By Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A., author of The School Climate Solution: Creating a Culture of Excellence from the Classroom to the Staff Room
The holidays! It’s that time of year that students, teachers, and—maybe most of all—school administrators long for. It’s a time to catch your breath, get some much-needed sleep, and spend time with friends and family. It’s also a time to reflect on the last year and look forward to the new one. Many of you, like me, make New Year’s resolutions. I’ve been a New Year’s resolver since I was a child. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I learn to set more achievable goals.
While I generally avoid giving unsolicited advice (one of my previous New Year’s resolutions), I’d like to suggest you consider one (or all four) of the following resolutions for school administrators. If asked to list the top four resolutions that would significantly improve the lives of teachers, students, staff, and administrators, I would give the following:
1. Focus on creating a positive school climate.
Research shows that there is a strong correlation between school climate and many critical educational concerns, including attendance, graduation rates, teacher retention, behavioral referrals, and student achievement.
People are the most important resource in a school. People become more invested and perform their best work when they’re provided with a working or learning environment that addresses their physical and psychological needs for safety and security; positive, trusting relationships; personal empowerment; autonomy; and fun.
While it is primarily the teacher’s responsibility to create a safe, orderly, connected, and engaged classroom, it is the school leader’s responsibility to create a school climate and culture in which faculty and staff members experience:
- a sense of physical and emotional safety
- positive, trusting relationships among and between various stakeholders
- a voice in decision making
- useful feedback
- meaningful professional development opportunities
- laughter and play
2. Transform faculty meetings into community meetings.
Ugh, the dreaded faculty meeting! It’s been years since I’ve been a classroom teacher, but I still remember how much I disliked those meetings: sitting in the auditorium, surrounded by colleagues surreptitiously grading papers or texting on their phones, while the principal (who clearly was not enjoying the experience any more than we were) shared data, read the latest state mandates and school board policies, or fielded questions that were often totally unrelated to me. I thought the hour would never end.
Instead of the traditional faculty meeting, use a community meeting approach. Email memos (requiring a response) to faculty to dispense necessary information (like those latest state mandates), and make the meeting a value-added learning experience for everyone. Here are basic guidelines for a community meeting.
Arrange the seating in a circle. The circle is the most effective seating arrangement for meetings: everyone can make eye contact, no one can hide, and there is a sense of shared power and community.
Begin with a greeting. Get up and greet someone in the group by name, shaking his or her hand (or giving him or her a high five or fist bump). That person then gets up and greets someone else, and the process continues until everyone has been greeted. This breaks the ice and ensures that everyone has made at least one personal connection.
Demonstrate an engaging team-building or instructional strategy. Turn each faculty meeting into a mini professional development experience. Use a different “strategy of the month” for each meeting. The first strategy could be the community meeting structure itself. Or, use an energizing game to get staff laughing and lower their stress. (I was once told that my after-school professional development sessions were “better than a martini” because I engaged participants in movement and energizers.) After the activity, provide clear expectations and ask faculty to think of ways they could use the activity in their classrooms.
Hold a discussion. As the facilitator of the community meeting, it is important that you review the ground rules with participants each time. Here are the ground rules I use:
- The person with the talking device (soft toy, talking stick, or stuffed animal) has the floor. Everyone else’s role is to listen. (In time, this device can be omitted, but at first, it makes it clear who is speaking, avoiding interruptions.)
- No verbal or nonverbal put-downs.
- Use “I” statements when sharing an opinion.
- Stay focused on the present and the future.
- No interruptions or side conversations.
After setting the ground rules, the facilitator’s role is to explain the topic, issue, or problem that will be the focus of the meeting and then ask questions that follow a Define, Personalize, Challenge format.
Defining Questions: These clarify the problem, concept, or topic under discussion. For example, if your school is promoting a growth mindset, the defining questions might be:
- What is a fixed mindset?
- What is a growth mindset?
- What are the benefits of having a growth mindset?
Personalizing Questions: These connect the content of the discussion to the participants’ lives. Continuing with the growth mindset example, personalizing questions might be:
- Have you ever had a fixed mindset in any area of your life? What resulted from that mindset?
- What is an area in which you have demonstrated a growth mindset?
- Do you know anyone who has a growth mindset? Discuss.
Challenging Questions: These are designed to help apply, synthesize, or evaluate strategies, concepts, or solutions to the issue or topic under discussion. For example:
- How can we encourage a growth mindset in students?
- What is an area in which you’d like to grow as a professional? What is one thing you can do today to achieve this?
3. Listen more, talk less.
A great way to both empower others and build trust is to be present and to listen with a mindful ear—listening to understand, not just composing and waiting to respond.
As Stephen Covey states in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” When we listen well enough to be able to articulate what another person is saying, without judgment, that person feels as if we really care. She or he feels respected. Even if we disagree with her or him, the relationship remains intact. One of the best ways to listen is through the community meeting, but as a school leader, you have dozens of opportunities to listen to parents, teachers, students, and staff members every day. During a hectic day, it can be difficult to be mindful about taking the time to really listen, but like anything else, deliberate practice develops mastery.
4. Be vulnerable.
In order for school leaders to influence their staff, they must be perceived as trustworthy. Like Rome, trust isn’t built in a day. But one way to accelerate trust building is by being vulnerable. I’m not talking about sharing all your past mistakes or present fears. Instead, I’m suggesting that you model what you want from your teachers and students, and when you make a mistake, follow these three steps:
- Admit it. Don’t try to cover up a mistake, or worse, blame something or someone else for it.
- Share what you’ve learned from it. Turn the mistake into an educational experience.
- Change your behavior accordingly next time, if there is one.
Being vulnerable not only helps others see you as human, but also sends the message that it’s okay to make mistakes, that we are always learning, and that we learn important lessons through our mistakes. When others see mistakes as essential to the learning process, they will be far more likely to take risks and try new teaching and management strategies, which will only help them grow as professionals.
Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A., has been a secondary English teacher, a professional development specialist, a college professor, and the director of training and curriculum for a federally funded character education program. His previous books include The Classroom of Choice (ASCD, 2004) and Inspiring the Best in Students (ASCD, 2010). Jon is currently an independent educational consultant, a senior faculty member at the William Glasser Institute, and a trained HealthRhythms facilitator. Jon’s work focuses on providing research-based approaches to teaching, managing, counseling, and training that appeal to people’s intrinsic motivations and help children, adolescents, and adults develop physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. A musician and martial arts enthusiast, Jon has earned a second degree black belt in karate and a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He lives in western New York.
Jonathan Erwin is the author of The School Climate Solution: Creating a Culture of Excellence from the Classroom to the Staff Room.
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