Building a Culture by Tending to the Details

"A principal must create an environment where teachers can teach and students can learn."
--Von Sheppard, former principal of Dayton's Bluff Elementary School (St. Paul, Minn.) and current assistant superintendent, Boulder Valley Public Schools (Colorado)

That seems sort of obvious, doesn't it?

But creating an environment where teachers can teach and students can learn is a complex task that takes a single-minded dedication both to the larger culture of a school and its nuts-and-bolts logistics.

In terms of the larger culture of a school, it means establishing a respect for the abilities of both teachers and students and not allowing anything or anyone to disrespect them.

For example, Von Sheppard, quoted above, talks about how from the day he walked in to the dysfunctional Dayton's Bluff, widely considered in 2001 to be the worst school in St. Paul, he referred to his teachers as "superstars." But he had a small number of what he called "toxic teachers" who continually questioned the ability of the students -- most of whom were poor and either African-American or Hmong immigrants --to succeed. He says he never permitted the toxic teachers to have the last word but always confronted their underlying disrespect of their students. Years later, after those few teachers had either changed their minds or left, he was able to boast that Dayton's Bluff looked like a reasonably successful Minnesota school instead of the "wild wild West" he had walked into.

But for principals to lead their schools to success, they must do more than simply establish a respectful culture. They must tend to the details of what is required for teachers to teach and students to learn.

Here's an example of what I mean: As school opened this fall, thousands upon thousands of high school students all across the country lined up outside their counselors' offices to straighten out their schedules. They had been put into Algebra II even though they had never taken Algebra I, or they had been put in Spanish I even though they had already passed Spanish II, or any of hundreds of other issues that had to get sorted out, student by student. You probably didn't read about this anywhere and wouldn't even be aware of it if you aren't part of a high school as a student, parent or staff member.

Scheduling nightmares are simply what is expected in high schools.

But what this means is that all those students lost hours, days, sometimes even weeks of instruction in their classes. It further means that teachers who worked hard to establish their classrooms as communities of learning had to re-establish that community every time a couple of kids left and others arrived in the first weeks of school -- all because of factors that were within the schools' control.

In other words, the principals in those schools are not single-mindedly creating an environment where teachers can teach and students can learn.

Conrad Lopes, who was principal at Jack Britt High School in North Carolina, established a different kind of culture, one in which he and all the other administrators spent a good deal of their summers ensuring that every student's schedule made sense and would get that student a step closer to graduation. That certainly has to be part of why Jack Britt High School has had higher graduation rates than the rest of the state for years and virtually no achievement gaps between its white and African-American students.

This fall Von Sheppard and Conrad Lopes will be teaming up to talk about how to create a culture of high expectations at The Education Trust conference. If you want to see and hear how it's done, instead of just reading about it, join us in Baltimore, Oct. 24-25.