Tuesday, May 30, 2017

True Educational Leadership

In my fourteen years of teaching I've worked for four principals. One I try not to think about much, but I have been very lucky to work for the other three. I admire each of them as leaders, and know that much of my teaching has been shaped by their leadership.

My most recent principal announced he was leaving us a few weeks ago. I was stunned. He opened our school five years ago. He led us to becoming the first recipient of the National DuFour award. Through his leadership we ended up on the front page of Education Weekly. Educators from around the world travel to our school to observe us at work, in the structure he set up. The school has never existed without him.

Of all the principals I have worked for, he is the one who has impacted my educational philosophy the most. When I first came to our school I was not sure of how much I bought into the Professional Learning Community (PLC) theory. I was skeptical, made worse by the fact that I was on the intellectual disability team and as a new school we were struggling to figure out how to include my team into the PLC process. I've written before about how my opinion of the PLC process changed over time. I went from being skeptical to becoming a true believer. Now, it seems like a crime to have schools operate in any other way.

Beyond coming to be an advocate for the PLC process, my principal also pushed my thinking about education. He constantly challenged our special education team to think about what special education is. What is the purpose behind special education? Why do we put students into special education? What do we do with them once we put them there? Why does a child need a label? What do we do differently for a child once they are in the special education system? Every Wednesday, when we sat in special education eligibility meetings, he pushed us to answer these questions. I know there were times when he knew how I would answer, but he asked anyway. He never wanted us to blindly sign off on a child needing special education services unless we had fully considered the whole child, and whether or not he or she would truly benefit from these services. No child would get pushed through just because. He made our work harder, but he made our work better.

These questions changed how I thought about special education. They made me look beyond my own beliefs, and see that sometimes, despite our best intentions, we do lower our expectations for a child once they are in the special education system. That the IQ number does not always accurately reflect a child's ability, and that we keep pushing, despite what any test says.

In times of conflict, crisis, or uncertainty, he never took the party line. Not the county's party line, or even the school's. He did not care how anything has been done in the past, or how we did it last week. Every decision we ever brought to him he questioned, considered, and then had us justify our thinking. We cannot make lazy decisions, or ones based on institutional knowledge.

One of the rules at my school is that we are not allowed to use acronyms. I want you to spend the next day trying not to use any acronyms. That means you can't say the HOV lane. Take IEP, NOVA, LRE, FCPS, or any other familiar acronyms out of your vocabulary. It's harder than you think! His constant line is "clarity proceeds competence." If not everyone at the table knows what you are talking about, then communication has eroded and you have a problem. He pushes us to be as clear as possible in our language. While I appreciate the theory, it is hard, especially in special education. And frustrating, when you are already nervous in speaking in front of a group, and you utter an acronym by accident and then get called out.

But this practice makes us better. It catches us from using phrases in front of parents that they don't understand - or even phrases general education educators don't understand and are afraid to ask. This also creates a culture of feeling comfortable enough to ask for clarification when one is confused - even in a large meeting.

My principal has changed how I see education. He's challenged the idea of the effectiveness of the individual teacher, working in isolation. He's challenged the idea of why and how we educate children. He's changed my focus in how I see educational outcomes of students with disabilities. Every teacher believes they have high expectations for all children, but he's made me realize that when we say those simple words we often are just doing lip service. If we are truly honest we take away all excuses we may have for a child, we erase our knowledge of anything going on at home, and we truly look only at the child in front of us at that moment.

He taught me that high expectations mean high expectations for all. The goal for every child is to make a year to a year and a half's growth, no matter where they are currently performing or what is going on in their lives. Having an IEP or speaking another language is not an excuse for a child to not make that progress. And as teachers, we need to work together as a team to get the child there, in any way possible.

I've joked that my first four years at this school school was an equivalent in a graduate degree into the PLC process. I was skeptical of the process when I began there, and not even aware of how much I had to learn. After five years I am stunned at my own transformation as an educator. I went from skeptical to full-believer.

Working for him these last five years was an honor, and I cannot imagine where I would be now as an educator if I had not worked at his school. While I cannot image the school without his leadership, I know that how he challenged and changed our thinking will stay with the school even after he leaves. The field always needs someone to constantly push us to look beyond ourselves, and although I will miss him, I know his move is a benefit to the field of education itself.


Snippety Gibbet said...

When I was subbing, he was the only principal who always came by to greet me in the morning. Subbing is a rather thankless job, and that always made me feel like I mattered as a teacher in that school.

Unknown said...

What a beautiful tribute to Brian and so be wonderfully articulated by yet another dedicated principal who has gone from skeptical to believer! Keep the movement going!!!