I think most of us can agree that the average school is filled with faculty and staff who are doing their best to succeed. Sure, their definitions of “success” may be worlds apart from ours, but let’s be honest here: Few of our faculty and staff members deliberately wish to self-sabotage or publically demonstrate their weaknesses.
Assuming this is true, assuming that teachers and staff want the school to succeed, why then is it so difficult for principals to make reforms to behaviors that obviously aren’t working?
If you asked Gregory Shea and Cassie Solomon—authors of Leading Successful Change—this question, they would say it has much to do with the fact that leaders often seek change by making “sweeping organizational reforms…but in doing so, they completely ignore the patterns in behavior they want to change.”
How, then, do principals facilitate change?
They change the environment
Psychologists, motivational experts, and change gurus may disagree on the finer points of human behavior, but most would agree that humans, in general, all try to impact their environment and make it work for them. We are wired to adapt and overcome. And according to Shea and Solomon, “Therein lies the key to change: alter the environment, and people will adapt to it.”
In other words, changing individual behavior ultimately requires leaders to do two things:
- Design a work environment that requires different behavior
- Help people do what they do so well: adapt
They realize that change requires multiple influences
To illustrate this point, let’s use a simple analogy that I think we can all relate to.
Most of us have, at one time or another, made vows to exercise more and eat healthier. We know that both will bring us significant benefits like lower blood pressure, more energy, and sustained health. We also know that reaping these benefits requires us to change our behavior: If we want to lower our blood pressure or feel better, we have to get on the treadmill three times a week for thirty minutes, throw away the donuts and red meat, and start making healthier food choices. This is obvious to all of us!
The challenge, then, has nothing to do with achieving clarity about the behavior or its benefits. The challenge, Shea and Solomon argue, is in changing the world we’ve built around us. In short, adopting an exercise regimen and eating better have little to do with willpower and everything to do with influencing our behavior, our relationships, our schedules, our lifestyle, and our support systems.
They identify the key behaviors they want and those they don’t
Too often, leaders resort to abstract policies, mystic fads, or pep talks that sound good, but ultimately fail to alter behavior. I like the way Shea and Solomon articulate this point: “Change requires less magical imagery and Herculean effort and more careful consideration of just what a leader seeks to create with change…”
So what are the key behaviors that need to change for your school to be successful? Identify them and then envision a direction.
They envision a direction
As you think about the behavior you would like to change, ask yourself the following questions I’m borrowing from Robyn Jackson’s book, How to Motivate Reluctant Learners:
- Is the behavior specific?
Very often, what looks like resistance is actually the result of our vague requests and our failure to communicate. Consider the difference between the following statements:
o “Our faculty and staff should work hard to build meaningful relationships with students.”
o “Facilitating a positive learning environment starts with how we interact with students not only in the classrooms, but outside of them as well. I expect all faculty and staff to attend at least one school function—a play, a band concert, a sporting event—per month.”
You’ll notice how the former not only lacks specific instructions, but does not give faculty and staff a clear picture of what you expect from them.
Is the behavior observable?
We all want our faculty and staff to care, to want to “build meaningful relationships with students,” but stop right there and consider what these two things have in common. They are emotional, which means that they are intangible—you can’t touch them!
If you want faculty and staff to build meaningful relationships with students, you must be able to show them what “building meaningful relationships” looks like. Otherwise, you have no tangible way of knowing whether or not this is happening.
There are a number of ancient misnomers about leadership, but today we’d like to take on three them.
Leadership is exercised exclusively by the leader
God forbid it should happen, but if the school were to go belly up, who’d have to answer for it? The principal, of course. As a leader, you have a tremendous amount of responsibility and will be held accountable for leading (or not leading) your school to success.
However, no principal ever parachuted in from the sky and did it all on his or her own. Principals can’t be everywhere and be everything for everybody. And frankly, they don’t need to be. Staff, students, teachers and parents all have the capacity to lead. Leadership is not, as Linsky and Lawrence, authors of “Adaptive Challenges for School Leadership,” put it, “the exclusive prerogative of people in positions of authority.” In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Consider some of history’s most extraordinary leaders: King, Mandela, Gandhi, for example. None of these men were formally given authority! None of them changed the world on their own, either.
Leaders are inspirational superheroes
Over the years Hollywood has done a nice job of showing us what super teachers (and principals) look like. Consider movies like Dead Poet’s Society, The Mona Lisa Smile, Lean on Me, and the list goes on and on. The educational leaders we find here all have something in common: They’re miracle workers, freedom fighters who manage to pluck the heart strings of everyone they encounter—and by gosh, they’ll do it even if it costs them their sanity, health and job!
Leaders may have more impact when they move us, when they inspire us…but again, some of history’s most effective leaders couldn’t have plucked the heartstrings of anyone had they tried! George Patton, Steve Jobs, even Martha Stewart were brilliant and effective leaders. But they certainly weren’t noted for their congeniality. In fact, many would argue that they were downright abusive. While we’re not advocating for this brand of leadership, we’re simply trying to illustrate a point: leadership comes in many forms. Not only that, but effective leaders must do more than simply inspire others.
Leadership is an innate skill
This next point, is a bit of an extension of the previous point. Many are under the assumption that great leaders are born leaders. But Linsky and Lawrence remind us that this is not necessarily true. Leaders are often like young athletes: some of them were born holding a basketball; they had a natural inclination for the sport. It is often the case, though, that these same athletes never become the stars they were “destined” to become. Why? Perhaps it is because the others, those with seemingly less talent, had to fight and overcome adversity to reach their potential. The same goes for leader. Some may be born with a natural inclination to lead; they may have had a head-start in developing their skills, but others can surpass these folks by working hard, practicing their trade, and perfecting it.
Yvonne spent two years teaching in an elementary classroom, so she knows firsthand that children thrive when their learning environment is enhanced with technology. Unfortunately though, many schools don’t have the specialization or skillset to harness this technology.
“Schools really want to infuse technology into the curriculum,” she explains, “but most teachers just don’t have proper training to do this.”
Yvonne admits that although she loves technology and it has always been a subject of interest, “Not being able utilize technology was one of my handicaps as a teacher.” This is precisely why she applied to Marygrove’s online M.Ed. program. “The program is good for teachers, but it’s great for people who want to help design programs and curriculum, too.”
For Yvonne, the fact that the curriculum is entirely web-based also offers the flexibility and (perhaps paradoxically) the structurethat rivals that of the traditional classroom: “The online platform layout allows you to do your work whenever you can. And everything is clearly laid out by sessions.” In other words, “all of the work—along with the outcomes—is planned for each week and established from the minute you log on. There are templates, rubrics and examples for everything,” she explains, so you never have to guess what the teacher is looking for. For example, “If you have to do something in power point, there’s an example you can reference” as you put together your own work.
Being online also means that Yvonne can be somewhere elseand still have access to her coursework. She can also actively engage with her peers’ blogs and class discussions while she and her peers are in the environment that is conducive to them. “People need certain environments to learn in, even if it’s the park, for instance. I listen to music while I work and you can’t do that in a classroom,” she laughs.
We recently picked up a copy of Don Sternberg’s book, The Principal: Traversing the High-Wire with No Net Below. Rather than give you a lengthy introduction, we’re just going to jump right and share five of Sternberg’s “principles for principals.”
No job is ever too dirty
Effective leaders rarely ride in a golden chariot and “grunt work” isn’t a part of their vocabulary. No, they march with the rest of the platoon and aren’t afraid to track through the mud. Here’s an example to illustrate Sternberg’s point.
Let’s say that you’re walking down the hallway and notice a few pieces of stray scrap paper on the floor. The custodian is only a few feet away and is already sweeping, but you stop, pick up the papers, and toss them in the trash can. Why? Because it sends an explicit message to the custodian: No job is beneath you.
The same goes for when you grab a mop and clean up an overflowing toilet, or when you pick up one of the phones because your secretary can’t get to it. Think about what a student will feel like when you jump behind the counter, address him or her by name, and fill in when the office staff is behind.
Being a part of the team means earning your place on it first.
Leadership is messy business
Think of your school as your beach. Sometimes the sun shines, the water is calm and warm, and folks would rather be here than anywhere else in the world. Other times, the weather shifts, the waves become violent, and your beach erodes a bit. Perhaps this “erosion” is the result of a mistake or an error in your judgment. If it is, fess up. Folks usually respect someone who readily admits mistakes; however, they will despise someone who hides mistakes, or fails to take responsibility for them.
Leaders know when to admit mistakes, but they are also graceful when others mess up. Rather than putting energy into blame, leaders are more interested in what happened, what the other person was thinking, and most importantly, what they learned from the experience.
Principals aren’t afraid to show a little pearl
Education may be serious business, but there’s good reason to smile about it. Your attitude sets a precedent for the rest of the school, so when you walk into the office, scowl or give a half-hearted hello to the staff and students, count on it resonating—and not in a way you want it to.
A poor attitude is contagious: When teachers start to sign in for the day, they’re going to be greeted by the same staff that you scowled at, the same folks who are murmuring amongst themselves about you. That’s why author, principal and veteran educator Patricia Buoncristiani suggests that you park as far away from the entrance of the building as it will take you to walk off your case of the Monday blues. This is one of those obvious, but not-so-obvious pieces of advice we all need to take.
We must reframe the way we see challenges
Think about those students whose behavior really irks you. What sort of language do you use, whether publically or privately, to describe their behavior? Are they “stubborn,” “annoying,” and “lazy?” Or are they perhaps “challenging,” “energetic,” and “reluctant?”
Language often constructs the way we see the world—and the students who live in it. So when we use negative language to describe challenging behavior, we start to see students in a negative way. That’s not productive!
We must ensure that no one is on the periphery
We know that communication with our colleagues is essential to the general health and success of our schools, so we work hard to nurture relationships with our teachers, assistant principals, custodians, secretaries, students and on the list goes. But what about the employees who appear to be somewhere off in the periphery but are in fact big contributors to our schools’ success?
Take bus drivers for example: They are the first point of contact students have with the school every day. A bus driver who feels appreciated by leadership is far more likely to interact with students and also relay important information about safety and student behavior. Another thing to consider is that bus drivers spend much of their day out in the community (at diners and coffee shops) due to their unusual schedules. What they say and how they interact when they are out in the community reflects back on the school.
We always make it a point to honor our teachers during National Teacher Appreciation Day, but we know that trying to cram all of our appreciation into a single day can feel slightly disingenuous to teachers. Rather than wait for May to roll around again, we’d like to share 10 simple ways principals can recognize teachers throughout the year. These ideas have been adapted from Emily Houck’s book, 100 Ways to Recognize and Reward Your School Staff.
A Bit O’ Grape
Presenting a teacher with a bottle of wine may not be in your sweet spot, but you can still give a bit o’ grape without bringing alcohol onto campus.
How about a bottle of non-alcoholic, sparkling wine instead? We like to present “wine” to teachers and staff members who work tirelessly and never whine or complain. Since we’re suckers for word puns, we always like to attach a note to the bottle that says, “You are appreciated! Thank you for always working hard and never “wining.”
Set your alarm early so you can get to school before your most appreciated teacher. Cover the teacher’s desk with balloons by either taping them to the surface of the desk or filling them with helium and taping the ribbon down. Attach notes to the balloons that highlight specific things you appreciate about the teacher.
The Brush Off
If you live in a part of the country where it snows, the brush off will work. Prepare tickets in advance that say, “You have been brushed by a member of Student Council.” On days when it snows during school hours, send a dozen students out to the teacher parking lot to brush off windshields and leave a note under the wipers.
The Wash Down
This is an alternative for those of you that live in places that get snow. As with the brush off, grab a dozen students and send them out to the teacher parking lot to wash cars!
At each faculty meeting, hold a lottery drawing for a "free" two-hour break during which time you will cover a teacher's class. Let the winner know that s/he can use this ticket at any time, but must set the time a week in advance.
Order business cards for every staff member. What your teachers and staff members do for our children and society is critical and should be treated as such! Teachers deserve to have their own business cards.
No Work Talk
Hold a faculty and staff “meeting” where teachers cannot discuss anything related to work—no education talk, no student talk, no talk about grading. Anyone who breaks the rule has to donate $1.00 to a charity fund. This works well if you go to a local restaurant or coffee shop, too.
Clean out those files
Consider giving this reward to a teacher who really needs a break. This will give him or her a chance to come up for air. Here’s how it works:
Give a “Clean Out Your Files Day” to a deserving teacher. The teacher will still be “working,” so s/he isn’t counted as absent, but because you secured a substitute teacher that day, the teacher will be free to do something s/he has always wanted to do, but never had the time. This might be as simple as organizing a filing cabinet or preparing a lesson plan s/he’s always wanted to teach, but never had time to.
This is slightly cheesy, but we’re not above it. Buy a package of Swedish Fish and attach a note that says one of the following:
- We’re hooked on your great attitude
- Your dedication is “fin-tastic”
- Your team commitment makes a big splash
- Your attention to detail is clear to “sea”
- You dive into every task with enthusiasm
- Your efforts make a whale of a difference
Put Your Feet Up
Cover the class or classes of a teacher and give him or her the afternoon off. Make sure the teacher goes and does something fun or relaxing and doesn’t go do school work!
This is as simple as they come. Have cards made up with the word “Bravo” on the front and nothing written on the inside. When you see something that deserves recognition, write a brief description on the inside with a note of thanks and place it in the teacher or staff member’s mailbox.
Photo credit: Carolyn_Sewell / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Effective time management can basically be boiled down to two principles: 1) Take care of what’s important, ignore things that aren’t; 2) urgent things are only important things that were not taken care of when they should have been.
Generally speaking, this is true. And while it sounds good on paper, it’s not likely to get you any closer to negotiating that endless to-do list you’ve got on your hands.
There are countless ways principals can make better use of their time, but we’d like to share five of our favorite tips from Jane Sigford, author of The Effective School Leader's Guide to Management.
Carve out quiet time
One way to do this is to come in an hour before most teachers arrive or stay for an hour after school. One of the quietest hours is the second hour after teachers have gone home. While you have no guarantee that parents and teachers won’t stop by, it’s certainly less likely.
A note for early-risers: Should you decide to come in an hour before school, you may find that other early-rising teachers are also there and may stop by your office for a casual conversation or to talk about school-related issues. If it is uncommon for your office door to be closed during the day, people will quickly learn that a closed office door means that you need privacy.
Be visible and get work done at the same time
Not everyone understands what principals do—and they’re never going to if you hole up in an office all day. One way to make yourself visible and get work done is by taking your office with you. If you need access to email, bring along a laptop and set up shop in the library. Is there a study hall going on somewhere in the school? Grab a seat in the back of the room and get some work done there. Try rotating your “satellite office” every day. Doing this not only gets you out of the office, it also gives you the opportunity to speak with faculty and students.
Don’t drown in a sea of mail
We get mail from a variety of sources, but I’m going to talk about the three that can really eat up your time.
- Snail mail: Have your secretary sort postal mail into three categories: important (mail that needs to be read right away), this week’s mail (which needs to be read within the week), and whenever mail (which can be read whenever). Once your secretary knows you and your system, you’ll be able to trust him or her to dump everything else—the catalogues, the magazine solicitations—into the recycling bin without you even looking at it.
- Email can also eat up an incredible amount of time. Keep your communications to-the-point. Your teachers are busy, too. They don’t have the time or inclination to read wordy, philosophical passages, no matter how eloquent they are.
You should also take advantages of your email tools: highlight emails that need your immediate attention as opposed to those that can sit in the inbox for a little while. Here’s another idea: Log out of your email, disable instant notifications, and only check your account at specific times throughout the day.
- Voice mail: Rather than listening to your voice messages as they come in, set aside specific times throughout the day—in the morning, at lunch, after school—to check them. The world moves quickly, people are impatient and used to getting instant responses, but resist that false sense of urgency telling you to drop everything and pick up the phone every time you get a message.
Use your Friday afternoons wisely
Friday afternoons are a good time to take care of “dreaded deeds” and those odds and ends you’ve neglected over the last four days. Tackle them after lunch and while you do it, think about how good you’re going to feel wiping the slate clean before you close up shop for the weekend. You thinking, “Yeah, right. I can’t get everything done before I leave on Friday.” That’s probably true. You’ll never, ever get everything done. Most principals don’t. Just do enough so that you can go into Monday and the next week with a clear head.
If you don’t know what it is, you probably don’t need it
This is my mantra every spring when I go down into the basement and see all of the clutter I’ve accumulated since last April. If I don’t know what it is, it goes in the trash. The same goes for my office. I have a habit of accumulating stacks of old magazine clippings, articles and random printouts, but I can’t even tell you what’s in the pile without rifling through it. Here’s my rule: If I don’t know what’s in the stack, it goes in the recycling bin.
I don’t remember where I read it, but I happened upon an amusing Zsa Zsa Gabor quote a few years ago and I still remember it: “I call everyone 'Darling' because I can't remember their names." Like Zsa Zsa, I struggle with my students’ names and for the first week of class and have to work extra hard to commit them to memory. If you’re like me, check out these seven strategies courtesy of the folks over at Edutopia.
It won’t be long before the school doors open and the hallways are buzzing with chatter and the bustle of life again. Before that happens, though, we’d like to share a few tips to help principals prepare their hearts and minds for opening day!
Take the edge off those “dreaded deeds”
Surely you have some last-minute paper work or “dreaded deeds” that still need attending to. Chances are that your colleagues are in the same boat. Rather than grind through this stuff on your own, meet with a fellow educator at your local coffee shop and plow through your workload together. You may mostly sit in silence as you both work through your stack of to-dos, but having an ally present may take the edge off of those tasks that you don’t really feel like doing.
Recruit Student Workers
Are there any maintenance projects, last-minute paint jobs, or bulletin boards that need freshening up? Enlist some of your students. Many of them would be more than happy to exchange their time for free pizza and pop. Recruiting students will not only allow you to cross items off your checklist faster, but it will also give you an opportunity to get a head start on getting to know your students better.
Use Social Media to Generate Excitement
There might not have been much activity to document over the last month and a half, but now that your teachers are starting to prep their rooms, you have an opportunity to capture them in action. Snap photos or 30-second videos and post them to your school’s social media page. This will give students a preview of things to come and may help you generate excitement for the upcoming school year.
Write a Personalized Welcome-Back Letter to Every Teacher and Staff Member
We’re looking forward to welcoming students and teachers in person once the school year officially kicks off in a few weeks, but we always like to get the ball rolling early by sending out a personalized “Welcome Back” letter to every teacher and staff member. There isn’t a formula and there aren’t any official rules for drafting a Welcome Back letter. Just be you.
Reflect and Prepare Your Mind
No matter how long you’ve been doing this, odds are that you’re experiencing a healthy mixture of excitement and anxiety right now. To prepare your heart and mind for the upcoming school year, make a concerted effort to set aside time for reflection. You can certainly do this without writing anything down, but journaling will force you to stop and commit yourself to one thing.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been collecting inspiring and quotable quotes that relate to education. This week, I browsed my list and grabbed 5 more of my favorites.
5 Inspiring and Thought-Provoking Quotes for Educators
Last week, I reluctantly picked up a copy of Frank Sennett’s book, 101 Stunts for Principals to Inspire Student Achievement. Before I say anything else, I should probably clarify what Sennett means by “stunts” and give a few examples of how principals can use them to “inspire student achievement.”
- Alan Cook, a California grade school principal has “eaten bugs, sprawled on a mound of rotten eggs, and spent the day atop a 60-foot construction cherry picker to reward the academic achievements of his students”
- Mark Soss, principal of Roaring Brook Elementary in Chappaqua, New York, shaved off his 30-year old beard after 650 students kept their pledge to give up TV for reading
- Janet Franklin, principal of Beaumont Elementary in Knoxville, Tennessee, donned a hot dog suit and encouraged students who had exceeded coupon-book sales to decorate her costume with condiments
- Ron Hanson, a teacher in Bellingham, Washington, exchanged pies in the face with principal Brad Jernberg after students read on their own time for at least 20 minutes every day for a month
These sound gimmicky, don’t they? Especially when we take into account what well-respected scholars like Alfie Kohn, Richard Curwin, and a slew of others have to say about rewards-based systems of motivation: They don’t really work. Moreover, they actually negatively impact our students’ intrinsic motivation.
With that said, I admire these principals for taking risks and setting aside the serious business of learning to embrace comedy and laugh with students.
I guess I have a couple of questions then: How do you feel about using “stunts” to inspire academic achievement? Have you ever used “stunts?” If so, what were the results?
As a side note, I want to mention that the photo you see in the upper right-hand corner is actually my 10th grade biology teacher, Mr. Gunther—and the leopard-collared shirt and glasses he is wearing for this yearbook photo are mine! Although we were never overtly rewarded for Mr. Gunther’s “stunts,” I will say that his antics always amused us, lightened up the stuffy atmosphere of our school, and, in some strange way, cemented relationships between him and us.