Lifelong Learner & Reflective Practitioner

Lifelong Learner & Reflective Practitioner

Let's Transform Our Schools Into TRUE Professional Learning Communities

Let's Transform Our Schools Into TRUE Professional Learning Communities
In Your School- Do all stakeholders subscribe to the belief that EVERYONE has something to learn and EVERYONE has something to teach? This blog can help you gain insight on how to facilitate this transformative mindset with your faculty!

May 9, 2010

Leading in High Risk Schools

I recently applied for some administrative positions in my school district. I was talking to a friend the other night and asked her what she thought might be an interview question for the positions. As I considered the possibilities, I thought, "What if they ask me what I think it takes to effectively lead in a high risk school?" What would I say? I've been thinking about what it is that I believe would be necessary in order to bring about growth and increase student achievement in such schools, and here is:

I think that the first action that needs to be taken is to establish some core values and create a common vision. What do we believe about teaching and learning? How can we promote that? I strongly believe that it takes an educator with a special skill-set to be effective in an urban school. They need to have a compelling nature in order to work with parents and resistant teachers. They must have some cultural knowledge and respect and sensitivity to the population being taught. And they need to have a capacity for empathy so that they can understand and appreciate students who are coming from backgrounds of poverty (empathy DOES NOT equal Savior mentality)! Once you have teachers with this prerequisite skill-set, you can really get down to the issue at hand. I think that the administrative team should visit the vision with the faculty constantly in order to foster a meaningful sense of what they are all going to be committed to doing together. If this is done in a thoughtful and consistent way, you can't help but develop values that are similiar.

Then, I think the number one, on-going focus needs to be on teacher empowerment. I am 100% positive that the capacity to improve things in urban schools is within each building already. Start with a small group of teacher leaders and nurture their leadership capabilities. Give me a critical mass of highly-skilled and committed teachers and I can turn a school around. I just view it as so important to let them know that you see them as capable professionals and expect exactly that from them. Provide teachers with time to collaborate, professional development opportunities, and a fair allocation of resources. We always hear these blown up horror stories about teaching in urban schools, but my experience tells me that it's not the needs of the children or the uninvolved parents that chase good teachers away from the inner city- it's the working conditions- no time to collaborate, apathetic colleagues, and the big one...LACK OF PROFESSIONALISM- These are the things that make working in urban schools so difficult. Foster professionalism by involving teachers in decision-making regarding their work and create a strong system of accountability that encourages direct dialogue about expectations and needs.

The best way to go about empowering teachers is to professionally grow them. It's in urban schools where having teaching expertise makes the biggest difference. If I have the ability to empower teachers and facilitate quality, on-going professional development, the level of poverty represented in my school becomes irrelevant because I'll have the tools needed to create a professional learning environment. Once teachers become confident in their own abilities and they are knowledgeable of best practice, they begin to feel safe enough to deprivatize their practice, which opens up all kinds of opportunities for growth (peer observations, reflective dialogue, critical friends, self awareness, etc.).

Leaders in high risk schools have got to stop accepting "the left-over teachers" that couldn't get hired anywhere else. Nobody wants to be on a losing team. Everybody wants to be associated with a high caliber faculty. It's important to recruit star teachers and offer them professional development and a sense of purpose that they will not be able to get anywhere else. Highly effective teachers in urban schools really believe that they have a responsibility to use their talents and expertise where it will make the biggest difference. They understand that it is at the high-risk schools where teacher expertise makes the biggest difference. Students in the suburban schools can have a mediocre teacher and be fine because the range of other supports can compensate for that teacher. The same cannot be said for mediocre teachers in high risk schools. Great teachers in urban schools make the critical difference so it is critical for leaders in urban schools to work diligently at getting the word out to teachers about the professional learning environment that they have created. Sell it!!! Make them want to be a part of something special- something profound and intrinsically rewarding.

It is so important for the leaders in urban schools to be excited about the work and constantly articulate that to the teachers- and utilize those teacher leaders to do the same. A few teacher leaders who have enthusiasm can cause positive change to spread like wildfire.

I know that it is much easier to say these things than to actually do them, but I believe that these are a good start.