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A Matter of Leadership
posted by: Melissa | September 05, 2018, 08:28 PM   

Written by AAE's Director of Charter School Services, Rena Youngblood.

Like so many people, I was a little saddened to read last August that this would be the final season for the CBS hit, The Big Bang Theory. The Wall Street Journal wrote, “The show, about a group of geeky physicists and their friendship with a beautiful next-door neighbor, averaged 18.9 million viewers last season. Its absence will leave a big hole in CBS’s prime-time lineup.”

That last sentence struck a chord with me. How many of us work for organizations that if gone tomorrow would leave “a big hole” in the communities we serve? Everywhere you turn, an organization’s culture is this seemingly magical metric that points toward the success or failure of the entity. The more positive a school’s culture, the greater a ‘hole’ it would leave if removed from the community.

I sincerely believe this is a true statement. I have toured schools where you can almost feel the positive vibes resonating from the walls. And I’ve toured schools that feel so institutional, I want to stretch my arms and legs once I’m back outside upon realizing how tightly wound I became as I visited quiet rooms, walked dull hallways, and shook hands with teachers who smiled but clearly wanted to be somewhere else.

The founding boards of new charter schools typically spend a great deal of time discussing the culture they envision for their school and ways to achieve that goal. They brainstorm, they attend conference sessions on the topic, and they pay outside consultants to help them stay focused on this outcome. This seems like a model that stands a much better chance of succeeding than a school that’s been educating children for years and years. However, I’ve seen charter schools that open and within two years have fallen short, very short, of the goal the founding board had planned. I’ve also witnessed traditional public schools one never thought possible of turning around, do just that -- in less than two years.

How can that be? What’s the secret? You may not agree my friends, but it is leadership. It’s taken me a long time to buy into that answer. How can a school with tremendous teachers full of ideas and excitement begin to drown in a sea of negative feelings and quite frankly stop giving their students their very best? I have been fortunate enough to hear Kim Bearden, cofounder, executive director, and language arts teacher at the highly-acclaimed Ron Clark Academy, speak twice on a this subject and both times I furiously keyed in notes to my phone (boy, I hope she didn’t think I was texting someone or playing Words With Friends).

Here is a list of things administrators can start doing today. The ROI? HUGE!

1. Ask for teacher feedback weekly. Bearden suggests you ask your teachers to share something good that happened this week and then ask what’s keeping them awake at night.

2. Administrators need to smile, say hello, say good morning to the staff you meet in the hall. I almost put my phone down with that one because this doesn’t happen, right? I looked around and saw so many heads nodding in agreement and heard whispers among colleagues, I realized what was happening. Administrators, I know you carry the world (the school) on your shoulders but stop ignoring your co-workers if you want to improve the culture. They want to be seen!

3. Start every staff meeting with the good things happening at your school. Your staff spends much of their day in the trenches and sometimes they need help seeing the sunshine where it appears. Remind them! Tell them a story of a happy parent, an unbelievable ‘aha’ moment for a student you witnessed in someone’s classroom, etc. Then move onto the challenges that need to be addressed.

4. Here’s a biggie Administrators….when you observe a teacher, you must give some feedback right away. Seriously, you may have marked that visit off your to-do list, but your teacher is possibly about to lose sleep with worry and fear. Bearden recommends you send a quick email that day mentioning a little something to relieve that fear (even if you know you have a harder discussion ahead of you) and end it with how much you appreciate that teacher being a part of the XXX School family.

5. Finally, if you expect your staff to demonstrate passion, energy, and joy…..YOU must demonstrate passion, energy, and joy.

Kim mentioned a few more things as well but these will get you started.

Now’s the time to ask yourself, “Am I working at a school that would leave a big hole in the community if it was gone tomorrow?” Make sure the answer is yes. If it’s already a big ‘heck yeah’, tweak a few things and make your commitment even stronger. I recall once asking a charter leader if he was going to attend an upcoming job fair in the city and he walked over to a box in his office and showed me resumes stacked 3 inches high, and responded, “No, I have a lot more teachers who want to work here than teachers who want to leave. I’m good.”

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