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Friday, March 18, 2016

Leading by Example in a School of Hope

The last few Blog entries have been opinion pieces. Today's Blog will provide practical advice borne of 38 years of school leadership experience. The main subject of the post is the effective use of positive reinforcement of desired behaviors among secondary level staff members. It was 1987, but the message of this post rings as true today as it did then.

After serving as an elementary principal for five years in an inner city school district embracing 31,000 learners in Texas, I was asked to assume leadership responsibilities of a beleaguered junior high school that was universally considered the most distressed school of the 45 schools in our school system.

I was familiar with the school because one-third of the learners at the elementary school where I worked lived in the attendance district of that junior high school and therefore continued their education there. Many factors conspired to leave the junior high school in such a the low status. The demographics (almost 90% qualified for free or reduced lunch, nineteen languages were spoken in the school, many children were being raised by a single parent or grandparents, the majority of learners comprised racial minorities in a school district that had only become integrated fifteen years earlier, in 1972) were beyond our control. But, there were several elements that deflated the school that were in our control. Chief among the areas we could influence was attitude. There was a latent sense of learned helplessness and hopelessness among learners and staff that hovered like a pall over the building. They seemed resigned to their fate. That perception was reinforced when I had walked through the building the year before as a visitor and noticed the distance that separated people and the lack of eye contact among the inhabitants of the school. The term, “dead man’s walk” would fall short of describing the atmosphere. Because it was a collective, shared despair, it was a, “dead man’s parade.”

Nonetheless, I accepted the challenge as an opportunity. The optimist in me was convinced that since the school had bottomed out it could only go up.

Without going into details at this point (I’ll refer to them in future Blog posts) the school began displaying progress. At that time, Texas public schools provided report cards at six week intervals, with the expectation that data on the rate of passing/failing would be published in local newspapers. Our figures revealed an upward trend, albeit they remained the lowest among the eight junior high school (but that would change). Much more awaited us if we were to sustain and improve upon our performance.

Nearly every and any parent of a child has had the experience of an elementary age son or daughter bringing home a paper or worksheet bearing a smiley face or sticker or encouraging remark that the teacher used to acknowledge evidence of desired effort or achievement. These incidents are commonly referred to as “refrigerator moments” because the papers typically adorn the kitchen appliance via a magnet.

Unfortunately, these same parents can attest to the belief that these refrigerator moments vanish once children begin transitioning to adulthood via entrance to junior high school, where they “need” to learn how to become adults, and adults, as we all “know” must develop intrinsic motivation because those silly smiley faces and stickers are for kids. This was clearly a commonly held opinion among staff members at our junior high. Adolescents were expected to learn for the sake of learning and not be dependent on the accolades routinely delivered by those cheerful and idealistic elementary teachers. Welcome to the "real" world teenagers.

We needed to change that perception and incorporate a new direction into our school culture. I invested much of a weekend in my office at school on a plot to precipitate such a change. It would prove to be a wise investment that eventually yielded great returns. I poured through the personnel records of EVERY staff member - not just teachers - and discovered the addresses of their parents. Then, I identified one instance of how each individual had contributed to the progress at school and made a list of the accomplishments. Admittedly, discovering a positive example was more difficult for some than others, and there were certainly missteps committed by everyone, including me, along our way. But, I focused on the positive and set our stumbles aside as learning experiences.

Next, I wrote personalized letters to the parents of every staff member that featured that one example of how their son or daughter had made our school a better learning environment and helped to nurture the dreams and sustain the hope of our learners. The letters were sent without notifying anyone on staff. The correspondence went out to many states, to parents of “children” of all ages, some in their fifties.

A few days later, individuals began stopping by my office. One by one, they would explain that they had received a phone call from a proud parent congratulating them based on a letter they received from the principal of the school. The smile on their faces as they informed me how happy their parents were hinted that their own experience could now persuade them of the potential power of positive reinforcement for learners of all ages. I even received several heartfelt letters from the parents of staff members who appreciated hearing about their “children.” 

The parent of the school’s head custodian was a bus driver in the district. The principal of another school that received passengers from the bus this man drove, called me to let me know that the bus driver came into that school’s main office and held up the letter I wrote to share with anyone in hearing range that he just got a note from his son's boss boasting of his son's excellent work!

The product of my letter writing campaign soon became evident. Bulletin boards boasted of excellent effort and achievement. Comments on report cards were more comprehensive and positive. Smiles were more noticeable and the distance between and among members of the school population decreased.

This was but one element in an improvement process that eventually catapulted the school above several others in the district regarding achievement (passing rates), attendance (daily attendance rates), attitude (sharpest decrease in discipline measures), and parent satisfaction (based on results of a survey administered district -wide). The progress resulted in a staff member recounting her experience in the transformation in a story that was published in a national magazine. But, best of all, when a television station visited the school for a story on its success and asked one of the teenage girls to describe the changes, she stated, “We have become a school of hope.”  

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