Want an Excellent School? Start by Building a “Culture of Worth”.

I recovered this post form the deep dark corner of my drafts file.  I actually started it in late August of 2011. After rereading it, I still stand by the content, so I decided to publish it.

As a school leader, I want to build a “culture of excellence”. (One of those buzz phrases we learned during our school leadership courses.)  I’ve read a few books about what it takes to move a school toward excellence.  Many of the readings point to leadership, bold decision making, getting the most out of the faculty, staff, and stakeholders. Excellence is a process.  We’re not going to get there overnight.

BUT…

There’s something I want more than a “culture of excellence”.  I believe excellence begins when schools establish a “Culture of Worth“.

On my drive home, I pondered this “Culture of Worth” concept.  What does it look like? What is present, and what’s not present when schools embrace a culture of worth?

Characteristics:

  • The highest value is assigned to the people within the school, those served by the school, and those impacted, loosely and directly, by what happens in and around the school.
  • Emphasis is placed on how many people can I interact with and impact, rather than how many people can I avoid.
  • Focus is placed on the health of the school rather than titles.
  • Staff, students, and stakeholders feel valued, wanted, and welcomed.
  • Teaching and learning take on personal meaning.
  • People ask, “What can I bring to the table?” vs. “What’s in it for me?”

Teaching & Learning

When folks start talking “worth”, the automatic assumption is that it’s about feelings and building a “We are the World” mentality. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Because teaching in learning take on personal meaning, there is more value in seeing students achieve.  Teachers become vested in students and not subjects.

Mission

In September of 2011, my staff worked with me to include the “culture of worth” theme into our school’s mission statement.  We penned the following:

Githens Middle School strives to promote a culture of worth, in which the needs of the whole child are assigned the highest value.  Within this culture of worth, students, staff, parents and the community are encouraged to embrace their singular and collective role in the success of the school.

I applaud my staff for embracing the idea and agreeing to include it in our mission statement.  Now our attitudes and the work we do must align with our mission.

First Year Principal: 5 Lessons Learned (Part 2: Delegating Tasks)

It’s not always my work, but it is my voice.

Normally I don’t start posts with direct statements – the “main course”.  I like serving up a few appetizers – stories, humor, etc. before getting to the point. This is something different.

On a normal day, I will have done seven or eight tasks before the 7:30 AM bell rings for announcements, but administrators know that “normal” days don’t exist. They are ideal, but they don’t take into account minor or major distractions that come our way. The word, “distractions” includes a wide variety of experiences, good or not so good.

As a new principal, it takes a while to learn what to and what not to delegate.  In my case, being a new principal in an unfamiliar district and school, compounded my fears of delegating tasks.

  • Who can I trust to handle what I needed handled?
  • What talents do others possess?
  • Who can step up and cover areas where I’m not so strong?

Sadly, by the time some of these questions got answered, I was halfway into my school year, frustrated, a bit overwhelmed, and taking on work that was not mine to take on.  The things I enjoyed, blogging, reflecting, and tweeting, were nonexistent during this time.  I was on the hamster wheel, with no idea how to step off.

Mentoring

Late in the year, a mentor and now friend, stepped into the picture.  He observed me for a couple of hours, saying very little.  Finally, he asked, “Why are you doing that?”  I responded.  He returned with, “That’s not your work.  That’s not the work of a principal.” 

When I looked at the work I was doing, I knew instantly that he was right. I did stuff that took me away from my primary responsibilities – monitoring teaching and learning, building relationships, and managing adult behaviors.

I began looking at my day to day work and schedule.  From there, the task turned to reaching out to others who could do the work, but also represent my voice.

It’s not always my work, but it is my voice.

The voice piece is important, and could be a blog post in itself. What is my voice?  My voice represents what is important to me and what I choose to validate through my actions and inactions.  Those who do tasks begrudgingly, do so with an empty voice. They take on task, but don’t communicate what the leader values. Such attitudes are barriers to the organization’s success, and in this case, student success.

It is important that those you delegate tasks to, carry those tasks out in a manner that aligns with your vision and your voice.  In this manner, the tasks becomes one that “we” all need carried out.

I may return to this voice concept at some point. As a leader, this lesson is one that I will continue to revisit and grow in.

“Normal” days may not exist, but organized days, where systems and processes are in place to handle distractions DO exist. The ability to delegate and organize the work can add a sense of “normalcy” to the school day.

First Year Principal – 5 Lessons Learned (Part 1: Feedback)

This year, April 17th fell on a Tuesday. The day came and went for students and staff, but for me, it marked one full year as a public school principal. A full year of growth, triumphs, bumps and bruises. I have no regrets about leaving my role as an assistant principal. I learned more in one year about education and leadership than I have ever learned, and I am certain more learning is coming my way. My rookie year is over. I’m experienced, but not a veteran. If I had to wrap my learning into 5 major themes, they would include the following:

  • Good schools are fueled by purpose and meaning.
  • Define the work and monitor it.
  • It’s not always your work, but it is your voice.
  • Feedback: Remember the “little bird story”.
  • Messaging: People watch. People listen. People connect the dots to form meaning.

It’s been some time since I’ve written a series of blog posts. The timesaver in me wants to shortcut each theme, but I know brevity won’t do justice to what I learned.  Normally, I like to follow a logical sequence when it comes to expounding upon my bulleted list, but I want to start with…

Feedback: Remember the “little bird story”.

During my sophomore year at East Carolina University, a friend shared with me the story of the “little bird”.  I can’t remember what precipitated this story, but the meaning has remained with me for several years now. Through a little background research, I learned that variations of the story are told for management and leadership purposes.  Some variations contain profanity, so being an educator, I tell the G-rated version.  My variation goes as follows:

Once there was this group of birds up north.  They were all friends who loved to hang out and fly around from place to place. It came time for them to fly south for the winter, but one bird wanted to remain behind to enjoy the scenery.  The other birds tried hard to convince the bird to fly with them, but he wanted to do his own thing.  Soon he found himself all alone.  Some time later, the weather began to get cooler, so he finally decided to make the journey south.  He struggled making the trip alone, and soon got caught in a severe winter storm.  As he flew, the wind, rain, and ice punished him.  Facing exhaustion, he could no long flap his wings.  Nearly frozen, he landed with a thud in a barn. He thought to himself, “Surely my life will end here. Why didn’t I listen?” That moment a cow came by and pooped on the bird. Feeling the warmed, the bird thought for sure he was in “bird heaven”.  He thought to himself, “This feels great.”  Before long, his body began to thaw and he felt his heartbeat returning to normal.  Suddenly, he realized he was in a pile of poop. Panicked, he struggled to free himself enough to call out. “Chirp…chirp…chirp.”  His calls grew louder.  A wandering cat heard the call and began pawing at the poop.  The bird was freed.  Shaking his wings free of the poop, he smiled at the cat. The cat ate the bird.

The lesson:

  1. Everyone who poops on you is not your enemy.
  2. Everyone who gets you out of poop is not your friend.

Most versions add a third lesson, but I choose to stay away from that one.  A little research will also show that my version beams with details not featured in others.

So, what do the two lesson have to do with feedback?

As school leaders, it is our duty to provide feedback to our staff, students, parents, and other stakeholders.  None is more important than the feedback given to staff.  The work they do, their interactions, and their attitudes shape much of how students respond in the educational setting. Giving honest and accurate feedback is necessary to the work we do as school leaders.  Likening feedback to “poop”, honest and accurate feedback is not always pleasant, but as in the story, feedback is necessary for the life of the organization.

On the other hand, as leaders we also have to play the role of the “little bird”, receiving feedback with the right attitude and mindset.  How we handle honest and accurate feedback determines whether we survive as leaders.  It is easy to call attention to our struggle and invite others to hear our gripes (i.e. the cat), but feedback is often for our individual growth and action.

There were times when I failed to provide feedback.  There were also times when I did not adequately prepare myself to receive feedback.  As I seek to make myself and my organization better, I have grown tremendously in this area.