Friday, August 12, 2011

Principals Are Game Changers: For Better or Worse

"It happened to them"... (not to us)! What a great statement by a sage teacher who was tired of hearing the staff complain about the kids in their school...This article, Haunting Words to Inspire Every Teacher, reminded me of my early days as a kindergarten teacher, when many of my peers loved to share stories about how badly their day had gone because of 'those kids.' 

"It happened to them, not to you. You tell the stories like it's some kind of entertainment, but it happened to them—the kids. They are the ones who 30 years from now will remember these stories with tears in their eyes."

I hated going to the break room and hearing the upper grade teachers complain about the students I had so lovingly taught a few years earlier - helping them develop independence and nurturing their natural curiosity and desire to learn, helping them to be successful in school. But what some teachers wanted kids to do was sit in their seats, be quiet, and repeat mindless rote information. No wonder the kids pushed back, acted up, or checked out, creating a vicious cycle of bad behaviors and teachers complaining.

What was most devastating to me was that the principal would come in the room and jump right into the fray, contributing his own stories, usually about 'those kids' parents, and enthusiastically encouraging this destructive behavior.

Then I moved into a new job, helping teachers in three districts with their disengaged, under-achieving gifted students. With the new job, I moved around to various teacher break rooms and could see the difference a principal makes. Where the principals spoke respectfully of students and their parents, where they modeled empathy and concern for kids who struggled, where they encouraged and coached teachers to solve problems rather than simply complain, the whole school atmosphere and culture was palpably different.

Principals can be game changers in positive and negative ways. They set the tone for their schools, even if they have no articulated philosophy, through their words and actions. Outstanding leaders attract the best and brightest teachers who crave to work in warm, compassionate, and challenging educational environments, and lousy leaders get the rest, because the good ones leave. I believe strongly, and research proves this, that the most important role in the journey toward overall student success is the school site leader - the principal.

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