Sunday, December 2, 2012

Majority Rules

Now that I am wrapping up my first semester traveling to schools, observing classrooms, working with teachers, and conducting workshops, I am beginning to reflect on a question that I get asked quite frequently these days: "What do you see as you are at these schools?"

Usually these questions come when I am speaking to principals, I think sometimes to compare their school to others, but more generally, just out of curiosity.  The answer is a complex one, but I think I can fairly say that there is one generalization that will explain many of the observations I see and situations I find.  That being, majority rules.

From city to suburbs, country to the projects, this seems to define the situation in many schools.  Let me explain.

There are good teachers in every school I have been in, hands down.  Good teaching comes in all shapes and sizes, from first year teachers to twenty year veterans, Kindergarten to 12th grade.  The difference between the successful school and the struggling school is how many good teachers exist in the school.  When the majority of the teachers are strong, and have high expectations for these students (more about this later), then the school is typically more successful.

On the flip side, when the majority of the teachers are weak, so is the school.  The same goes for climate and culture of the school.  When you have a majority of the teachers with positive energy and a collective focus and mission, it looks and feels much different than the school with the majority of teachers with negative energy and a cloudy mission.

This may be oversimplifying a complex issue, but it seems to be a theory that holds true as I go from school to school. 

Notice, I have not said anything about students. 

The reason being it makes no difference what type of students walk through your doors.  Any school can be successful when there is a collective group of good teachers and common mission.  The kids can come from the Hollywood Hills or the toughest streets, any school can be successful, and I have seen it. 

This success usually comes in the form of the expectations practiced.  Notice, I did not say expectations set, but the expectations practiced.  I have learned that they are two different things.  I have seen posters on the wall, messages on the morning announcements, stories from teachers about how strict they are, but I do not pay one bit of attention to these.  I want to see it.  Show me how you practice these high expectations.  Schools that practice them instead of simply stating them have been by far and away the most impressive and successful. 

Schools that on paper should be failing (typically because of perceptions of student population), are flourishing because of their staff and the expectations practiced.  Transversely, schools that should be blowing it out the ceiling are underachieving for the same reason.  I've been in both.

On a side bar, I am beginning to rethink how I address the issue of high expectations when I am in schools.  Instead of talking to educators about setting high expectations, I feel I should have the discussion based on practiced high expectations.  I think I will achieve more in the long run.

So how does this majority rules happen?  To be honest, I'm not exactly sure, but it appears that it starts at the top.  I have seen that when there is a strong principal, who sets and practices the high expectations for his or her staff, it seems to trickle down.  Also, when principals are given the ability to get rid of negative energy or poor teachers, good administrators will bring in stronger teachers.

I have also seen the majority shift because of several strong teacher leaders.  I have been introduced to several teacher leaders as I travel who have been given the credit for turning the school around because they have taken the initiative to do so, despite administration.

At the end of the day, this is not something that is easily fixed.  It sometimes takes years to shift the majority.  Think about habitually horrible sports teams.  Sometimes it takes years to get a good team.  But sometimes you bring in that new coach, or clean out the roster and rebuild, and you see the majority shift to a winning attitude and skill set that practices what they preach.  The same goes for schools.  We need to find winning teams, teachers who not only know how to achieve, but can prove it too.

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