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Leadership Is Key to Positive Schools

As a literature teacher, my mind is drawn to dystopian novels and the warnings they convey about the governmental powers that over-step the rights of the people they are charged to care for.

Images of Big Brother or Napoleon or Mustafa Mond putting the fear of violence into the minds of all those who exist inside of each society.  Even the Chief Elder in The Giver wielded the power of knowing and control to ensure no individual stepped out of line.

Because we all know that independent thinkers are "dangerous" to society.

Humans don't function well in a state of fear. Although perhaps more compliant, leaders will never get the most out of people who don't feel safe and heard which is why school leaders CANNOT function like dictators.

Schools are meant to be hotbeds of learning and creativity. Places where innovation and thought are fostered. Not just for the children we are to care for, but also for the educators who teach them. The more nurturing a school environment, the more likely the people within it will thrive.

Creating a school culture that is positive and embracing a growth mindset starts from the top. The leaders are responsible for carrying out and embodying the qualities they expect of the folks who work with them. Although there may be a hierarchy of power, it shouldn't feel like anyone person has control over another, but rather a deep respect for the individual perspective they alone can add to the collaboration.

You can always tell the kind of school you're in by how many doors are open during the day. Open doors are not just metaphors, they are quite literally a way into the learning that happens, and when we're open to people being a part of that, the doors stay open.

Often administrators say they have an open-door policy, that folks should come in whenever, but their actions don't match their words. Good leaders, always try to act in the manner in which they want their team of people to behave. It's hard to expect your subordinates to do something that you, yourself don't ascribe to. This works admin to teacher and teacher to student.

If we want to keep the culture of our schools positive, all school leaders MUST do the following:

  • Only initiate rules and policies that make sense for your specific school community. Make sure the rules are enforceable and meaningful. Too many meaningless rules make for a culture of blatant lack of compliance and that breeds trouble.

  • Be smart about how you roll out policies, and always support staff and students when changes are made. If you want the change to work,  communicate the expectations clearly, and provide ample time for folks to get on board. If professional support is needed, provide opportunities for staff to work together in or out of the building to learn all that is expected. Try to avoid wholesale dictates that force people into something new before they are ready.

  • Develop trusting relationships that show you care about the people you are working with. Know a little bit about their lives but a lot about their working lives. Make an effort to develop a rapport that goes beyond the working relationship.

  • Provide regular feedback both critical and positive. Make sure to tell the person individually what you notice. Keep everything very low-stakes and encourage risk-taking to get better.

  • Never punish a whole group for what one or two people are doing. In fact, don't "punish" at all. If change needs to be done, it works out better to have regular on-going conversations that prevent issues from occurring in the first place.

  • Really listen when people speak to you. Take in the full range of what they are saying, not just their words. Be observant about what you see and respond appropriately. If what they are saying makes you uncomfortable or angry, rather than blow up at them immediately, take some time to allow the reaction to calm down. It's hard for people to open up but if you yell at them in a moment of emotion, they won't open up again.

  • Have a vision and be clear about it. Leaders need to be able to see the big picture AND manage everything that goes into it.

  • Since there is so much that goes into it, ask for help and empower people you trust to help build the structure. Then don't micromanage these people. Trust them. Allow them to add their vision and make it a collaboration. The more people involved who are invested, the better the community will be.

Leadership is essential to success, so make sure you know who the personalities. Admin remember this when working with staff and staff remember it when working with students. Relationships and empowerment go a long way to investment and happy school community is one that is willing to innovate.

What tips do you have for school leaders to help make learning environments positive for students? Please share

This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher Blog in October 2015


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