Six Don’ts of School Improvement…and Their Solutions
Hugh Burkett, director of The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement, recently was asked to give the keynote speech at On the Right Track 4, an annual school improvement symposium for California school practitioners. In this month’s newsletter, Dr. Burkett shares highlights from his remarks.
When I accepted this invitation, I was told in no uncertain terms that my speech should not be about “what research says” or “the characteristics of high-performing schools.” This speech had to be practical. I had to talk about how to do what we know works to improve schools. After 30 years of experience as a teacher, a principal, an assistant superintendent, and a superintendent—working in large districts and small—I should have collected a lot of wisdom that I could share. But honestly, after 30 years, I often think that I know a lot more about what not to do than anything else. So this speech will be about six don’ts of school improvement—six things that should never be done if you’re trying to improve schools and what I’ve learned from doing every one of them.
Don’t Depend Solely on the Principal to Lead the School
As a superintendent and a former principal myself, I was convinced that a school was only as good as the principal running it. I expected that an outstanding principal would be able to turn around a struggling school single-handedly, preferably overnight. A good principal was a strong person with a considerable ego who would be organized and decisive. My mistake? I defined leadership very narrowly. I assumed that school leadership was a job for a single person.
This time around, I would rethink what leadership means, and I would make sure that every person in the school saw himself or herself as a leader. As a principal, I always respected and admired good teachers, but I always thought my job was to get roadblocks out of their way so they could “just teach.” But I’ve come to realize that teachers who are involved in leadership roles are actually better teachers. They are more engaged in their profession, more likely to innovate and experiment, and more likely to feel responsible for the school’s success and for the success of its kids. There are all kinds of leadership roles for teachers, from speaking up at a faculty meeting to helping decide how the budget gets spent. Good principals don’t protect teachers from leadership; they encourage them to lead.
Don’t Rely on Selection Strategies to Build a Teaching Staff
As an urban superintendent, I was always on the lookout for outstanding urban teachers who would love our kids and teach them well. We were strategic in our searching, using a research-based screening tool to identify hundreds of teachers with high affect, strong dedication, and a desire to work in an urban setting; we hired many of them. But we found after a short time that these new teachers felt negative, pessimistic, and ready to quit. What was my mistake? We paid a lot of attention to screening and hiring teachers but not nearly enough to inducting them, mentoring them, and nurturing them. A good initial match just wasn’t enough.
What should I have done? I should have paid more attention to follow through with new teachers. Where were they teaching? How were they assigned? Were their schools following tradition by assigning the least experienced teachers to the most academically needy students? How were they inducted when they got there? Did they learn everything there was to know in the teachers’ lounge or was there a purposeful program of induction in their school that explained “who we are, what we believe in, and how we do business here”?
I should have paid more attention to mentoring. Like most districts, we had a mentoring program, but it wasn’t very strong. We didn’t systematically identify outstanding mentors or pay attention to whether they believed in the core vision of the district. We didn’t give them time to mentor. New teachers often felt alone and overwhelmed. No wonder so many of them grew sour; we threw them in the deep end of the pool and yelled, “Good luck!”
Induction, mentoring, and ongoing nurturing through support, feedback, and meaningful learning opportunities. They all need attention.
Reprinted with the permission of the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement. © 2008 Learning Point Associates. All rights reserved.
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