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.
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