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Successful Schools Don't Major in the Minors

Posted on Tue, Aug 07, 2012 @ 09:08 AM

Teacher Standing in Front of ChalkboardIf you’ve been reading our blog, we’ve probably made it clear by now that we fully reject the notion that high-poverty, high-minority schools cannot be successful schools. We’re not alone. So does Karen Chenoweth, author of “Leaving Nothing to Chance.” 

Over the course of six years, Chenoweth visited nearly two dozen successful schools—to be more specific, “high-performing high-poverty and high-minority schools”—and spoke to principals and academic leadership to figure out their secret.

Here are a few pearls of wisdom she garnered along the way:

Don’t Major in the Minors
One of Chenoweth’s visits was at P.S. 124 in Queens, New York. There she spoke with the principal, Elaine Thompson. When drywall needed to be replaced or there was an eruption in the cafeteria, Thompson was nowhere to be found. Why? It simply wasn’t her problem. For every anticipated melodrama or malfunction the school had, Thompson had selected a specific task-savvy adult to handle it. That way, she explains, she did not have to “stay mired in the day-to-day crises” or become sidetracked by what she calls “majoring in the minors.”

For Thompson, quick fixes may turn heads and earn principals “rock star status” with the faculty and staff—but they certainly don’t address deficiencies in pedagogy, curriculum, instruction and discipline.

Interviews should be comprehensive—even exhausting
Effective principals are essential to successful schools, but they cannot ride into a school on a white horse and do it on their own. Nope, they need the right teachers who have had expectations clearly articulated from the outset.

When hiring new teachers
, Molly Bensinger-Lacy, a principal at a Virginia Elementary school, explained to the candidates that she expected them to

  • Participate in professional learning communities
  • Teach one intersession (the school was year-round)
  • Participate in after-school classes
  • Participate in extracurricular instruction
  • Collaborate with colleagues on curriculum
  • Study and make pedagogical adjustments based on data

As you can imagine, the rigors of such a list probably scared off more than a few candidates. But so what? Being forthcoming will ultimately save you grief in the long run; more than likely, it will also increase teacher retention, engagement and buy-in.  

Inspect what you expect
Admitting that you (the principal) can’t do it alone is only the first step.

The second step is setting clear expectations, demanding accountability and offering the professional development necessary to for teachers to meet those expectations. “Demand” sounds punitive and authoritarian, doesn’t it?

Chenoweth explains that, sure, successful schools “demand” accountability—but they do it without the “harsh, martinet-like system of control” that punishes those who do not obey.

In successful schools, principals assume that teachers want to be successful. That doesn’t necessarily make difficult conversations about student progress fun—but when teachers know that you want to help them improve, that you’re both playing for the same team, it does make these conversations easier.

Marygrove College’s Free Principal Coaching Guide
WithinPrincipal Coaching Guide the last few decades, the role of the principal has changed dramatically. In addition to all of the administrative and managerial duties he or she organizes behind the scenes, principals are also expected to design effective curricula, improve teaching and learning, assess, motivate and inspire.

So how does one person accomplish all of this? If you’d like to know more, download our Education Leadership Principal Coaching Guide for free.

Topics: Educational Leadership, Educational Leadership Degree, Educational Leadership Master's Programs, Role of Principal in School, Successful Schools, Developing Teachers

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