Courage for School Leaders

A common requirement of leaders at all levels is having the courage to make tough decisions and take difficult actions.  – David Cottrell and Eric Harvey.

I first came across Amelia Earhart’s poem Courage, in Leading from Within; Poetry That Sustains the Courage To Lead. Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner, Editors.

Courage – Poem by Amelia Earhart

Courage is the price that Life exacts
for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not
Knows no release from little things:
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights where bitter
joy can hear
The sound of wings.
How can life grant us boon of living,
For dull gray ugliness and pregnant
Unless we dare
The soul’s dominion? Each time we
make a choice, we pay
With courage to behold the resistless
And count it fair.

There is no doubt that effective leadership requires courage.  Principals and other school leaders create the learning environment and school culture by their daily actions or inaction.  They must demonstrate courage daily or they will become ineffective and this ineffectiveness will lead to low standards of performance and lack of commitment throughout the school.  Teachers and students will be affected.  School leaders must keep everyone accountable and focused on the task.

School leaders should do everything possible, within reason, to develop good relationships with members of staff, and they must also embody the mission, vision, and values of the school.  They must create policy to uphold those three guiding lights and implement necessary change with courage and self-confidence.

When leaders make tough decisions that some persons do not like, they must be willing to accept the risks and challenges that ensue, and still press on with their decisions.  They have to do what is best for the students and the school.  The first priority is to improve teaching and learning.  School leaders must, therefore, have the courage to make unpopular decisions.

Sometimes it is necessary to suspend or expel the children of close friends, neighbours, or influential persons in the society.  At times you cannot reassign a temporary teacher because of the teacher’s poor performance despite efforts to help him or her to improve.  It is sometimes necessary to confront delinquent or difficult teachers, sometimes even Senior or experienced teachers.  This confrontation and conflict is necessary, in the best interests of the students and school, since problems do not go away if you ignore them; they become worse.

In many cases school leaders, mainly principals, must have the courage to stand up to uncooperative and irate parents, members of the School Board, and even occasional policy dictates from the Ministry of Education that seem more political than educational or just plain impractical in your particular school environment.

School leaders also have to control difficult or emotionally disturbed students who may be inclined to violent behaviour.  Leaders have to make decisions and defend them at all costs since they are responsible for the safety of everyone at the school.  They must also deal fearlessly and sensibly with unauthorized intruders on the school premises.

These actions by school leaders often cause tension and negative changes in the relationships between the leaders and those reprimanded or sanctioned.  However, provided that the leader is acting fairly, consistently and in accordance with accepted practice and the stated mission, vision, policy, and the values of the school, most of the persons involved will respect the decisions taken.  The key is that these decisions must be made in the best interests of the students and the school.  School leaders must have the courage to make tough decisions even in the face of internal institutional political factionalism among sections of the staff.  One cannot please everyone all the time.

Many successful leaders have said that courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to take the right action despite any fear one may feel.  Some school leaders fail, not because they do not know what to do, but because they do not have the courage to do it.  I want to remind readers at this point that school leaders must develop positive relationships with their staff and students, and involve them in decision-making whenever this is possible or feasible. This will assist in building the trust that will allow staff and students to accept the tough decisions that school leaders will make from time to time.  School leadership is not a profession for the faint-hearted and leaders cannot be afraid to reprimand their friends or colleagues when it is necessary to do so.  Similarly, they cannot allow themselves to be intimidated by the possibility or reality of adversarial encounters with lawyers or trade unions in the legitimate execution of their duties as school leaders.






Open Door Policy

A true leader has to have a genuine open-door policy so that his people are not afraid to approach him for any reason.”  – Harold S. Geneen quotes.

When I was a principal I always had an open door policy for all staff, students, and parents.  My goal was to encourage discussion about important issues, get or provide feedback, and solve problems as quickly and effectively as possible.  This enabled me to speed up progress towards agreed school goals.

An open door policy is a communication strategy in which the principal or any other manager or leader allows staff, employees or any other stakeholders to come to the office at any time to discuss issues, ask questions, get or give feedback, report problems, or share ideas.  An open door policy tends to increase collaboration between management and staff, and promote mutual respect and trust. Relationships often improve in this environment.  It also increases productivity and performance because problems are discussed and solved very quickly.  Principals become more accessible and get the opportunity to provide greater mentorship.

This communication system is quicker and works better than having staff wait for appointments with the principal to report problems in person, or submit e-mails or written reports to the principal, and then wait until they are called into the office, maybe a few days later.  Many issues require a prompt response from the principal and will fester if they are not dealt with immediately.

Teachers, students and parents also become demotivated and annoyed if they have to wait too long to bring a problem or suggestion to the principal’s attention.  Matters of discipline must also be dealt with promptly for the penalties to be effective.  In contrast, an open door policy empowers staff and makes them feel more highly valued.  Management needs to know the concerns of staff as soon as possible.

In operating an open door policy, the principal will need, at times, to redirect some of the issues and problems to his Senior Staff, such as his deputy principal, year heads, department heads, and guidance counsellor, or call them in, as needed, to assist in resolving the matters at hand.  This will reassure these senior staff members that they are not being bypassed or overlooked, and that they remain integral parts of the management team.

One drawback of the open door policy in schools is the constant flow of people to the principal’s office to deal with important or urgent matters.  This makes it difficult for the principal to complete his or her pre-prepared to-do list for each day.  Principals then have to work after school hours  on their daily to-do lists.  The office often becomes a very hectic place and the principal has to learn how to deal with many matters quickly and effectively and delegate some of them to senior staff members.  The implementation of an open door policy may challenge your personal time-management system, but it pays off handsomely in the end in terms of school improvement.


Goal-Setting for Principals

Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible. ”  – Tony Robbins.

 School improvement is not brought about by chance.  Before the start of each new school year principals must carry out their annual review of school performance for the previous  year.  They must analyse all the data pertaining to student academic performance, extra-curricular achievements and teacher performance and determine whether or not the previous year’s goals were met.  They must understand the reasons for failure to meet any stated specific goals and come up with action plans to correct those failures during the following school year.  This exercise must be done in a collaborative way. Principal and staff must engage in professional, evidence-based discourse designed to eliminate any weaknesses, capitalize on strengths, and move the school forward.

After this exercise, principals must clarify the goals for the new school year for staff, students and parents.  Everyone has to understand exactly what is required and expected in order to effect improvement in the new school year.   The principal posts the curricular and extra-curricular goals for the new school year and follows this up by putting measures in place to improve teaching and learning in the school.  These measures should include further professional development for the staff, whether it be done in-house or externally.  Mentoring should be arranged for all teachers who need it and regular classroom visits by the principal and department heads should be a priority.  These visits allow administrators to observe the quality of teaching in the school on an ongoing basis, and give teachers regular feedback on their teaching, along with advice on how to improve their performance and remain on course to meet the agreed school goals relative to internal and external examination results.

Goals must be clear, realistic and measurable.  Principals can therefore monitor progress and see trends.  Teachers must be accountable and students must accept greater responsibility for their own learning.  Parents should be encouraged to become more involved in the education of their children and maintain contact with their teachers since students learn better in this scenario.

If you are a new principal, you should review the previous principal’s goals for the previous year, consult with the administrative staff, analyse the school’s performance records for the previous year and determine which goals were met and which were not.  You can then set your own goals accordingly.

School improvement is goal-driven.  Set specific and clear goals for weaker subjects and monitor them constantly.  Develop a culture of excellence, recognize, reward and praise positive teacher and student achievements and goal-directed behaviour.  Promote teamwork.  Constant motivation of staff and students will turn goal-setting into goal achievement.

Consistency is Key in Schools

Success is neither magical nor mysterious.  Success is the natural consequence of consistently applying basic fundamentals.”  –  Jim Rohn.

One of the most important tools in effective schools is consistency.  Research and practice have proved that school leaders and teachers must  be consistent every day in carrying out their duties if they want to improve student performance and conduct.  This is a necessary element in the creation of successful schools.  Educators must say what they mean and mean what they say.  There should be clear rules, policies, requirements and expectations for everyone.  The consequences of any breach of these institutional demands should be spelled out to everyone, so that there are no unpleasant surprises.

By the same token, good conduct, excellent academic and extracurricular performance by students; excellent teaching and best practices by staff, should consistently be recognized and rewarded.  The instructional process should be regularly monitored and evaluated to promote constant improvement.

The rules must be enforced every time they are broken.  Those who break the rules have to be punished in the manner spelled out in the related list of consequences mentioned above.  Consistency is key and there should be no exceptions.  No student can be allowed to wheedle his way out of punishment.  The rules apply equally to everyone.  School leaders and teachers cannot be strict sometimes and lenient at other times.  Students and staff respect those who are strict and consistent because they are predictable and trustworthy.

Students value consistency and they expect to be punished when they break the rules.  Inconsistency causes confusion and leads to accusations  of favouritism, indecisiveness and injustice.  It destroys trust, community spirit and a positive school climate.  Staff and students need definite rules, policies and structure.  This framework makes their everyday lives predictable, fair and stable.  When everyone knows the consequences of infringements of the rules, discipline, safety and academic performance improve.  This happens when they know that the rules will be enforced.

Each school leader and teacher must be consistent in his or her daily practice.  However, there is another dimension of consistency in schools.  The administration and staff must operate like a coherent unit.  They must all interpret, apply and enforce the rules in the same consistent way.  If this is not done, students again become confused and play one teacher off against another.  The teachers who uphold the rules appear to be harsh and those who are too lenient appear to be “cool.”  The teachers who are perceived to be harsh become unpopular.  This scenario seriously undermines discipline, morale, and academic performance wherever it happens.  School leaders must also support teachers who report problems they are experiencing with students.  Administration and staff must function as one.

School leaders and teachers must create what some researchers have called a “culture of consistency” in which everyone knows the rules, the acceptable work performance standards, and what to expect without fail when they are not respected.  This fosters improved school effectiveness and underlines our assertion that consistency is key in schools for administrators, staff and students.

10 Features of a Great School

Great schools have many distinguishing features in common.  Some exhibit a number of uncommon features as well.  This post is not intended to be an exhaustive report on all the characteristics of great schools.  It lists, however, 10 features that most educational experts and practitioners consider to be necessary in the anatomy of any great school.  I present them here in no particular order.

1.  A very clear and shared mission and vision for the school.  A contextual philosophy of education for the school is also paramount.  Staff, students, parents and the community need to know the purpose and operational parameters of the school.  Nothing is left to chance.

2.  Very clear goals and objectives which are communicated to the staff, students, parents and wider community.  Everyone in the school knows exactly what he or she is required to do on a daily basis in order to meet the institutional goals and objectives.  This speaks to performance on every level.

3.  Great leadership from the principal.  The principal is both instructional leader and manager of the school.  While both these roles are important, he or she must pay particular attention to instructional leadership.  This is what drives continual improvement in teaching and  learning throughout the school.

4.  A relentless focus on teaching and learning.  This is informed by the belief that all students can learn.  Teachers must find ways to motivate and engage them.  The curriculum is rigorous and teacher performance is regularly monitored by the principal and executive staff.  Teachers and students strive for excellence in academic and extracurricular activities.  Good performance is always publicly recognized and rewarded in various ways.

5.  Parental involvement in the school.  Many studies have shown that students learn better when their parents take a close interest in their schooling and form partnerships with teachers.  Parents can also help in various school activities.  Alumni and the wider community can also offer assistance in many ways.

6.  High expectations for students and staff.  It is common knowledge that students will generally live up to your expectations.  When they know that teachers genuinely care about them and believe in their ability, they work harder and perform better.

7.  A culture and climate which are conducive to learning.  This is reinforced by praise and rewards for good performance and a student-centred approach to teaching.

8.  A safe environment.  Zero tolerance for violence, bullying, drugs, alcohol, offensive weapons, stealing, sexual misconduct, and gangs.  Heavy emphasis on positive values such as respect, honesty, hard work, self-discipline, fairness and caring.

9.  A focus on professional development for teachers.  This includes mentoring, delegation of tasks and additional responsibilities and formal in-house or external professional development courses.  Teachers are accountable for their performance.

10.  Teamwork.  Identification and collaborative solving of teaching and learning problems at the school.  Staff members are empowered to take the initiative and make decisions.  The principal facilitates and monitors this process. ,

One constant among the features of a great school is that good ideas and best practices are shared among the staff.  When decisions have to be made, the first considerations revolve around what is best for the students and the school.

School Canteens Are Important

Break in the canteen during PAE 2007; PAE-admi...

Break in the canteen during PAE 2007; PAE-admitted students wearing their secondary school uniforms. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At first glance one might tend to overlook the humble school canteen, but on reflection I think most people would agree that the canteen is one of the most important parts of school life.  In this post I will consider two ways in which school canteens play indispensable roles in the life and functioning of schools.  School administrators need to have a definite canteen policy, must establish canteen committees to seek to improve service and food quality and must work closely with canteen operators.

The two main ways in which school canteens have an impact on school life are in supporting teaching through proper nutrition and health practices; including the provision of special dietary requirements for some students and staff, and in being sectors of schools which can easily become trouble zones if specific measures are not put in place to prevent this.

A large proportion of students eat in school canteens every day.  Since they cannot leave the school during the day they constitute a captive market for canteen operators.  This, however, should never lead to exploitation through high prices or poor quality food and drinks.  Schools have a duty to feed students and staff properly.  Administrators and canteen committees must ensure that school canteens meet national standards for food preparation, storage, hygiene and safety.  Failure to do so would result in serious health problems for staff and students who consume the fare.

Well planned school canteens support student development and learning.  They provide adequate nutrition which gives students and staff high energy levels and prevents diseases, such as obesity and anaemia, which are related to poor diet.  Progressive canteens also forge synergistic links with schools’ food and nutrition departments and agricultural science departments, where they exist.  School canteens should serve food and drinks which are low in saturated fats, sugar, salt, and food dyes.  More fruit, fruit juices, vegetables and whole grain bread should be on the menu.  There should be fewer soft drinks, no energy drinks or sports drinks, no alcohol, and no deep-fried food.  It will be necessary to retrain students’ palates in some instances, but this is in the best interests of the students.

As mentioned earlier, school canteens can become trouble zones if they are not closely regulated and supervised by the administration.  Canteens can be a barometer for student conduct.  If preventive measures are not put in place and enforced, lunchtime can be chaotic and this chaos can spill over into classes after lunch because some students may be late and unsettled.  Some may even want to continue eating during class.

Administrators, school canteen committees, and operators must implement systems to enforce queuing and good behaviour in the canteen.  A canteen duty roster for teachers and prefects is a necessity.  The frequent presence of the principal and teachers will control negative behaviour.  These measures will eliminate queue jumping, fighting, bullying and extortion of money or lunch from younger students during break and lunchtime.

School canteens can be pleasant spaces which contribute to the development of students and reflect a positive school climate.

Professional Learning Communities

English: Teaching and Learning

English: Teaching and Learning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Ontario Ministry of Education defines a professional learning community ( PLC ) as “a shared vision or running a school in which everyone can make a contribution, and staff are encouraged to collectively undertake activities and reflection in order to constantly improve their students’ performance.”  In a PLC there is a shift of focus from teaching to learning that is so profound, that even teachers can be considered as reflective learners in the instructional process.  Professional learning communities promote staff development, enhance student attainment and accelerate school change and improvement.  More and more schools are adopting this development model.  The following characteristics are typical of most PLCs.

Professional learning communities work well in schools in which there is a practice of shared leadership.  Their main goal is the achievement of high levels of learning for all students.  The strengths and weaknesses of all students are identified and the weaker students are given additional academic assistance.  Instruction is individualized and students are more motivated.  There is a feeling of mutual respect and trust among staff and students which leads to greater engagement.

The role of the principal is to create the learning community and monitor, evaluate and facilitate its operations.  He or she explains the process to all participants, assists in the creation of various departmental and special interest teams, and establishes the kind of cultural environment which would allow the PLC to flourish.  The principal sets up the vision, mission, values and goals of the PLC.  She also communicates the shared understandings relative to the attainment of the vision and goals.  She must organize the timetable or structure certain school days in a way that allows teams of teachers to meet to discuss topics, teaching units, methodology, assessment strategy, best practices, priorities,  problems and solutions.  In a professional learning community teachers work and learn collaboratively and make decisions collaboratively.  They also visit each other’s classrooms in order to share best practices and help each other to improve instructional skills.  They meet to reflect on their practice and critique each other.  The principal brings in resource persons from outside the school from time to time.

There are certain characteristics that differentiate a professional learning community from a traditional school.  There is more collective planning and experimentation with instruction.  There is more teamwork and collaboration instead of competition.  Teachers ask each other and answer hard questions without becoming defensive because of the existing high levels of trust and the commonality of purpose and values.  The focus is squarely on curriculum development and student learning.  The teachers study the instructional units together and decide how to teach and assess them at the different year levels.  The principal monitors the proceedings.  Teachers are less isolated and ask each other for help if necessary.  They display higher levels of commitment and accountability.  As teachers use the results of student assessment and reflection on their own performance to fine tune their teaching, learning increases.  They discover what works, what does not work, and why.

The value of professional learning communities lies in their capacity to unite staff, administration, students and parents, in a productive, collegial, trusting environment which leads to problem solution and improved student and school performance.