Leadership as a Calling: Infusing Dignity, Respect, Collaboration, Pressure, and Support Into a High School

Without a real sense of mission and a rock-solid belief in people’s desire to improve, it’s impossible to turn any organization around.

I came to Westlake High School in Fulton County, Georgia, as an assistant principal after teaching and leading for many years in elementary and middle schools. That first year here was tough. There were limited supports and processes for teachers. The learning environment was not always conducive to learning because of altercations, limited operational processes, and a lack of communal ownership. There were areas of greatness, but they were not pervasive. Westlake had gone through several leaders since its inception, which had taken a toll on its ability to thrive. We knew as a community that Westlake could be great; we just had to commit to the process of becoming great. 

I noticed right away that the teachers here—like a lot of teachers in urban schools—felt beaten down. In my first department meeting of the year, I told teachers that they would need to upload lesson plans on Monday mornings. At the end of the meeting, a veteran teacher approached me and said, “I haven’t written a lesson plan in five years. I’m going to need some help with that.” In a lot of settings, saying that would put a teacher on a “watchlist” for performance management discipline. However, at that moment I realized two things: people here were willing to work, and they were going to need processes and structures to help them. Things would only change if I made a commitment to investing in my people.

You can’t fire your way to success. High turnover rates for any school are damaging, but for an urban school they can be lethal. I’ve worked for principals who raised their voices against employees. I knew I could not and did not want to solely use my positional power to adjust the climate of Westlake. I knew that influential power would have a sustainable positive effect on a school environment that would outlast me as a principal. 

Learn Your People

When I first came to Westlake, I was in charge of the math and science departments. I was adamant to “learn my teachers” for myself without preconceived notions about who they were. It was important to have high instructional expectations across the board. It was a lengthy process to develop confidence between my departments due to a culture of mistrust with administration. Most of these same teachers have recently posted their highest instructional gains in five years.

In school improvement, it is unrealistic, unhealthy, and unsustainable to spend valuable energy building cases for releasing underperforming teachers as opposed to developing the means to facilitate growth. Regardless of the circumstances, it’s very important to treat teachers with dignity and respect, even if a teacher leaves the school eventually for lack of performance. 

When a school leader is disciplining a teacher for lack of performance, other good teachers are always watching. Usually the underperforming teacher has friends in the building whom they are talking to throughout the process, so a lot of people are aware of whether you’re being fair and treating people with respect. 

As a leader, it’s critical that you quickly identify your irreplaceables—those teachers who are so successful in advancing student learning that they are nearly impossible to replace. At Westlake, our top teachers also hold historical institutional knowledge that cannot be catalogued in numbers. We call them “ride or dies.” Identify these teachers and staff, and fully engage them in the work of school improvement.

Equal Amounts of Pressure and Support

One of my former superintendents, Dr. Robert Avossa, always stressed to principals that we should coach staff with equal amounts of pressure and support. This foundational idea underpins everything I’ve done at Westlake High School, and we’re seeing the results. Our graduation rate has increased to 90.2 percent from a mere 63 percent in 2012. And, for five years, we’ve been a “Beating the Odds” school—one that performs higher than demographically similar schools in the same state. Our school excels not only at academics but also in athletics, fine arts, and community service. We are academic leaders in our learning community and across the district and state.  

Westlake’s PLCs at Work

What Pressure Means at Westlake: Structuring PLCs

What I mean by applying pressure is that teachers need to know how, why, and to what they will be held accountable. Our emphasis on clarity, structure, and data is evident in our professional learning communities (PLCs). We spend a lot of time talking about what they are—and, by extension, what they aren’t. They used to just be loose gatherings where teachers were maybe looking at a lesson with a department head and me but were not talking about data and not in a collaborative setting; they now present to each other, which really allows them to learn together. 

We rely heavily on the work of Richard and Rebecca DuFour and the All Things PLC community, which defines a PLC as an ongoing, collective, collaborative, research-based process that deeply grounds teachers in method, application, and results. 

  • Our PLCs are required to have uploaded agendas in advance and an administrator present at the meetings. 
  • All PLC meetings are on my calendar so I can pop in unexpectedly which helps assure accountability for all parties. 
  • On Professional Development days, each PLC has to present status and progress to their group using a color-coded framework and the protocols we’ve developed for looking at data, handling disagreements, and productively working through challenges. 

We also use the Critical Friends Groups® model, which has helped us foster trusting and respectful environments, effectively give and receive feedback, and use protocols and activities to help everyone—students and teachers alike —create a culture of excellence. 

What Support Means at Westlake: Acknowledging Progress

Transforming a school’s culture and increasing achievement is challenging and strenuous work. Supporting the drive and motivation of teachers and staff to excel is important. Educators, as with anyone else, like to be appreciated. Twice a year, after each evaluation cycle, we give out a Most Valuable Educator (“MVE”) award. Through the feedback and observation cycle, teachers are assessed over a range of teacher competencies. Those teachers with high rankings are recognized at the school faculty meeting as Most Valuable Educators. Teachers thrive in these moments of shining before their peers.

There are other small moments that define our school culture. Administrators frequently hand out “Busted” cards, as in, “You’ve been busted for doing something right.” Teachers can receive Busted Cards for exemplifying grit, identifying a problem, and solving it themselves, or going above and beyond for a student or peer. Busted Cards reward those pockets of excellence that may have otherwise been ignored. Teachers who are “busted” get a lot of good-natured attention. 

Everyone, not just administrators, is invested in the acknowledgement and support process.

  • A sunshine committee of staff members chooses a teacher/staff member each week as the “Drop in a Bucket” recipient so notes of kindness and appreciation can be left in a decorated bucket for them, and at the end of the week the recipient can select the next person to be honored. 
  • Any teacher can leave a supportive note of encouragement or perseverance on a positive note board in the teachers’ copy room, a great way to change someone’s day. 

Feedback and Support

The feedback cycle is effective only if teachers know that the process is constructive and necessary to their continued success both in and out of the classroom. This is a crucial component of school improvement. It’s much more expensive, in many ways, to fire someone and rehire than it is to improve what you have.

Two years ago we started working with Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s six-step coaching structure to help us transform what we do around feedback. This model outlines a coaching cycle that includes observation, debriefing, repeat observation, and a specific, identified focus on a single action step that will leverage the most improvement for students. Teachers feel a lot more motivated to try new things when the step they’re being asked to take looks doable, when they feel safe and engaged in the improvement cycle, and equipped to execute the plan. Important aspects of the model include: 

  • Teacher-led, collaborative, sessions focused on one objective at a time
  • Evaluator involving a teacher in the selection of the revised instructional approach and providing either modeling, supportive materials, or other resources to assist with reaching objectives
  • Identification of the positive aspects of what that teacher is doing in the classroom; vital to continued growth and self-efficacy

Feedback from our teachers tells us that this process works for them. I get appointment invites from teachers who want me to come in to see lessons. They’re stepping up to go through this feedback process because they see that it’s improving learning outcomes for students. 

Doing “The Right Thing at the Right Time with the Right People”

All of this begins and ends with people. I have very high functioning leadership and administrative teams. Two of my former APs are now principals in our feeder pattern and contributing to the work we are doing here. We continue to work with our staff to train and develop them so that they will be ready when opportunity arises. 

My school system, Fulton County Schools, has structured the central office to provide accountability and a ton of support along the way; this is the same accountability and support I’ve tried to extend to others. This work is too large for any one person to do alone; dedicated and skilled collaborators are essential. 

Join the team from Westlake High School along with ICLE thought leaders and 5,000 of your peers at the 26th Model Schools Conference, June 24-27 in Orlando. You’ll take away innovative strategies for leadership and school transformation. Come be inspired by our success story and many others!