my eyes … it just takes a little attitude adjustment. Well, and a whole lot of work…
Students recognize the “rules” that no one enforces and they know where to hide in the school if they want to create havoc. They know when they are challenged to think and when there are high expectations. They figure out which teachers will let them off easy and who are the teachers that will create learning opportunities that meet their needs and interests. Willie’s school is a high school. It doesn’t matter though. The same focus is required at elementary, middle and intermediate schools if we are going to improve learning. Bridging the gap between what teachers believe about the students and their own professional capacity to help low achieving students improve and doing what the students really need is a first step in all schools. It doesn’t matter where, how big or what the configuration is. It takes a mindset shift, an attitude adjustment and great effort on everyone’s part to be the change that they aspire to have happen in their schools. It might look like a short walking bridge across a creek or the long and winding beautiful Confederation Bridge from New Brunswick to Prince Edward Island, Canada. The gap between beliefs and actions has to be addressed. So why is the building of this “bridge” so hard?
Let’s think about what we all bring to work every day. As a teacher, for example, what experiences from your past come with you to work? Did you grow up in a middle-class home? We know you went on to study after high school or you wouldn’t be a teacher. Did you always know you wanted to teach? Is it a family pattern? Was that the expectation for you? What do you value about teaching? Did you grow up hanging out with kids who struggled? Or were you primarily in a neighborhood school with highly successful adults and students as role models? Were you placed at the school you work in or did you apply to teach there because you really wanted to be in that building and in that community? What do the administrators bring for experiences and beliefs? What are their backgrounds? Is this their first school? What kind of support are they receiving from the district? From the community?
One of my favorite books that I refer my principals to is Anthony Muhammad’s “Transforming School Culture”. Dr. Muhammad was a middle school principal and experienced first-hand the enormous task of turning a school from low performing to high performing. His experiences are well documented in both his writing and his presentations. Every time I hear him speak or read his work again, I am brought back to the foundational premise that without cultural shifts in schools we will struggle to improve student achievement. When I first met Willie and his friends, my goal was to figure out where to start with his school. What conversations would I have with his principal? What practices, procedures need to be addressed? How do we look deeply at beliefs? What are the relationship patterns? What do actions and conversations say about the school’s priorities? When they say that they “are all about kids” is it true? What is the evidence of this as a focus? How do we, as adults hold the mirror up and reflect on what we are truly about? When someone walks in to your school, what is their first impression? Is there a feeling of order? Safety? Or does it seem to be chaotic? Are people pleasant and welcoming or do you feel that you are not wanted as a visitor? Do you hear negative talk about students, the community and families or is there a sense of positivity? At Willie’s school this is where we started.
When I was a principal I learned a great deal from so many others. One great principal who I worked with in New Brunswick, Canada was Carolyn Norman. Under her leadership, Magnetic Hill School became one of the highest performing schools in our province and in 2005, Carolyn was named one of the top twenty-eight exceptional principals in Canada. She used to say to me, “look after the teachers and they will look after the students”. Now I know she didn’t just look after the teachers; she did a great job with student, parent and community relationships and she recognized the need to build a strong adult community of caring, trusting and highly skilled professionals in her building. She provided ongoing support, was very clear and focused in her expectations for her staff, celebrated small and big successes and she modeled what she believed in and “how the school was to be” every day. Her positive attitude and energy was contagious. At Magnetic Hill, it wasn’t ok not to believe in the students. It was what was expected. It didn’t mean that they didn’t struggle and were not challenged to know what to do for each and every student but the value system in the school was “all about students”. To work there, you had to rise to this expectation or it wasn’t the place for you. And, Magnetic Hill School became a school that you wanted to work in and you wanted your child to attend. Walking in the door, a culture of high expectations was evident. Teachers collaborated as a community to meet the needs of students and there was a positive energy in the building. Who wouldn’t want to work there?
And, after my interviews at Willie’s school, I knew I had to bring my lessons from home to Principal Jan. We had to start where Mrs. Norman started. We had to take care of the cultural issues first. See you next Saturday when you finally meet Jan, Willie’s principal.