Monday, August 24, 2009

School Culture and Change

A school’s culture can make or break school reform. In a school where the culture is such that teachers are consistently focused on student learning and achievement, the introduction of a reform effort will more than likely be embraced by staff with open arms. These positive teachers will not interpret the initiative as a judgment on their performance as teachers or on their progress as a school, but rather, they will eagerly rise to the occasion and enthusiastically jump on board to do their part in making the necessary adjustments for the sake of the students they serve. Conversely, in a school that is infected with a negative school culture, the journey to reform will most likely be an uphill battle. The teachers’ skepticism and distrust of the administration will block staff buy-in and allow for very little acceptance of or immersion in the implementation of the reform. In this case, the school leader would be better off focusing energy and resources at changing the school culture as a prerequisite to adopting a reform model.

How can an effective leader turn the tide on a negative school culture? First and foremost, the leader must be positive himself. He has to be committed to the school’s vision and firmly believe that change is possible. He has to take the time to listen to his staff members, ALL of them, in order to diagnose the root of the unrest and unhappiness. He has to find a way to put the progress of students above all else, and to get the staff members to look outside of themselves and to embrace what education is all about. He would do well to find the strong, positive change agents among his staff who could commit to the task of overturning the negativity; one example might be the formation of a Good Cheer Committee. It might be worthwhile to host a retreat or an off-campus event where teachers could leave their “discomfort zone” of school and see each other and their administrator in a new light. Perhaps in the listening, whether one-on-one or informally at an off-campus, after-hours event, he will be able to determine what issues are affecting morale and performance and to devise a strategy for extracting the negative element or resolving the issue at hand. The fact that he takes the time to listen and doesn’t back down from the discomfort may provide a turning point for the negative parties to realize that here is a leader who is genuinely interested in them and the work that they do and that they can begin to make the attitude adjustments necessary to be about the work of teaching kids and helping them to achieve and excel.

One of the things that I have learned so far in the JHUISTE course on “Effective Leadership” is that change will be a constant. From year to year, and sometimes even in smaller increments throughout a school year, as a leader I will have to be willing to take the time and to do the collaborative work necessary to craft a vision and a mission. I will have to maintain the pulse of my school’s progress to know if and when a reform or innovation is necessary to ensure we are meeting our desired outcomes. When that time comes, I will have to be sensitive to the readiness of my staff to implement the change so that it is most effective. It won’t be enough to work really hard to get it all right one year, and then to sit back and glide through the next year or two. Every year is different. Staffs change, student populations change, district policies change, school culture can change. With all this potential change, I will need to remain vigilant and alert and ready to step in or step up, all the while being open to the input, feedback and ideas of all stakeholders. It’s a job that’s never really finished.

Monday, August 3, 2009

So You Want to Lead Effectively?

Before holding my current position as a Technology Integration Specialist, I taught middle school math for nine years. During that time, I also served as a grade level team leader and math department chairperson. I was a respected member of the Leadership Team by virtue of being a team leader and department chair. While I held those positions, I never really reflected much upon my leadership style or philosophy. I just took it for granted, “I had what it takes” to fulfill the job responsibilities entrusted to me. We might call it leadership “savvy.” The principal saw something in me that led him to believe that I was the best person for these jobs and I was not going to let him down.

I had a good rapport with the majority of the people I worked with and for the most part everyone did what they were supposed to. I think my organizational skills and attention to details served me well as department chair and team leader. I knew from year to year inside and out what my team and department and I were expected to carry out and accomplish. I was good at it. As I look back now, it’s clear to me that there was very little collaboration or engagement with all constituents. The principal, who was primarily driven by test scores and school accreditation, ran a tight ship. He was in charge. No one dared to rock the boat. It was his way or the high way. He told me what needed to be done and I did it. I told my team and department what needed to be done and they did it. It was rarely up for discussion. It was very top-down leadership, like the pyramid model.

Clearly the leadership landscape has changed, (how did I miss it?), and my narrow vision based on my very limited experience of an allegedly good leader has been blown out of the water! After so much reading, reflecting, discussing, and deliberating the contemporary leadership theories and models during the past three weeks, I see now the lamb taking precedence over the lion, unheroes eclipsing heroes, and PEOPLE ranking higher than policies, procedures, processes, and physical plants. Nowadays, when you lead a school, organization and detail management will only get you so far. It’s more about serving and transforming leadership, gathering at tables and guiding from the side, swimming upstream and respecting those you wish to silence. No one is on the mountaintop calling all the shots. The mountaintop is where we’re going, propelled by vision and passion, collaboration and shared leadership, synergy and the pursuit of excellence. That is where we’re going to experience and celebrate the success of all students! To get there, we need leaders who are effective:

E - Egos left at the door; servant model
F - Focus on the prize, i.e., promoting the success of every student.
F - Form alliances with all stakeholders.
E - Emotional management: take care of self
C - Collaborate and problem solve
T - Trust and integrity; talk the talk AND walk the walk
I – Improvement of student learning is the foremost idea
V - Vitality and Passion; inspire them to follow you
E – Envision success and demand excellence

If I had to write a definition of an effective leader before I started this course, I probably would have emphasized the organizational and managerial aspects of leading with a hierarchical bent. "Old school" leadership, that is what I knew; that’s what I had experienced for most of my teaching career. And the gentleman who was leading that way was held in high regard, touted as “one of our best.” That may have worked then, but it will not work now. In summary, I believe that a successful principal today must (1) be willing to serve students, staff, and the community, (2) be willing to stop, listen, and rethink, (3) be open to change and new ideas, and (4) believe passionately that students can succeed and that teachers can help make that happen.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Authentic Leadership: An Interview with a New Principal

I recently interviewed Seth Kennard, newly appointed principal at Charles Barrett Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia. This will mark his first run as a building principal. Kennard was my assistant principal at another elementary school in our district for the past two years, and he served as assistant principal at another elementary school in our state for three years prior to that. Before working in school leadership, he was a classroom teacher. During our short interview, I had a strong sense that he is poised and ready to tackle the demands of leading his new school. He has done his homework in terms of studying the demographics and getting to know his population of teachers and students. What struck me most about Kennard as principal-to-be is his willingness to get to know and utilize the stakeholders in his school, to admit his limitations and ask for help, to lead by example, and to share the task of leadership. In my opinion, by bringing these qualities to his principalship, he is setting up himself and his school community for success.

Because we had shared the experience of some staff members who were reluctant to use technology in the classroom at Tucker, I asked Kennard how he would inspire his new teachers to go beyond minimum requirements of technology proficiency and usage. He was very honest about his own need to first brush up on strategies in technology integration given his absence as a classroom teacher for the past five years and the quickly changing landscape of technology. He intends to accomplish this early in the school year by becoming aware of the tools being used broadly in classrooms. He will also get to know and observe the tech savvy teachers in his new school using the tools, as well as work closely with the team of technology coaches assigned to his school to learn and promote best practices. Once he ramps up his own aptitude with the technology, he plans to use it regularly in his interactions with staff, students, and parents, for example, using presentation tools at staff meetings and communicating through blogs, wikis, and discussion boards versus the traditional bi-weekly newsletter.

Kennard knows that he cannot expect teachers to upgrade their usage if he does not do it himself. By setting the example himself, he will show integrity, which Robert Evans defines as “having a significant commitment and exemplifying this commitment in your behavior,” in his chapter on “The Authentic Leader,” (Fullan, p. 137). He also knows that by recruiting the tech coaches and the teacher leaders in his building and depending on them to show the way and get others on board, he is more likely to get a positive response from the resistors. Jerome T. Murphy asserts, “By relying on staff members, administrators give them a greater sense of efficacy, responsibility, and control. That leads, in turn, to organizational progress,” (Fullan, p. 59).

Kennard is no stranger to the “unheroic” side of leadership. One of the unpleasant experiences he shared with me was working with an underperforming teacher who came to the school with satisfactory ratings and recommendations. Through the observation cycle, he realized that this was not the case. He described her as one whose instruction was well below par and who was not meeting the needs of her students. Because he was seriously concerned about the effect her performance was having on the students, he initiated an improvement plan that included regular observation, professional development and the guidance of outside mentors and specialists from the district. It was also clear that he did not want to take the easy way out and fire the teacher. He stated, “My goal is always… I don’t want to fire you…my goal is always to make you a better teacher. It’s much easier, it’s much quicker, and it’s much more fulfilling to me to have a teacher who needs help and to get that help than it is to get you out of the building and find a new one,” (S. Kennard, personal communication, July 23, 2009). My impression from this scenario is that he is not one to flinch from adversity or the uncomfortable situations that arise in school leadership. Instead, in the words of Fullan, he will “respect those he wishes to silence,” (or fire), by not taking the easy way out, but by doing all that he can to bring out the best in staff members and always keeping the students’ learning as his guiding principle.

During our interview and in the playback of the recording, it struck me that Kennard used the word “dynamic” several times. I wondered if this was related to his leadership philosophy and vision in general, or if it was the result of the situation he is inheriting. He is replacing a principal who served for a dozen years as the principal at this school and for two dozen years before that as a teacher in this system. My guess is that Barrett may be a school somewhat set in its ways, and that one of the roles he will need to adopt is that of change agent. I sensed it when I heard Kennard express the need for his teachers to become future oriented, to keep up with the times, and to do things differently. One of the areas where he hopes to make a difference is in testing. He can’t believe in an era where we can check ourselves in at airport kiosks that students are still bubbling in answer sheets! His hands may be tied at the district level, where such decisions about state testing are made, but in school-based assessments he could possibly blaze the trail toward online testing and interactive assessments.

My concern here is that in pushing for online testing, he’s not pushing the agenda far enough, seeming only to replace a pencil with a mouse click. Too often in technology integration, we get caught up in the stuff, or the “doodads,” as Bernajean Porter referred to them in her NECC session, “All Technology Uses Are Not Equal: Seeking Higher Ground,” (B. Porter, personal communication, June 29, 2009). So many technology tools replace things we use to teach but have no significant effect on the depth of what students know or how they learn it. To use one of Porter’s examples, creating a podcast on “Does the extinction of wolves matter?” is far richer and requires a lot more exploration than one that tells all there is to know about wolves. I hope that Kennard can stretch his goal of implementing online testing to move forward with technology to include the 21st Century Skills and not just the 21st Century doodads. If we follow Burrello’s line of thinking, such an endeavor could also lead toward a deeper shift in the school and district’s emphasis from standards-based learning to learner-centered learning, where standards do not only measure competency, but also “can be used to motivate students and stimulate their interest in learning,” (p. 39). What an accomplishment this would be for the new school leader!

The time is ripe to set a new course for Barrett Elementary. I have no doubt that Seth Kennard is up to the task. He has met the PTA and all of his staff members. He has studied the school’s data and is making decisions about where to focus energy, resources, and dollars. He is aware of the wealth of community resources available due to the school’s proximity to our nation’s capital and he intends to tap those resources as soon as possible. His global and forward vision, his focus on teaching and learning, and his commitment to students will surely benefit this school and reap great rewards for this learning community in the year(s) to come!