It has to start with the principal. Let me be very frank. If the principal does not understand the work and be willing to lead it, it is almost impossible for a school to improve. In the past five years, I have worked in forty schools. Some I have visited once, others I am fortunate enough to spend one or two days every month in and many I have been blessed to be with for three years or so. What determines if the work will continue? What will give a school improvement project continuous growth? Who truly determines if it works?
It doesn’t take long for me to know if I am going to have a good opportunity to positively impact a school. A conversation and some time spent with the principal observing how he or she interacts with people, what kinds of questions they ask and what they value provides evidence of whether they will accept coaching support and trust me to work with them in the school. Of course, the relationship that I need to build with the principal takes time and it doesn’t always work out that we are a good fit for each other. The most important piece, however, is if the principal is willing to dig deep, to learn about the change process and to accept that the status quo is not what moves a school. There can be no excuses and the principal has to play many roles.
In my good friend, Cathy Lassiter’s book, Everyday Courage for School Leaders (2017) she writes about courage and its value in the work of a principal. She is correct. The courage to build relationships and trust even when people are questioning, arguing (even yelling at you), the courage to ask others to change practices, their beliefs and try new things (despite years of experience behind them) and the courage and patience to have very exhausting, confusing and difficult days only to go back to work and start over each and every morning; one conversation at a time, one priority at a time and all the time building your own confidence. As one principal recently said to me, “I am responsible for everything in this building and I don’t have the confidence yet in all of my decisions. How do I get there? What do I do first?”
A few weeks ago, you met Jan. She is a young principal like the one described above and she is Willie’s principal (you met him in the second blog post). She is courageous and recognizes that she doesn’t know everything about all she has responsibility for but she is a superhero when it comes to relationships. Whenever I am in her school, I watch in awe as she has conversation after conversation with students, staff and parents and there is no question in anyone’s mind, they know they come first to her over paperwork, reports, maintenance issues, etc. She has a way of putting people first that is authentic and inspiring.
The culture that Jan is working so hard to create leans more towards understanding and building trusting relationships first with staff and students and then taking care of the business of improving student achievement. And this is taking her a long way in the initial stages of continuous school improvement. She knows that the real work around curriculum, assessments, student data and what to do to meet the needs of all the students is the work she has to get at with her staff but first, she needed the relationships. Jan also understands that you can not work on culture (relationships) and leave out the classroom instructional focus. It isn’t one or the other. Both have to happen and she is balancing these two balls with great finesse.
To all of the teachers reading this blog, please do not think for a minute that I am disregarding the importance that you play, every single day, in the lives of your students. Without your ability to develop engaging classrooms that encourage students to be self learners; thinking for themselves in create and safe environments, principals would have little influence. Their leadership role is only impactful when you, the teachers follow the lead. They can not be a team of “one”; it takes a shared leadership model, a collaborative effort on the part of everyone to improve a school. I love this quote from Ken Williams, “Leaders strike the match for school wide cultural changes; staff fan the flames.”
So, this week’s blog (21st in the series) is dedicated to the principals that I am currently working with in the spirit of improving schools. They are courageous, tireless men and women who want the best for their students and staff. They are willing to learn and willing to admit when they do not know what to do next. It warms my heart when, between visits, one of them calls because they are not sure what to do. This tells me that we will get there. School improvement happens in small steps and feels messy. It isn’t about straight roads with smooth pavement but more like a hilly, bumpy road. Just when you think you have everything worked out a new hill and valley appear on the horizon and you are on the learning path again. The journey continues. See you next Saturday.