Introducing the Principal's Coach

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Greg BishopThoughts from the Principal’s Coach
By Greg Bishop

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For the next year, I will be writing articles regarding issues surrounding secondary education issues as a part of my role as Principal’s Coach. I have the opportunity for the next year to travel, talk with school districts across the country, and make presentations regarding ways to improve achievement at secondary schools.

However, how do we define achievement? Is it only defined by No Child Left Behind or by state accreditation standards? Or, as leaders, do we need to define it more broadly? Part of the solution is developing a courageous leadership imperative in your schools as defined by Alan Blankstein in his book Failure is Not an Option. Middle schools and high schools need to have the courage to face the most challenging times of controversy in education. We are all struggling to meet higher standards with fewer resources.

Therefore, here is how to develop an initiative for a courageous leadership imperative. The model of this initiative is derived from research compiled on how highly reliable organizations function, (i.e., Air Traffic Controllers, Regional Electric Grids), to achieve 100% success:

  1. Begin with a core. In a graduate class I took years ago, I learned that good leaders have a set of core beliefs that are non-negotiable. These individual beliefs need to be expanded to the entire school organization. For instance, if we need to adopt the belief that failure is not an option for all students, we need to address members of our organization who do not believe in that manner. One way of accomplishing this is to ask them; “If you could see a system where all students can be successful in student populations like ours, would you consider changing your view?” The answer to that question should be yes, if not, the issues are much deeper than the belief that all students can learn and experience success. The only way to begin to change the theories of educators in your organization is to begin to change their experiences. However, it does not have to be real, it can be imagined. Schools can adopt significant core beliefs without ever experiencing their success. The key is challenging the beliefs of those in your organization that resist the most.
  2. Create organizational meaning. Why are we here working with these children? Is it about teaching or about learning? There should be a working mission that organizes the work we need to accomplish. Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great, points to companies that do one thing better than anyone else. What is that “thing” for us? To define it we must answer the following questions:
  3. Develop some broad based statements that address those questions. Create a working mission that your organization can understand and believe in. a. What do we want students to learn?
    b. How will we know if they learned it?
    c. How will we respond when they are not learning?
    d. How will we respond when they already know it?
  4. Maintain constancy of purpose. Once the development of meaning occurs, do not allow the “flavor of the month” school improvement strategy to occur. This will absolutely destroy the “buy-in” from staff. What happens is teachers implement the directive, but refuse to take ownership of the outcomes. This often means the students in the “middle” will experience some growth, but struggling students may actually perform more poorly than expected. When teachers are questioned, they will provide evidence of “implementing” the program, but there will be no adjustment for the population and culture of your organization. The capacity to change and maintain growth lies with the co-creation of purpose and the consistency of leadership to “stay the course”.
  5. Confront the data and fears. Again, Jim Collins stated that we must confront the data, no matter how brutal it is. In any growing organization, there is room for improvement. When looking at your data, consider all of the different groups of students in your building. That is at least one good thing about NCLB --- subgroup data can inform and predict future challenges. At Cousino, we experienced a significant increase in free and reduced lunch students over the past five years. Also, looking at our Algebra 1 failure rates, that subgroup of students were more than twice as likely to fail Algebra 1. If the trend continues without any different approach, failure rates in algebra for the entire school will increase. However, be careful how the data is confronted. There is plenty of blame to go around so stay away from the trap of placing the decrease in math scores on the math teachers and telling them to “fix it.” The issue of confrontation is to engage in honest collaboration about potential solutions based on our beliefs.
  6. Build sustainable relationships. A colleague discussed how a teacher “fudged” his data when presenting results of a common assessment to the organization. When questioned about this behavior, his response was, “I know my data would be the lowest in the department and I was scared of getting in trouble.” While that does not excuse that behavior, it does explain the tension between administration and teachers. We need to build those relationships so we can move from fear to productive conversations about teaching and learning. We need teachers arguing with us about the interventions we all need to provide students who are not learning. That way, we are all invested in the purpose of learning.
  7. It is so important to pay attention to the manner in which we approach school improvement and student achievement. Our influence as leaders can make others more open or more guarded. One of the key attributes administrators need to work on is becoming a better listener. So often, administrators are multi-tasking and making quick decisions that when a teacher talks with us, we just do not listen. Therefore, take time to become a true courageous leader and build that spirit of trust and collaboration.

Keep the faith