in this new ballgame of district office work I am faced with the challenge of helping principals be the best they can be to move schools towards true excellence. The job of being a principal is about moving teachers and staff to deliver on student achievement. The job I am now in is about moving principals to move teachers to… Yup, new ball game. So – what are the big rocks? What are the key components to being a successful principal? This is impossible to capture in one post, but let's start with some of the big pieces:
Air traffic control:
Successful principals run a tight ship. They can run a team of staff to land and take off 23 buses on a 3 tier schedule moving 1500 students without error. One mistake is a lost child - no room for error. Communication is crisp and a staff member or two down doesn't stop the mission. In fact, successful principals run such a tight ship that they don't have to be there running the flight schedule. Successful principals delegate and empower others to do this so they are able to focus on the real stuff…
The roads in the sky:
I had the pleasure of hearing the Director of the Mpls/St. Paul Airport speak to a group once, and he shared pictures of the "roads" the airplanes use to take off and land. It was a print showing the path of several hundred flights – evidence that indeed, airplanes use common pathways through the roadless sky to find their way to an endless list of destinations.
In similar fashion, successful principals create a few simple pathways, roads, or structures through which rigorous debate and meaningful conversations take place resulting in the destination of improved practice and improved student achievement. These principals take the directionless sky of a million conversations and channel them into meaningful structures that create disciplined thought and disciplined action. This structure is more than a group that calls themself a PLC… It's a structure of PLCs that function in Dufourish style with a pathway for action. Successful principals create these structures and pathways with purpose and vision.
The sky is falling:
Successful principals are heard when they speak. They are heard not because of their title but because of the authentic desire of others to listen to what they have to say. When a successful principal cries "Wolf!!" everybody reacts in alarm because they believe the cry to be credible. This ability to communicate with real credibility requires top notch discipline and runs in direct opposition to our popular culture of big news and editorials. Earning credibility among the masses – and the important stakeholder groups involved in public education - requires a solid mastery of communication and an understanding of how to control the perceptions of others. The difference between principals who understand this, and those who don't, is a critical gap between greatness and mediocrity…
Vision and the guts to follow through:
Great principals have a clear vision of what the classroom should look and feel like. They work tirelessly to help their teachers understand this vision, and they get those who can't understand this picture off of the bus. Yes, they get them off of the bus. Fire them. I have never been part of dismissing a staff member who understood the vision and simply chose not to participate. In every situation, they didn't get it. They couldn't see it no matter what I did to try and spell it out. That is a simple lack of understanding, ability, and vision. Make no mistake, great principals do all they can to assist, support, and help struggling staff members. The reality of our profession is… we have children who deserve nothing short of the best. Teaching isn't a job for the average. If a teacher can't make the cut, they shouldn't be part of the team. We don't manufacture trinkets…. We raise and educate children – someone's baby…
Intuitive focus on culture:
Finally, great principals have an intuitive focus on organizational culture, model their expecations, and demand results. Walking into a building run by a great principal, you feel a love for kids, a focus on rigorous academic performance, and a rooted understanding of meaning and purpose. In great schools, students can tell you their goals and articulate their plans to meet them, staff members seem to breathe reflective practice, and celebration of real results is evident – not surface fundraisers and lolly pop rewards for handing in homework. In classrooms, objectives are clear and students own the plan to achieve them. Great principals demand a focus on outcomes… not so much on the doing part.
Great principals produce great results. They change adult behaviors to create a culture that produces outstanding student behaviors and achievement results. I have only begun to articulate the complexity of the principalship… What pieces of being a Great principal – ending in student achievement results – am I missing?? Help me fill in the blanks!!
The factory model of public education has to die – the sooner the better. On a recent tour of our district's ELL program, I had the golden opportunity to walk through multiple buildings over two days looking through the same lens. This is golden for a few reasons – it disciplines me to be in buildings, it allows for a better understanding of how a district program is being implemented across the district, and it allows me to see many teachers delivering instruction in a short period of time. While I was there to observe the ELL classrooms in action, I couldn't resist the urge to step into every classroom that had an open door. At the end of the tour I had briefly observed no less than 70 classrooms in action. My conclusion was the same as it has been in every school I have worked…
Years ago I served as the head coach of a high school varsity soccer team. The position included building feeder programs, and I quickly found myself running summer camps for kids of all ages. The first 10 minutes of a soccer camp for elementary aged kids taught me a key lesson that I have never forgotten: little kids need to be engaged in productive doing – or their doing will be counter-productive! Because I'm not the quickest learner, it took me a while to translate this to the varsity level, but eventually I did figure it out. The outcome results of my practices (how well our team played at game time) depended on clarity of focus on the objectives, viewing every minute as gold, and on how many touches each player had on the ball. I figured out that drills in small groups resulted in more touches than one or two lines. I figured out that pre-teaching some group leaders before practice (or after practice the day before) resulted in a crisper drill that wasted fewer precious minutes. I figured out that players could easily translate concepts from small group games into the full field so I really didn't need to do full field practice much at all – resulting in more touches. I figured out that routine drills focused on core concepts and skills made for efficient warm ups, cool downs, and transitions since they didn't require any explanation once they were routine. I am proud to share that the feeder programs grew and players learned spiralled core skills and concepts through each level resulting in state championships after I had left (yes I prefer to think that it was due to my work with the younger kids – not the arrival of the much more brilliant coach…).
So I said I'm not the quickest learner. Indeed, it took me a few years of teaching and coaching to have the sudden realization that… drum role… all of the strategies I had used to be a better soccer coach applied directly to being a classroom teacher. Small and strategic groups, core
routines for core learning, utilize student leaders, make sure every student has a ball and more touches, eliminate waiting in line, use protocols, keep score in practice, blow the whistle – freeze – now reflect, etc… I realized that every time I asked the class a question expecting one student to raise a hand the other 29 were "waiting in line." My classroom was almost entirely absent of productive doing. Of course I taught high school, so the students were well trained to be compliant by that time and making them wait in line was normal. No doubt the system had weeded the rest out by the time they got to me…
As has been true for a century, my tour of our schools confirms that we continue to produce experts of line waiting. Our students today graduate experts of raising their hand, portraying a fascade of engagement, and well rehearsed - factory like - repetitive behaviors such as filling in blanks, circling T or F, coloring maps, and answering recall questions at the end of textbook sections. The percentage of precious minutes in a school day (about 400) actually
spent touching the ball or "productively doing" is fair at best. The vast majority of those 400 minutes is spent in transition, lunch, classroom start up, review, or practicing one of the factory skills mentioned already. I observed very few engaging in meaningful small group debate, doing academic writing, practicing articulated meta-cognitive strategies to improve reading skills, or synthesizing meaningful strands of content. The students were demonstrating excellent line waiting skills and superb compliance to factory like routines.
If we want line waiting experts, we are delivering on that expectation beautifully. If we want students who research, collaborate, think strategically, and create knowledge, we must reorganize the classroom to practice those skills. Every minute is gold, we need far more touches on the ball, and we need laser sharp focus on objectives – both in process and in content. If we can do this out on the field, isn't it reasonable to think we can do this in the classroom?
Thanks to a recent post from George Couros, a member of my online PLN, I was introduced to this TED Talks video focused on the impact of online video on economics, human behavior, improving the global community and yes, education. It prompts some great questions about the possibility of filming great lessons to post online, posting clips of student work, unleashing the learning process into Web 2.0 instead of restricting it to what the teacher says, fine tuning lessons as PLCs view clips of each other and other teachers around the world, etc… What an exciting time to be a leader in education!!
As George says on his blog "The Principal of Change," it is well worth the 19 minutes…
They finally caught up with me!! Tomorrow I'm off to jail. Will anyone take pity and put up bail money?
As I left my last position as principal of a junior high, I was given a book from a teacher that was written by a member of his family – a very special gift from a "real deal" teacher who connects with kids and pushes many beyond their own expectations. The book is called Small Decencies: Reflections and Meditations on Being Human at Workby John Cowan. Now that I am half way through it, I feel the need to share a piece of the genuine wisdom offered in this small treasure of reflections. The first of many very short essays/stories is called "Dirt." It resonates deeply with me as I struggle to build relationships in a district with rich history – but one that is new to me and me new to them. In my former position, the staff knew that I was a "real person" who wore a tool belt on weekends and loved working with power tools. They knew that I swept halls and dug in the garbage when needed and mowed lawns if it had to be done. They knew that I hung the cabinets in the teachers lounge myself, and they knew that I could handle difficult situations, parents, students, and realities of working in education. Now new to a district in a district wide position… how do I build those relationships? Here are a few excerpts from Cowan's first chapter:
I sit on a spot o dirt under a medium-sized tree, on the edge of a clearing, at the top of the hill overlooking the lake. This spot of dirt is sacred… I don't know who made it so, but I know that it is sacred, for after I sit here a while, I can remember who I am. And see the world for what it is… pg. 1.
I once asked a senior officer of a major corporation how he was responding to the devastating problems the corporation faced. "It's easy," he said, "we'll lose a couple of divisions and then we will be all right" pg. 1.
I do not think that two divisions meant to him a couple of thousand people. I think that for him two divisions had become a series of numbers projected on a conference room screen… It is easy to forget the dirty consequences of decisions in rooms where the windows are sealed shut, the air-conditioning runs forever, and the ground is far below. I think it was this distance that made him callous to the human effects of the corporation's financial problem and that helped cause the financial problems in the first place. pg. 2
I fear "clean." I am wary of straight ties, polished smiles, tide rooms, immaculate resumes, and antiseptic press releases. THey smell to me of artifice and danger. I never completely trust anyone until they belch, swear, weep, or bleed. If it lives, it's dirty. Clean is a cover-up. pg. 2.
I wish all managers had their own plot of sacred dirt. One they could sit on regularly, getting grass stains on their shorts, stray ants on their backs, and a little bark from the tree in their hair.A spot where if they sit for an hour or two, they can remember who they are and see the world for what it is. pg. 2.
I don't think managers and executives would avoid the hard decisions… I applaud managers who take tough steps when tough steps need to be taken. But I feel much safer if those actions are taken not by somebody who worships in the tower next to God, but by somebody who knows who he is and sees the world for what it is – someone who is accustomed to sitting in the dirt. pg. 3.
My sacred plot of dirt is remodeling my house, splitting wood, hunting, fishing, and grounding myself in some of the labor our ancestors had to tackle everyday for survival. I take great pride in seeing a remodel project through from start to finish and tackling most or all of the work myself. Many people make a living running wires, installing duct work, sweating pipes, roofing, sheet rocking, taping, or painting, and I can benefit from walking their walk on a regular basis. And I do. Most weekends you can find me building cabinets for the next room in the house, splitting wood, mudding/taping walls, or making plans for the next project on the house. The old John Deere tractor I am teased about on occasion (that continues to need work) is less about needing a tractor and more about wanting a plot of dirt to sit on. Some people run these to earn a buck. Some keep them running to put food on the table. I love the smell of cut grass and the reward of getting greasy and tackling a "rebuild" on the old tractor. I need that plot of dirt to sit on and make no mistake, this leader sits there regularly.
School starts tomorrow for our students. I can't articulate how excited I am to have their energy and passion for the world back in our buildings. I am struggling with not opening a building and executing carefully created plans for the re-opening of a school year with kids. Another piece of dirt for me is lunch duty, bus duty, hall duty, and walking through classrooms making sure kids are learning. My plan for tomorrow is to be in buildings seeing the magic and helping if I can. Hopefully there will be a broom to push around, or a crowd to control, or directions to give, or a hand to hold… Might even find a lawn mower to jump on… I'll find a rag and tables to wipe at lunch time no doubt! Hey – we all need our plot of dirt…