A bit about me. I’m an elementary school principal in a rural community in Central Texas. This is my 28th year in public education, my 9th year as a campus administrator, and my 6th year on my current campus, Williams/Ledger Elementary. I engage in a daily reflective practice and I journal, but up until now, I have not been an active blogger.
My goal for this blog is to share my successes as an elementary principal and give some insight, based on my personal experiences, into making & sustaining powerful changes in school culture and ultimately student achievement. So my question for you, the reader, is it the principles (beliefs) or the principal (person) that has the largest potential for impact?
When I joined my current campus in 2012, it had been labeled as “academically acceptable” in the Texas accountability system, and “did not make adequate yearly progress” in the federal accountability system. I knew these facts when I accepted the position. I also knew that my campus has a significant mobility rate (25%) and a growing economically disadvantaged population (59%). What I didn’t know was the “emotional state” of the campus; I did not know about the climate & culture. I met with my leadership team and asked them to identify the best thing about our campus. 100% responded that “the people” were the best thing. I am a “people person,” so that was great news! In that moment, I knew that I could make a difference. In its simplest form, working with people means leading with heart and working WITH your team to achieve the desired outcome. So, how do you get there?
Looking back, I would describe 2012-13 as a year of transformation and the beginning of something much larger than I dreamed. Through the implementation of common language and the creation of a common vision, my campus culture came to life. Since that time, my campus culture has been described as “a cult in the most positive sense of the word.” We became the OWL family. Ironically, OWLS was initially “just” an acronym for a new student recognition started by my school counselors: Outstanding Williams Ledger Student. Then I realized that the “S” could also stand for staff. Before long, our way of doing things became known as “the OWL way.”
Together with my team, I implemented school-wide PBIS (positive behavior interventions & strategies) so that students knew the behavioral expectations for all common areas. Why is this important? My “littles” (students) have to know what is expected of them; it has to be taught explicitly and then modeled. Even my staff needs to know what is expected of them. It is unrealistic to expect people of any age to “Just know” what to do. This does not mean I sit in my office and give orders; I am in the hallways & the classrooms on a daily basis. A leader MUST be present – physically & emotionally.
A leader must also AFFIRM. I tell my staff that the behavior that gets attention gets repeated. The mindset behind PBIS is to reward those students who meet expectations. When I celebrate student successes, the student’s name is paired with the specific desired behavior. Likewise, when I affirm my staff, I am recognizing their specific achievement. When affirming my “littles” or my staff, I use handwritten notes, I mail postcards, I make announcements, and I send emails. People of all ages like to be acknowledged for a job well-done.
Over the course of 5 years, I have watched the student, staff & parent climate survey results trend at the highest levels of satisfaction. Students feel safe & cared for; parents feel welcome & know their children are safe, cared for & well-educated. Staff members feel engaged and appreciated and are PROUD to work here! Staff turn-over is among the lowest in the district. Our student discipline numbers have steadily declined to be the lowest number in our district. Our students WANT to meet expectations and enjoy the rewards that come with success. Academically, we are moving in the right direction on our state assessments, watching achievement gaps close each year, and seeing our collective hard work paying off.
Do we still have room to grow? ABSOLUTELY! And without a doubt, I can tell you that my campus is 100% committed to a growth-mindset and helping our kiddos excel at the highest levels. I’ll leave you with the question: when facilitating & sustaining school change, where is the tipping point? Principle or Principal?