Dear School Principal,
What will you remember about the 2019-2020 school year? Is it a struggle to think past March and even remember any or all the events and decisions made prior to COVID 19? I am confident that the past weeks have pushed aside your thoughts of other work that was done. How did you start the year? What did you do to build culture, create learning opportunities for staff and students, what amazing events did you host for family and community and what actions were you continuously taking to ensure success for your students? You worked on the right work and, for many, it felt that the fruits of labor did not come to be. Not true… I say. In fact, because you built a collaborative culture, focused on student learning and because you were intentionally paying attention to results as the year progressed, you were able to be successful even during the COVID shutdown. So, it is time to find those memories and celebrate your work this entire school year.
As I sit home, still unable to travel for my leadership coaching work, I am in awe of the recent graduation events planned for local high schools. In the school district that I worked my entire life, I see pictures and posts of very thoughtful and carefully planned ways to celebrate the 2020 graduates. Students have their own time with the principal and teachers with family in attendance, photographs with social distancing arranged and mostly, a focus squarely on the graduating student as they turn the next page in their life. They have their diplomas from a year no one will easily forget. For some graduates, this diploma might be the only one that they ever receive and for others, it is a key to continuous learning, anytime in their lives. They just have to pull it out and see what door it will open.
Strong, successful schools have courageous, focused leaders. Getting students to graduation is a learning progression; starting in Pre K or Kindergarten, numerous teachers and school leaders impact the progression. High school principals have the privilege of being there for the end, primary principals begin the journey. The decisions made at every level determine the experience for each and every student. In the end, the relationships and equitable decisions built through trust and respect are what matter the most. Of course there are the curriculum decisions, the need for quality instruction, the important times when we intervene to ensure learning, however, the culture built in a school by a principal determines how goes the school.
Reflecting on this school year, how have you addressed culture? What did you do to make your school a success? We know that changing culture is more difficult than addressing organizational changes; like the duty schedule or assignment of classrooms. We know that a healthy school culture is built from collective responsibility for all students and that teachers worked collaboratively to address the needs of students. And, it takes tons of trust and respect for each and every person, no matter what. How did that go for you this year? What did you do, for example, last August or September, to ensure that this was the culture that you were building? How did you intentionally address expectations? What steps did you take to continuously build common understanding and support the work of your teachers? Where did you spend your time? Were you with students in the cafeteria? On the playground? At the door greeting them in the morning? How did you get to know your teachers? And, how did you know that your culture was healthy? Undoubtedly, when COVID closed your school it became apparent; you had a healthy culture in your toolkit and was able to make good use of it to continue the amazing work of your teachers, students and families.
In my coaching sessions, I like to remind principals that when the going gets tough, culture will get them through. Trust, respect and collaborative relationships focused on tight expectations provide a foundation for difficult decisions in messy times. I am fairly certain that you felt this tested this spring. I truly hope that your toolkit was so full of a healthy culture that collaboration, results and learning continued- yes, how this had to happen had to be adjusted but it almost felt seamless as teachers stepped up and rallied behind a common goal; reaching, supporting and teaching students and families in a very stressful time. And this did seem seamless to many schools, thankfully with leaders who had spent time building a collaborative, healthy culture.
So, dear principals, take the time to reflect on the entire past school year. Consider what truly worked and CELEBRATE you! Then, and only then, turn to your areas of growth. Plan for 2002-2021 with enthusiasm and courage to develop the healthiest, equitable, respectful school culture that you can imagine. There is always room for improvement and you are the one to have the greatest impact on how people (staff, students and parents) behave in your school. You can not do it all but you can find a few things to focus on and work deeply at ensuring that these priorities are moving your school forward. Plan now to do that. Spend some time this summer considering policies and practices that must change. Understand your people; build relationships and get to really know your communities. Then you can focus on curriculum and instruction. It isn’t this or that; but without a healthy culture, the learning will be stuck.
Have a great summer. Thank you for all that you do to lead. And, if you are a school principal and as a gift to you, if you have read this far and you are interested… leave a comment here and we can arrange a complimentary coaching session at your convenience!
All the best!