“Welcome to my school. I am SO glad that you met my students. They have so many struggles but they are so polite and fun to work with. I love being principal at this school.” Jan’s enthusiasm, energy and commitment to the school melted my heart. Here she is, in a very large urban high school, in an area of town with no industry and the highest crime rate in the city. She is principal of a school, (Willie’s school) that nobody else wanted to take on. But she is there ready to do the work. Her next statement cemented our relationship; “Karen, I don’t know what to do but I am so willing to learn. I want to fix this school for my kids. ” And this is how our journey started…
Since then, over the past few years, as her school improvement coach, I have had several difficult conversations with Jan. Times when it seemed that we were moving backwards and getting off course. Days when many other priorities were taking a life of their own and my role had to be the voice in her head to bring her back to a focus. And, some of the time, I didn’t know what to suggest to her for next steps. We had to figure things out together. But, the most memorable conversation that I had with Jan was that very first day. Helping her see where to start with the cultural shift that was so necessary at the school.
You see, Jan was and still is a “relationship builder”. She creates every opportunity to have conversations with people and she is a good listener. To me, this is foundational to leadership work. Whether it is a CEO of a large corporation, a manager of a restaurant or a school leader, understanding the need to build relationships, trust and respect is job one. Without this skill in your leadership toolkit, influencing people to change, to follow, to adopt new ways and to work collaboratively towards a common vision is pretty tough to do. And Jan knew that she was pretty good at this. So, it was a tough for her to hear from me about how her teachers had felt so hopeless about reaching their students.
As I wrote about in the second blog, Jan’s students and teachers were miles apart in their understanding of each other. The students expressed to me, their desire to learn and hoped that teachers would have high expectations of them. They did not want them to give up on them. The teachers, on the other hand, felt hopeless and were struggling with believing in the students’ abilities to learn. As I talked to Jan I could see that this was bothering her and she wanted to address it. I think her first instinct was likely just to call a meeting and tell the teachers that things had to be different but as we talked she understood that a cultural change would take more than a “talk from the principal”. We spent some time considering how to build common understanding, with the teachers, about what the school really stood for. What are the beliefs that the staff hold to be true? What shared commitments will guide the work necessary to improve the school? How do we acknowledge the hard work and tireless efforts of the teachers even when they were feeling so hopeless.
In my early days, as a superintendent in Canada, I had the very special privilege of working with an amazing Canadian presenter and educator, Wayne Hulley. Over the years, we became good friends. Wayne passed away in 2014 but his lessons live on in my heart, as I know they do in so many Canadian educators. You see, Wayne believed in people. He LOVED to tell stories and the most fun we often had when he was presenting at a workshop was when we “guessed” how many of his Powerpoint slides he would actually use (actually, I might have picked this habit up from him!). He would be very well prepared, lots of detail and great research, and then he would take us all on a road trip with him.. his stories had us in stitches laughing and at the same time, would leave us with a profound message about teaching and learning. He was often heard saying, “hope is not a strategy” and he would remind all of us that the relationships, respect and trust had to come before the “stuff”. The titles of his two books, Harbors of Hope and Getting by or Getting Better said it all. He truly believed in educators and schools. And, he was always full of positive energy and hope that together, a school staff could accomplish so much.
Jan admitted to me that very first day that they had never, as a staff, come together to think about or talk about the school. Oh, they had gathered now and then to talk about the discipline issues, scheduling changes and other “operational things” but she said that she really didn’t know how the teachers felt about working in the school or what they collectively would agree to do for her students. She never really discussed the “hope” she felt for each and every student and what she believed her teachers were capable of doing. And, she was nervous to have this conversation. She knew she would have “resistors; teachers who really didn’t want any change and would also see this type of conversation to be too “fluffy”. She knew some of her teachers believed that their job was to teach the curriculum and the students job was to learn it. It would be a hard sell with some of her staff, she thought, to help them see that the collective responsibility of the staff was to ensure learning with all students. Not to assume that learning happens but to be very definite. And this would be a mindset shift. This would take a very big commitment from her staff to move towards building relationships with students, believing in the students and collectively figuring out what to do next for a student not learning.
So, in this sixth blog in the school improvement series, I want to leave you with some reflections. How do we describe the world we wish to create within a school? How would Jan begin to do this with her staff? What is the story, the narrative, that this school wishes to tell? What conversations, what language will it take to begin to create common understanding of this journey? How do you clarify and respect each other’s beliefs and build an action plan that is aligned to what is important? How do you get off of the hamster wheel of just doing more and more work and not necessarily focusing on the right work? More about Jan’s next steps next Saturday. Have a great week.