Rethinking School Leadership

Rethinking School Leadership

In May/June 2019, a column I published in the National Association of Elementary Principals Magazine highlighted the impact of inequity on principal longevity. For some time now, I have been concerned about the turnover rate among principals, especially those who serve high-poverty student populations. A recent report, Principal Turnover Insights From Current Principals, by Learning Policy Institute and the National Association of Secondary School Principals echoes my sentiment and highlights key considerations for principal support and retention;

  • High-quality professional development
  • Support from strong administrative teams
  • Adequate school resources
  • Competitive compensation
  • Appropriate decision-making authority
  • Evaluation centered in timely, formative feedback

The insights are from the most credible source: practicing principals. I think it is something every education leader needs to read. More concerning is the preliminary results of NASSP and LPI’s study of principal attrition which shows that 35% of principals never make it beyond their 3rd year of tenure. If we want to do a better job of recruiting and retaining principals, we must explore these insights fully, and where possible, take bold action to protect the future of the principalship as a critical professional position in our society. 

High-Quality Professional Development

The school principal must serve as the instructional leader. It is imperative that each school leader possesses the scholarship, skills, and abilities to inform teacher practice in ways that advance student learning. We cannot rely on principal preparation programs to provide this level of readiness when it comes to instructional leadership. Traditionally, these programs have focused on operational issues: finance, personnel, and building management. What those entering the principalship need and those in it must have to improve student achievement includes knowledge of the teaching and learning process, specifically high leverage learning strategies, assessment literacy, and coaching skills to impact teacher practice in positive ways. Unfortunately, principals tend to experience professional development that focuses on the operational aspects of the job. Monthly principal meetings to review plans, budgets, and carry out mandates seem to rule the time and support they receive from district level leaders. As we move forward in public education, we must rethink how district and state level leaders provide principals with the kinds and quality of professional development that can support them in improving their instructional leadership capacity.

Support from Strong Administrative Teams

Work life balance is a challenge in many professions, but as a former principal, I tend to believe that this is especially challenging for school principals. Working with a strong body of administrators can help alleviate some of this challenge, but I have often wondered if it is time to restructure school leadership. Perhaps it is time for us to look beyond the traditional structure of school leadership: principal, assistant principal, dean of students, etc., and look toward a new organizational structure. Repurposing other positions might help districts better design supportive and strong administrative teams that can help principals focus on instruction. Operational Manager, Student Services Coordinator, and Assistant Principal are roles that come to mind. Each could take on the responsibilities related to facilities and maintenance, transportation, non-academic student needs (mental health, discipline, physical health, counseling) while the Assistant Principal works to hone his or her instructional leadership capacity in coordination with the principal. I would also venture to say that principals need coaches, in real time, who can give formative and timely feedback, but support them while in action.

Adequate School Resources

It is important to recognize that without access to a sufficient quantity of timely resources related to school improvement goals, principals face the incredible task of overcoming student achievement deficits and meeting the needs of teachers and staff. While this can seem simple in theory, in practice, this is something faced by many school leaders. When a principal’s effort to obtain the resources that teachers and students need to accomplish goals become more strenuous than accomplishing the improvement goals themselves, the focus of the leaders work shifts from improving the practices of students and teachers to securing needed resources. These things work in concert; in other words, principals must have access to adequate resources in their attempt to serve as strong and effective instructional leaders. 

Competitive Compensation

Principals have a variety of responsibilities: school safety, academic achievement, professional development, financial management, facilities management, and more. In comparing responsibilities of principals to that of other credentialed professionals who serve in leadership roles, it would be interesting to see the discrepancy between average principal roles and other supervisory positions in other fields. I do not have the figures or information to make an accurate comparison, but I am of the belief that a discrepancy exist and look forward to exploring this aspect further. 

Appropriate Decision-Making Authority

I recently heard someone quote a superintendent of schools as saying, “We are moving from a system of schools to becoming a school system.” While I certainly can relate to the importance of addressing challenges in a systematic fashion, it is important to note that principals need to be able to consider their context when solving problems specific to the students and teachers they are serving. Knowing what to apply broadly (across all schools) versus what to apply in a more targeted, and specific way is the challenge of leadership. There are some universal best practices when it comes to teaching and learning, and those best practices remain so regardless of the demographic of students served or school type. Our challenge, however, is in helping school leaders learn how to contextualize solutions for the given deficiencies of their school so that they avoid replicating solutions that have worked in other contexts without adapting them for the context in which they serve.

Evaluation with Timely, Formative Feedback

One way to accomplish this is by restructuring of district level positions that support and provide services to principals. Instead of simply providing a supervisor of principals, providing principal coaches who can give real time formative feedback and support to principals has the potential to change the practices of principals in ways that help them center their efforts on instructional leadership. Following the traditional methodology of principal evaluation results in fragmented feedback, retroactive recommendations, and little that principals can act on immediately or put into practice in an action research fashion. When principals receive feedback about their performance after the school year has ended or at the close of the school year, it creates a tremendous gap between action and reflection and that often does not result in changed practice. A change in practice is most likely when action and reflection happen in close proximity to one another.

Conclusion

Principal turnover and retention is a real problem that needs real solutions. Instability of leadership has a multitude of implications on teachers, students, and parents. We need to rethink the organizational support structure for principals as leaders and critical elements to the success of teachers and students. Our failure to reorganize, restructure, and most importantly, rethink what is necessary for principal success has the potential to cause problems in the field of public education far beyond a high rate of turnover. 

Until next time,

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

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Beyond Knowing Your Why: Let’s Talk About How Too!

In recent years, there has been much conversation about the importance of individuals within your organization understanding their purpose, also often referenced as “knowing your why”. While this is certainly an important concept, what is often missing in our quest for improving our organizations, are the methods others might utilize to improve their practices. We can become so intimately involved in focusing on the why of our work, that we neglect the HOW of our work. We spend a great deal of time telling others why we are doing what we are doing and what we would like them to do, and absolutely provide minimal knowledge and information on how to make the much needed changes. If we aren’t careful, we’ll find that we’ve sent folks on a mission with a purpose, but little to no tools to improve it.

What we need right now to improve our organizations, schools, and our lives perhaps, is a fierce focus on the how. In our schools, we have an opportunity to anchor teaching and learning with a defined set of evidence-based pedagogical practices that should be present in every classroom. We can provide high quality professional development opportunities to help teachers work on the how of instruction. We can give teachers the quality of feedback they need and deserve to become proficient at the pedagogical practices that we know result in high outcomes for all learners.

Let’s not allow our focus on the “WHY” make us abandon the much needed focus on the HOW.

Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder.

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

Connection: What Every Educator & Learner Needs

I’ve come to realize that there are few things more important to learners and educators than to belong to a community that embodies what we all want and need: personal connection, an opportunity to grow, and people to do it with who encourage, support, and stretch us in ways that allow us to meet our potential. In this era of hurried living and convenience concept inventions, like DoorDash to deliver a hot meal from most any restaurant, not just the local pizza place, and Shipt, that will save you a trip to the grocery store if you still wish to cook at home, but don’t have the time or energy to complete a physical trip, connection has become a commodity.

People are seeking authentic networks-both personal and professional ones; they are in search of belonging, of purpose, of contributing to a cause greater than themselves. What’s interesting about how technology has in some ways given us an opportunity to be more widely connected to events and organizations, and even people, in a sense, across the globe, it’s also elevated the deep desire of all humans- to be linked and intimately connected to others. We all need that experience and opportunity to laugh, love, and live a full life. No matter how convenient some of the revolutionary technology may have made some of our routine activities, we still have a deep need to be connected to one another.

While we may be thrilled to not have to stop by the grocery store on our commute home from work, pressing “like” on our social media applications isn’t the same as saying, “Hi. How are you?,” and giving someone you haven’t “seen” in some time a big hug. No matter how well technology allows us to “see” our family and friends via pictures, videos, and posts, what we gain by being a part of a community and sharing successes, failures, triumphs, and struggles together cannot be compared. It is the process that comes with these experiences that ends up linking us to others for an extended friendship, sometimes for a lifetime.

As I attended the first personalized learning conference in South Carolina today, I was struck by an ever present theme that ran through the entire construct: relationships. At the center of being able to personalize learning experiences for students is the ability to develop a connection that is authentic and trusting enough to support educators in designing teaching and learning activities that work for each child. Without this connection, the power of flexible learning environments, learner profiles, learner pathways, and student ownership is limited. What personalized learning asks us to do as educators is to honor the human element at the center of our work: students. In order to provide our students with an equitable learning experience that creates a guaranteed opportunity for reaching the outcomes they set for themselves and we set for them, we must start by being connected to the students we are teaching and to our colleagues who are in this work with us.

That connection must not be underestimated. It is the sustaining element and critical factor in making personalized learning more than an idea, an initiative, or the latest and greatest ed reform topic. It’s personal and that is why I believe it is at the heart of what educators and students alike need-a trusting community of peers and partners to learn, grow, thrive, and connect with to live full lives where each person can be sure their potential isn’t underestimated or out of reach.

In the years and decades to come, I believe this need for personal connection, strong, trusting, relationships, and learning communities will remain a solid and essential concept in our profession. Above all else, we’ll continue to find that our relationships with one another are really the glue that holds us all together.

Until next time! Be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

SEL for Educators-Also needed NOW!

There’s a widespread focus on the need for social emotional learning in our schools. Our students are faced with more trauma and bring an emotional deficit, disruption, or traumatic make up with them to school each day. As a result, educators are being tasked with teaching the standards and helping to create whole, healthy, and healed young people. The need for a renewed focus on SEL is very logical and clearly understood. However, we should not assume that educators are mentally and emotionally healthy enough to support the students they serve. Often broken themselves, they too need help healing, a focus on their wholeness and mental health. However, this need, is not being described here as one that should rise above the needs of students, but one that is equally important. The need to focus on the mental wellness of our educators seems to be missing in the persistent advocacy for social emotional learning. The wellness of our educators cannot be overlooked. While some see the sharing of burdens educators face in this profession as whining, selfish, and a distraction from their focus on students, I see it quite differently. We know that broken people can’t help others become whole, that those who are in a disharmonious state, whether it be personally or professionally, find it difficult to be the sense of calm in a student’s world of chaos. For sometime now, I’ve been thinking and writing about the importance of educator wellness, and I want to make a clear distinction that I’m talking about every educator: teachers and administrators.

While some are quick to note that teaching often comes with working 10 months out of the year instead of 12, it is important to recognize that unlike others in professions like engineering, business, or finance, educators are tasked with being exposed to the burdens of young people daily.

Story after story, my mind recalls all the things I carried home as a school principal and teacher. Like the time one of my students asked me to help him find somewhere to take a shower because he hadn’t been able to bathe in days, or the student who I watched eat from the trash can in a community eligible school that was 100% free lunch, or the student who ran away from home one weekend, whose father had allegedly attempted to kill her as a young child and mother was a known prostitute, or the student who was murdered by her grandfather after losing her mother to cancer, and surviving a nasty divorce. Those are just a few of the stories that live in my heart, and that I carry with me each day.

The trauma educators are vicariously exposed to can be difficult to deal with and damaging. What educators are tasked with is quite different than being stressed about a product coming in on time so that production of a device can be complete by the deadline or a delay on shipment causing an issue with quarterly projections. It doesn’t quite feel the same as the stories above. As educators we work with human beings and while we are certain of the difference we make in the lives of our students, an investment in the wellness of educators: mind, body, and spirit, is long over due.

We’ve subscribed to an “educators are givers and not takers” mentality for far too long. The missionary nature of our work and our deep desire to love and educate children doesn’t mean we are equipped to handle all that we are faced with in today’s public schools. From social media posts about why teachers are leaving the profession to conversations with my friends who are still in the classroom, educators are crying out for help. Our emotional well-being has a direct impact on our children and when we are healthy, we can be better educators for students and better people for ourselves.

I’ve often wondered what would happen if schools were built to include a wellness center for staff-a place where educators could exercise, meditate, sit quietly, or even work with a counselor. What if we had a registered dietitian on staff who helped staff develop and maintain healthy eating habits? What if we had group therapy sessions where teachers had a place to talk about and deal with the repeated exposure to the trauma their students face but also were able to receive recommendations on next steps and how to deal with the stress in healthy and healing ways? Think about the teacher who is trying to help her students be proficient in the area of social-emotional learning, but also dealing with her alcoholic husband and heroine addicted child. Is it safe to say that the teacher is over burdened? Should she simply have chosen a different profession if she didn’t really love teaching? Should her dedications and commitment be questioned because she is unable to “leave her problems at the door” when she arrives at school? I know that teacher because I was her principal.

Contrary to what I’ve heard from many and have been guilty of saying in the past, none of us leave our burdens at the door when we enter work. They live within us, in our hearts and in our minds, and they have a tendency to manifest when we feel like we can’t control what’s happening to us personally or professionally. Why should we expect folks to operate absent from who they are, their lived experiences, the good, bad, and ugly?

Would an increased focus on wellness and the social emotional health of educators result in an improves retention rate of principals and teachers? Might we be able to keep new teachers who tend to leave within the first five years in the profession longer? Might we be able to keep administrators in high poverty schools that have 30% principal turnover rates in their positions longer and more successfully? Might our nation prove well to invest in those who care for its’ children? I could be way off base, but I am willing to bet that any educator who reads this will likely be in agreement that the social emotional learning movement can not be absent of the need to invest in the wellness of educators.

Until next time-be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

-Latoya

@latoyadixon5

A Little Bit of Good

This week I attended ASUGSV19 in San Diego. It was amazing to be with so many people who are thinking about the future of human potential. As a first timer to this conference, I have to admit the first morning of the first day was a bit overwhelming. Thankfully, my colleagues Lauren and Stephanie, who were with me and had attended before actually helped me get my bearings. That being said, being in the room with venture capitalists, start up CEOs, and ed tech folks and others, made for a brand new experience. There were a few common themes beyond the obvious one, bending the arc of human potential, that arose. These people were future focused, desired to bridge the gap between education and the future of work, and leverage technology to improve economic mobility.

As I attended various sessions I found myself initially questioning the authenticity of the experience, questioning whether or not some of the people actually meant the why they expressed, and wondering what was at the root of their efforts. I was trying to make meaning from it all and I wanted to feel confident and secure that everyone meant well and would do well by those whose lives would be impacted by their technology, investments, and efforts. Immediately I exercised a lack of trust and then was later convicted by my own conscience.

After much thought and on my last day at the conference, it hit me: A little bit of good is good. We can’t always know how far or how wide our reach will go and we can’t be sure of the size and degree of our impact. However, if our intention and our effort results in making a difference, how much difference is made shouldn’t discredit the good that’s done. A little bit of good is good because everyone’s little bit of good can come together to create a lot of good.

We have to start some where and few ideas or efforts result in solving multiple problems. No solution is perfect and some good is certainly better than none at all. I am hopeful that my desire to see a more equitable public school system does not become intimidated by the daunting tasks ahead or the complexity of the issue. Instead, it is my desire that we all continue to do our little bit of good and hopefully, the sum of the efforts of the equity action oriented folks and equity minded people will be a great deal of good.

I’m going to be sure to keep doing my little bit of good in this corner of the universe. Join me?

Until next time, be you! Be true! Be a hope builder!

Latoya

@latoyadixon5

Instructional Leadership: The Heartbeat of School Administration

Being a school administrator is an enormous responsibility. There are a variety of roles school administrators must fill. They must be excellent communicators, great relationship builders, and good managers of people, resources, and processes. School administrators have the audacious task of serving students, parents, teachers, and staff. This is not an easy task. It is complex and difficult. The days are long, the rewards great, and the pressure to do it all and do it well is present. At the heartbeat of school administration however, is instructional leadership. Too often, folks pursue the leadership role for its surface structure. They think it might be fun to be the face of the school or perhaps they are attracted to the idea of being in charge…whatever that means. What happens often in school administration is that those with a love of instruction and curriculum, with teaching and pedagogy see the administrative route as a mismatch for their skill set and passion. I contend that those people are exactly who we need as instructional leaders and school administrators.

High-Expectations are not enough.

So many school leaders believe they are charged with setting high expectations for staff and students, and while that may be true, high expectations alone aren’t enough. A leader who compells his her staff to change and provides an explanation of why change is neccessary isn’t the same as one who also shows staff how to change. Of all the time school adminstrators spend in school buildings, providing valuable feedback to teachers around the how of change is most critical. Too often the focus is centered on what and on why, with little attention given to the how, and teachers find themselves searching and trying to figure out exactly what the principal wants to see in their classroom. Instructional leaders must move beyond a compelling why and a clearly defined what. They must give teachers a clear articulation of how their teaching and/or pedagaogy should change to improve student outcomes. An instructional leader sees this as the most important mechanisim by which her or she can effectuate change in instructional practices and thereby advance student learning. A simple demand for teachers to perform better, be more effective, and the like just isn’t enough.

Coach the behavior to coach the data.

My sister, who has a career in business, said to me in one of our many conversations, “You can’t coach data. You coach behaviors.” I was awestruck by her idea. In a field like public education where we use the term data-driven as often as an article in the English language, I took a few minutes to process what she was saying. She went on to explain that in order to help people produce better results, you have to focus on the behaviors that are neccessary for such improvement. A simple conversation around data, around a percentage of students who have not met standards, around the number of students who didn’t fare well on the assessment, won’t produce a change in practice. To change practice, we must coach behavior. That is, we must coach teachers around the instructional practices that impact student learning. Data in and of itself tells us what’s wrong and where to look, but it does not tell us how to fix it and that is precisely what people need to know: how to fix it. Instructional leaders don’t just point out what is wrong. They are precise in guiding and coaching teachers on how to fix those areas of ineffectiveness.

Start with your learning.

I want to know what makes effective teachers effective. I want to be certain about what practices are those that make learning most possible for students. To learn that, I read a great deal. I study. Recently, I’ve been digging deep into Cognitive Science. This has been a very interesting personal research study because it makes clear what many scholars have written about in terms of high-yield learning strategies. Our brains are in best shape to learn when we account for cognitive overload, analogical transfer, and constructivisim. If we know this, our duty as professionals is to dig deep into the pedagogical structures and strategies that best account for these. Instructional leaders don’t guess about how to make academic learning and effective teaching happen. They study it. They read. They research. Instructional leaders are learners first and foremost.

At the core of being a school administrator, is the responsibility for teaching and learning. Instructional leaders see their purpose as two fold: to improve teacher practice and to advance student learning. Everything else is icing on the cake.

Until next time, Be you. Be true. Be a hope builder.

@latoyadixon5

The Trouble With Feedback

Feedback is defined as information about reactions to a product, a person’s performance of a task, etc. which is used as a basis for improvement. It’s something we all say we want. It’s something that can be difficult to deliver. It’s something that sounds like a screeching and high pitched sound designed to burst eardrums when it is coming from a microphone. Perhaps that is symbolic of what it feels like to those who have difficulty receiving or giving it.

Where does your mind go when you receive affirmative feedback? For me, it makes me feel really good. I feel proud and accomplished. I like knowing I’ve delivered what was desired of me. It gives me confidence a boost. On the other hand, when receiving constructive feedback, I have to coach myself to listen, not defend, to process, not respond, and to reflect instead of reacting. I think I’ve improved a great deal at this over the years, but I am still working on it. Here’s how it usually plays out for most of us:

Feedback blog

In giving feedback, the challenge can be just as great for leaders. We’ve all been taught the sandwich method: 1. Say something positive., 2. Share the constructive feedback, 3. Finish with something positive. Better yet, we all realize when it’s happening to us. For years, I’ve been trying to develop a mindset that helps me give and receive feedback in a meaningful way. What I’ve developed is a tool, I call the CFT, Critical Feedback Tool! It focuses on acknowledging the feedback you receive by identifying the facts and behaviors that come from the critical conversation and then making plans to develop action steps, or changes in behavior to change the facts.

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Something I believe effective leaders do exceptionally well is give AND receive critical feedback in meaningful ways. They are masterful experts at communicating with others in ways that help them improve their efforts and enhance their practices for the better.

I’d love to know if any of you think this tool could be useful in your leadership journey. I am continuing to use it in mine, and while practice does not make perfect, it certainly has helped me to make progress!

Until next time-be, you, be true, be a hope builder!

Latoya

#leadershipwithlatoya