May 30, 2012

A look back on "Trust." They key to change......

It has been almost 2 weeks now since I have accepted my new role as the Principal for the Iowa Grant School District's Elementary/Middle School.  It is a challenge I look forward to with great anticipation.  It will be a much larger building, with new grade levels, new staff, and a host of new initiatives to implement thanks to our state and federal geniuses that assume they know anything about education.  While having a K-8 building will be new and exciting, the thing that I am most excited about is finding a district and a Superintendent that has the same vision I do for Literacy, Best Practice, and building Trust with staff.  A true PLC culture is such an important aspect for building a successful learning environment, that I can hardly overstate its importance. 

I have been able to achieve this culture in my current position, and my staff has responded with such strong evidence of its effectiveness, that it was very difficult for me to make this move.  They have embraced the continuous professional growth model, and were brave enough to walk away from a curriculum that was forced upon them without their input.  They modified and improved their assessment practices, adapted their teaching practices and implemented best practice strategies that have improved our MAP scores dramatically.  Our 5th graders have over 60% of the students scoring in the Advanced range on WKCE on their Math portion, and over 58% are advanced in Reading.  These are the highest percentages in the grades tested in our district, and in actuality, the 2nd highest in our region (CESA 3).  To say the least, I am supremely proud of my staff.  Many of these changes were implemented at each of the grade levels in my building.  Unfortunately for my K-4th grade teachers, they are an island in Ridgeway.  They are each singletons and have no one else at their grade level to collaborate with on a daily basis.  Did that stop them......nope.  They worked together and learned together, and made the changes they could to their curriculum and practices, such as implementing the Daily 5 structure to a Direct Instruction series (not an easy integration).  Still they found a way to give students choice in their reading.

What was the key driver in all of these changes?  Not me.  I will take some credit for encouraging the changes and finding supporting evidence for best practice, but my experience or knowledge of these practices was not the selling point.  Many of these teachers actually knew much of what best practice was all about.  Many of them shared with me their concerns over the lack of differentiation and student choice in literature.  Many of them had also noticed how students were becoming uninterested in reading and even apathetic toward school.  What was the key driver to all of these changes?  Trust.  When I came to my building 4 years ago, one of the first things I noticed was the culture of fear.  People were tip toeing around.  I had multi-year veterans coming to me with questions, or more accurately asking for permission to do typical daily routines and requesting to try something with a student that I had assumed we already did (or at least should be).  What could possibly be making these trained adult professionals come to me with what seemed like "silly" questions?  It was fear of  their leadership.  It took a while to break it down, but after many conversations, and me having to share revelations about myself and my beliefs, it began to come out that the staff had simply not been trusted before and that micromanagement over decision making had put them in a place where they did not even trust themselves.  

This was not quickly overcome.  Luckily, my district was in the process of implementing the DuFour model of Professional Learning Communities across the district.  The whole district was reading "Whatever it Takes" and the timing was perfect.  We established a PLC leadership team in my building (the only building to do so) and we spent hours creating our Vision.  We studies other successful schools, we studied articles and books, and we became well informed of the shifts taking place in education.  Our staff was always ahead of the curve on best practice, new strategies, new technologies and new initiatives from the state and federal government and how they would affect what we do.  The team we had built at Ridgeway Elementary School was exemplary and I was energized by working with and leading this team.  However, I was still concerned with trust and wanted us to be able to criticize ourselves, to ensure that we were in a continuous improvement model.  Would we be able to look at each other and admit we had faults?  Could we discuss or shortcomings?  To build up this level of trust, we needed to understand what dysfunctions we may have already.  What dysfunctions were common to teams, and how could we overcome them.  It was time for another book study.  Patrick Lencioni's The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team seemed like a great way to ease this idea in without it being an all business technical manual, that barely related to the education setting.  We spent 3 months going over the book and discussing what we had gleaned from the story.  Once again, my team displayed their professionalism and we were able to take ideas and beat them up, even when they were mine.  I know it may be tough for many administrators to handle, but I guess I am humble enough to suggest an idea, and if I have over a hundred years of experience giving me very rational ideas as to why it may not work, well.....I think I may have had a poor idea.  Of course, I also encourage them to give me a better suggestion.  After all, it is easy to tear down a house, but you may not want to destroy it if you still have to live in it.  It maybe easier to just remodel it.

So why the change in jobs?  As I said, it wasn't an easy choice.  It certainly had nothing to do with my staff.  My dedication to them has been unwavering along with my pride in all that they have done.  I wasn't actually intending to change positions this year.  I had recently signed up for classes to complete my Superintendent's Licensure, and I had a pretty good mentor in my current district.  She makes solid leadership decisions, is very good with the Budget, and has a good grasp on the legal aspects as well as managing a School Board.  However, my concern was with our Administrative Team.  It was very evident that we suffer a we vs. them philosophy.  There were trust issues on our team as well.  So one day when I returned home from an Admin Team Meeting, feeling frustrated and manipulated (not by my boss) I had decided that it was time to shop around. I had met the Superintendent of the district I at which I was applying at several Professional Development meetings.  We were both ESEA Coordinators and I had the chance to discuss literacy instruction with her several times.  Our philosophies were aligned.  Obstacle one - cleared.  I also knew the current principal (who was retiring) and met with her to do some homework on the building and district, and I discovered that best practice and technology integration was a district priority.  Obstacle two - cleared.  The final trigger was when I went in for my second interview.  I was e-mailed that it would be casual (yes, I took the risk and went in without a tie) and that I would simply sit down with the Administrative Team and the School Board and we would discuss the district's current updates to their strategic plan and see if I would be a "good fit."  Not having to wear a Noose around my neck was enough to tell me yes, but as I sat and discussed their plan for developing PLC's, integrating technology, the plan for implementing the Common Core, the awareness of over-assessing, and many other things, it was as if I finally had met the team I had been looking to be a part of for the past four years.  But what cinched it for me was when the Superintendent and I had the chance to discuss the importance of trust.  How things can get accomplished when there is Trust.  How we need to count on and expect Teacher Professionalism.  No more Shifting the Monkey.  HOME!!!!

This post casts a bit of a disparaging shadow on the team that I had been a part of, and it shouldn't.  I apologize.  My current team is a great group of people that are also incredibly dedicated to student learning and success.  I have gleaned a great deal from them over the past 4 years, and if nothing else, they helped me further identify my philosophy and beliefs in educating students.  We were always on top of the latest trends and initiatives and even if we did not implement them the way I thought we should, we would at least determine a path to take instead of just staring down the road waiting for someone else to point the way.  I think we struggle with finding fault in our practices and so we tend to stay stuck in the ruts we develop.  But I applaud my District Administrator and the School Board for supporting teacher professional development.  It is one of many areas in which this district excels and I wish them nothing but the best and continued success.  Still, it ended up not being the best fit for me, so it was time for me to search for a better fit.  While I am torn about leaving my staff, I am happy with my decision.