Administrators’ advice for districtwide leadership.
When we think of the work that goes into helping schools thrive and be the centers of achievement and support for our students, we often think of the exceptional work of the people with direct, daily contact with students. We can’t say enough about the hard work that teachers, teacher assistants, and administrators engage in to ensure our schools are safe, creative learning environments that facilitate the development of students. Logically, parents and the public see this group as the beginning and end of educating students.
Educators working in schools know that the successes and growth of schools does not happen from the great work of teachers and administrators alone. There must be strategic, intentional planning to support the ongoing development of staff skills to support student growth and help schools that reflect the needs of communities and future workforces.
We have worked together since Derek joined the Rowan-Salisbury Schools middle school administrative team in July of 2015. As executive director of middle grades education, Tina’s role is to develop relationships with all middle school administrators and teachers. She keeps a keen eye on the faculties and programs at all schools, becomes well versed on their workings and culture, and promotes them in strategic planning and directed dialogue. Part of the strategic focus for the Rowan-Salisbury Schools is to provide leadership and support for all three expressions, Tina’s responsibilities and contributions help to ensure that all students and staff are developing and growing.
We have engaged in thoughtful discussions about what makes our support structure unique. Our strategies that help support middle schools in their individual and collective efforts for student, teacher, and school success include:
It is important to respect the fact that every school has a unique culture and history, each with a leader that brings different perspectives, strengths, and weaknesses.
But an often overlooked fact is that leaders new to a building inherit all the history including past personnel decisions, student successes and tragedies, and community experiences. All of these elements play a role in shaping the identity and operational structures and processes of the school.
It has been invaluable to have district level support that approaches each opportunity with a unique, separate viewpoint, and have distinct conversations with school leaders or teachers to help guide them to often unconsidered outcomes. As an experienced principal new to the district, Derek’s conversations with Tina involve a small part of how he develops an understanding of the school’s history (e.g., previous administrative decisions, staff positions, programming decisions).
Applying wide-scale solutions and strategies irrespective of school input, culture, and history is counterproductive. Tina communicates these growth talks to our superintendent to ensure that our district strategic plan is followed and protected.
Promoting Informal Communication Among School Leaders
Creating opportunities for students to collaborate and create new knowledge with each other is essential. Informal conversations can be as impactful as formal, arranged conversations. Informal conversations give us the opportunity to make our professional conversations less threatening and encourage a more genuine openness to the real problems and concerns that need to be addressed.
The seven middle school principals in Rowan-Salisbury School District create opportunities to get to know each other and build good, collaborative relationships. This can be done during after hours dinner, after a district principals meeting, or when visiting each other’s schools to conduct walk throughs and value shares. Tina often encourages small and whole group conversations around specific topics to help us explore and utilize our diverse strengths.
Speaking a Common Language
The district leadership team has guided the administrators, teachers, parents, and community through a healthy process of establishing a focused strategic plan. As a result of this planning, all work at the district and school level is aligned to these goals.
We also spent time focusing on our instructional practices and developing a common understanding around what we call the RSS mindset. This mindset is inclusive of professional learning communities, problem–based learning experiences, blended learning, rigor, balanced literacy, guided instruction, and data utilization. In addition, this mindset is focused on our instructional expectations of creating a collaborative, connected, relevant, and personalized learning experience for each student.
Educators have an awesome responsibility and opportunity to transform the teaching and learning processes. We do not have to be bound by restrictions from a system built on concepts from more than 100 years ago. To do this at a high level demands us to trust our colleagues, to collaborate in a safe environment, and to support each other with passion and compassion.
Developing relationships is the key to this high level work. Because relationship-building takes time and effort, leaders often develop surface level acquaintances when relationships with more depth are required for trust to develop.
It is important that Tina, as the executive director for middle schools, knows the principals she works with and learns about their strengths, areas of improvement, and skill sets. It is also important that she knows the teachers and their instructional approaches. Spending time in schools and working alongside the principals creates a culture of trust and yields successful problem-solving experiences, as well as forward thinking processes.
Professional Development with Students in Mind
Understanding the social, emotional, and cognitive needs of students in our schools is an outcome consideration for all educators. We plan initiatives and resource acquisitions with this in mind.
At the middle school level, our discussions focus heavily on student engagement and developmental appropriateness. The frequent conversations amongst the principals, Tina, and other curriculum support personnel center on identifying middle school students’ learning needs and the goals we set and monitor throughout implementation. This year, we implemented a districtwide rollout of Achieve3000, a web-based program focused on raising lexile scores of all students in our district. Our training is extensive and ongoing. We plan monitoring efforts and talks with our teachers and regularly talk about best practices. We also have a districtwide incentive for students who reach their reading goals.
Principals rely on objective viewpoints from central office personnel to help with data talks and direct conversations about the true program intent. This is one example of our process to review the data, use the information, and develop prescriptive professional development.
The middle school principals in our district rely on Tina and other central office personnel to help maintain the clarity of vision and drive we need to make sure we are serving students.