Sunday, August 23, 2015

Three Keys to a Great School: People, Programs, and Routines

A friend and colleague recently asked me, "You've been at this for awhile. What would you say is the key to school leadership?" 

I wrestled with how to summarize or encapsulate all of the areas a school leader has to address, change, or maintain over the course of a year (or a decade), and was finally able to identify three keys to a great school: People, Programs, and Routines.

One Key to School Leadership is People

My teachers and staff accomplished quite a lot last school year:
  • The majority of our students showed significant progress on our district's standardized assessment, the NWEA's Measures of Academic Progress. 
  • One hundred of our 460 middle schoolers tested at the "college readiness" level in Math.
  • Dozens of kids participated in rigorous regional math competitions, and all of our students participated in our district's math relays.
  • 87% of our students passed all of their classes with Cs or better.
  • Our multi-leveled building-wide discipline system enabled us to keep every child in school, losing only two to expulsion for bad behavior.
  • In our efforts to select a viable writing strategy, our staff identified the writing program that has since been mandated for all of our district's secondary schools.
  • Under the leadership of our new teacher leader, our math department got such extraordinary results from students that three district schools asked to work with us throughout this school year so that their teachers could do the same.
  • My teachers insist on, and get, over 95% parent participation at our parent conferences every school year. 
  • All of our athletic teams are competitive. Our track team has been undefeated for nearly 10 years. Our football teams was the undefeated league champions last school year.
  • A solid team of debaters competes and places in district and regional tournaments.
  • Our instrumental music teacher produces exceptional bands and orchestras.

Most of these successes took years to build, and all of them take constant monitoring and tending.

Every teacher in every one of our current classrooms is effective. Strong teachers contribute to strong teams. Our grade level teaching teams, our SPED department, our Building Literacy Team, and all of our content teams, including our Elective teachers, are strong. My teachers regularly impress me and one another, with various initiatives and opportunities for kids.

The only way I, as one individual, with all of the responsibilities my job dictates, can develop teachers, is to describe excellence in the many facets of our job (classroom management, student discipline, lesson planning, instructional delivery, assessments, grading, relationships, teaming), to ask for it or demand it, and to recognize it and celebrate it. Often, our description of excellence comes from the shared study of a book or article.

At the end of each year, I curate a Faculty Expo. I ask teachers to prepare short presentations to their peers of some successful practice or project they attempt to achieve over the school year. Last year, every last one of my teachers contributed a valuable presentation to the Expo. My teachers appreciate one another's expertise and performance.

When teachers see themselves as part of a successful, professional super-group, they are motivated to achieve even more!

Another Key to School Leadership is Programs

A school leader can never be satisfied with the status quo. We have to believe that we can impact any school situation, and we must work every year toward improvement - improvement in instruction, in the building climate, in hanging onto difficult kids, in teaming, in leadership - in every facet of schooling.

The most effective way to address various needs in a school is by developing systems that allow people to work smarter, not harder, and by optimizing the school day. Over the years, my teachers and I have instituted the following programs, or systems, for responding to students' needs:
  • A system of teacher teams who "own" the grade level they teach almost to the point of running their own grade-level school within a school.
  • A multi-leveled building-wide system of discipline, including the implementation of a behavior support model and an on-site alternative school.
  • A system of content-based instructional planning, including bi-monthly meetings with teacher leaders (coaches), weekly content meetings, and related observations.
  • A system for student recognition and school "family" fun. 
  • A system of committees to lead the various other systems and operations:  1. Team Leaders, 2. Student Leadership (National Junior Honor Society / Student Council), 3. Equity (celebrations of cultures and heritages), 4. Renaissance (our student recognition program), 5. Climate, and 6. BIST (our behavior model).

A Third Key to School Leadership is Routines

If I cannot get all the work it takes to ensure the efficient operations of all of our programs into the teachers' regular work day, the implementation will never be consistent enough to make a difference. Over time, I have had to tell teachers exactly what they must do during their planning times in school.

I showed my core teachers that their schedule provided almost twice the planning time that the negotiated agreement required. I pointed out that their class schedules also required only one preparation. Although they teach multiple classes per day, nearly every teacher in my building teaches only one content area and grade level. I protect this arrangement because it is the best way to get as much done for and with kids as we do.

Every grade level team starts their week with an agenda. They spend most of their time discussing or meeting with students who require teacher-facilitated plans in order to be successful - BIST behavior plans, SIT plans (instructional modifications), and/or our latest intervention, Non-working Student plans.

Every teacher meets every other week, for 90 minutes, with one of our two teacher leaders, to block out the semester's instructional calendar (then, the quarterly, monthly, and weekly calendars) to create effective lessons that include the components of our building literacy plan. They also write common assessments, analyze student data, and plan their response to their students' performances on assessments.

Our school calendar includes regular times for professional development, committee meetings, student recognition, the building literacy team meetings, and ongoing training in our behavior model. 

People bring energy, ideas, and personality to our shared work. The most important position in the school is the teachers'. The rest of us are employed to support their efforts with our students. Programs enable us to more effectively and efficiently meet the needs of our students. Routines provide systems for implementing and monitoring or measuring our work.

What would you say are the keys to school leadership?

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