After five years as a middle school principal, I was thrilled to be appointed to my current position of high school principal. I inherited a wonderful high school with a veteran faculty and impressive student performances. (Go here to learn more about my school, my article is on page two) While I marveled at the past accomplishments of the students and teachers, believing in that being a great school is a process and not a location (to hear Jim Collins explain this, click here the moment you think you are great, you've lost it), I challenged the teachers to look for ways to make our school even better.
This did not go over well. The veteran teachers did not see any reason to change what they were doing. Early on, any suggestions I made was met with “Why should we change? Look at our test scores.” I realized I had made the rookie mistake of assuming everyone would view the situation the same way I did. I had to start over.
I reread one of my favorite books about school leadership Bringing Out the Best in Teachers by Blase and Kirby. The basic premise of the book principals will have a more influence with teachers with their interpersonal and technical skills than they will be trying to use their authority. Below is a list of strategies the authors encourage educational leaders to use to help teachers improve their performance and how I have attempted to incorporate them into my practice.
“Power of Praise”
I try to send handwritten notes to the teachers after major events; sports tournaments, plays, concerts. Email is faster, but the teachers recognize and appreciate that I took the time to write the note by hand. I take my laptop with me when I do walk-through observations. When I see something I like, I send the teacher an email from inside their classroom.
“Influencing by Expecting”
I try to clearly set my expectations and find that the majority of teachers will work hard to meet them. The most recent one was “In 2007-2008, technology is no longer optional”.
“Influencing by Involving”
I started an open leadership team this year. Any interested teacher may join and there is equal voice and equal vote. Many of the decisions that the department chairs used to make have been moved to this group.
“Granting Professional Autonomy”
The authors state that this is “the freedom to” do something, not “the freedom from” being observed! Simply put, encourage the teachers to take risks and support them if they do not work out as planned.
“Leading by Standing Behind”
Supporting the teachers with time, funding, and when necessary protection from over zealous parents. I also give the teachers permission to take care of themselves. The overachievers simply will keep pushing themselves.
“Gentle Nudges: Suggesting Versus Directing”
After observations, I will coach a suggestion with the phrase “I saw Mrs. Smith do x and it was successful for her. Think about trying it in your class”. This is particularly effective is Mrs. Smith is someone they respect.
Slowly over time, I have seen a number of teachers become more relaxed around me and open up a bit. Last week, I had the thrill of seeing a suggestion of mine become reality in a teacher’s classroom. The best part was that I did not make the suggestion to this teacher. I made it to a colleague of hers who not only implemented it but also shared the idea.
I would like to thank Scott for creating this wonderful resource and for the opportunity to share a few thoughts.