Hello readers! Apologies for a longer-than-usual absence from this blog. Since I last wrote, my Fulbright cohort completed our midpoint presentations, Elijah and I took a two-week trip around the North Island, I continued conducting interviews at schools, and my cohort member, Susy, gave her final presentation. She’ll go home next week, and soon after that another cohort member, Patrick, leaves. It is beginning to feel like the beginning of the end.
With a keen awareness that the clock is rapidly ticking on this experience, comes the added stress of trying to fit in all the interviews and school visits I want to engage in before I need to hunker down and write it all up in June. I came here with a narrow focus on special education, but that focus has grown as I have talked to people. I have realized that optimizing the learning of students with special needs is not about the collaboration between specific stakeholders, but about the entire school community. The schools who are doing special education (or really education) well have positive, collaborative, inclusive school cultures. They have a shared vision and philosophy that all staff buy into. Upon discovering this, the natural question became how. How have these schools cultivated such healthy, productive climates? The short answer appears to be strong leadership.
My conversations with principals continue to be the most inspiring part of my research. The caliber of leadership many of them exhibit is beyond anything I have encountered in my career. I often wonder if the structure of the school system here allows for this since the schools are autonomous. There are no school districts. The governing entity that the principal answers to is a Board of Trustees rather than an administrative district, etc.
While principals are required to follow education policies and laws, as long as they have a strong relationship with their Board, they do not have to navigate anything akin to the politics of school districts. They don’t have to constantly worry about someone going over their head. I think that this gives them a lot of freedom to do what is necessary to see the school’s vision realized. The buck stops with them.
That being said, the autonomous nature of the schools is not responsible for shaping school cultures. However, I believe that it grants the principals the freedom needed to exercise their capabilities in shaping their school’s culture. There are several common methods that I have identified among these principals.
First, they collaboratively create a school vision. The mission statement and school philosophy are created by the entire staff. At one school I visited, the principal gathered input from students and parents as well. Their school slogan, “Everyone’s School” came from a child’s description of his school. This is a school where the students understand and use the word “inclusive.”
These principals also create a unified vision by leading their staff in the creation of norms for collaboration and staff expectations at the start of every year. One principal showed me the staff expectation poster hanging on her wall as she explained the process of creating it. It was titled “The Way We Work Here.” One of my favorite agreed upon expectations was, “We will approach problems with a solution-oriented focus.” No one enjoys working with the teacher who vents and complains, but too often that permeates school cultures. One way to remedy that is to collaboratively agree upfront that negativity will not be tolerated.
Second, these principals remain firm and focused on the goals. They hold staff accountable for following the collaboration norms and staff expectations. At many schools, the staff hold each other accountable to following the agreed upon expectations. I sat in on a staff meeting recently and two teachers began having a side conversation while the deputy principal was talking. Their colleague calmly turned to them and said their names. It was not at all aggressive and showed no annoyance or hostility. It was just a gentle reminder of professional expectations they had all set. The two teachers stopped talking without a hint of annoyance. I often ask principals what they do when a staff member’s behavior and/or philosophy does not align with the school’s values. The answer is that they do not hire those teachers. These principals give all potential applicants detailed, clear information about the school culture, philosophy, and goals. One principal asks all potential applicants to schedule a meeting with her before applying so that she can have a blunt conversation about her vision and expectations. Her school has become a magnet for transgender youth. So, it is especially important to her that new hires understand the school’s beliefs, values, and are prepared to support the school population.
Goals are set at the beginning of the year, and the principals keep their schools focused on achieving those. The professional development for that year all aligns with one to two specific goals. Teachers are not expected to sit through an eclectic mix of half-day trainings and then immediately implement new techniques. Rather, they are given meaningful professional development over an extended period of time.
Third, the principals plan for and allow time for change. They realize that change does not occur quickly or easily and create multi-year change implementation plans. Several principals have outlined processes for me that began with gathering baseline data from staff. For example, one principals surveyed staff about current beliefs surrounding inclusion. Once that principal knew what their staff’s current beliefs were, they were able to create a plan to grow and develop the inclusive culture.
One way that is done is by generating discussion. A principal told me about trying to eliminate the term “special needs” from the school nomenclature. He asked his staff to define special needs and the staff created a definition to the effect of “students who require specialized techniques, accommodations, etc.” He then asked them if that meant that English Language Learners were special needs. The staff immediately protested and denied that ELL had special needs. When asked why, the staff had to interrogate the deeper meaning of special needs. They became aware that, even if their definition did not portray it, the term had negative connotations that they did not want assigned to their ELL students. Once the staff realized this, they understood why the principal wanted to eliminate the term and they were on board. That is an example of change happening quickly. However, larger changes often take time and these principals account for that. Throughout the change process they gather feedback, reflect, and alter the plan as needed. One of the most striking things to me is that their teachers are positive and open when it comes to change. I believe this is due to the final trait that these principals share.
These principals are supportive and build teacher capacity. They model for and guide teachers throughout the change process. Professional development is aligned with school goals and is scaffolded over an extended period. Almost all these school allow time for teachers to observe each other, not to critique, but to learn from one another. In addition, multiple principals I have visited are known to teach guest lessons in the classrooms. This gives them the opportunity to stay connected to the classroom, model for teachers, and sometimes provide teachers with additional time for administrative tasks. They try to create the time and space for teachers to do their jobs. I am currently scheduling interviews with classroom teachers. The principals don’t want them to have to give up their planning time to talk to me, so some of them are taking over their classes for an hour so they are free.
In summary, these leaders empower their staff by creating environments where their teachers can utilize their gifts and be as effective as possible. They are not micro-managers, but rather facilitators. In return, the teachers trust and respect their principals. With this comes a willingness to grow and change, because they know they will be properly supported through it all.
All of this has me thinking about my next steps. Where do I see my career going? I never really thought I wanted to be an administrator, but if I can be THIS kind of administrator, then maybe that is a different story. If I can create an environment where teachers are treated like professionals and empowered and supported, then it just might be worth it. That’s just a thought, though. Don’t hold me to the administration pathway just yet.
And now, for those of you who are just here for the pictures. Here are some favorite from our two-week trip around the North Island.