This is the question I have tried to answer many times over the years using something I call the Three C’s as my guide - cooperation, consistency, and common sense.
This solution is so simplistic that many reject its specifics, because it lacks complexity and requires a school principal to perform less than exciting functions.
Let me first begin with some background of my experiences, followed by specific acts that have led to creating a successful school environment.
My career in education began in 1968 and ended in 2012. During this period, I taught at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, coached three sports and served as a building principal or assistant principal at the elementary, intermediate and middle school levels for 26 years. By far, the last nine years were the most rewarding, two as principal of an intermediate school in Bucyrus, Ohio, and seven as an elementary principal in Butler, Ohio, part of the Clear Fork Local Schools.
During my first year in Bucyrus, the building was rated effective, then the next year rated excellent while receiving the state superintendent’s School of Promise award. Prior to this time, the building had never been rated above continuous improvement. A similar situation followed at Butler.
In my first year it was rated effective, followed by six years of excellent ratings. Butler was named a School of Promise three times. In 2009, it was named a National Blue Ribbon School, and in 2010, it was named a National Title I Distinguished School.
How did this happen?
In both schools, teachers were allowed complete authority in their classrooms. Success followed from the fostering of a culture of cooperation and of respectful relationships among teachers and students.
There is no question in my mind that the most vital of all positions in a school is the building principal. The principal’s leadership, relationships, and actions will determine the success or failure of the building.
As principal of the building, I knew I was the boss, but never was I bossy. Acting as one of the many support staff in the service of the classroom teacher, it was my responsibility to ensure student attendance, proper behavior, placement, and that all students were accomplishing what their teachers expected in the classroom.
Following are some of the specific actions I took as principal that helped ensure that a culture of learning took place. The keys are that the principal is the individual performing all of these tasks consistently, and that they are the principal’s primary duties throughout the day. These actions also communicate to students that their learning is so important the principal is personally involved in their learning process.
1. Organization and supervision of a principal’s noon study session for grades three, four, and five that meets daily. Doing homework is not an option at these sessions.
2. Organization and supervision of an after-school intervention program for math for all students in grades three, four, and five. Interventions are never scheduled during the school day.
3. Math facts — grades 4 and 5, principal serves as the gatekeeper ensuring mastery by all students.
4. Individual quarterly meetings with every student in the school to review grade cards and offer encouragement. It is difficult to overstate how powerful a motivational influence it is for students to understand that the principal of the school knows how they are doing and is personally encouraging them.
5. Taking all unit tests for grades four and five in math, science, and social studies before the students took them. These are graded, and the results reported to students, who are then encouraged to beat the principal, which they regularly do.
6. Any 4th or 5th grade student who receives a D or F on any unit test is required to correct the test during the principal’s study session.
7. Those few students who continue to perform poorly due to not completing assignments spend time after school with the principal on a daily basis as needed. In other words, until the work is complete, and the students begin to complete work on their own.
8. Organization of a principal’s math wall of fame for grades one through five located in the cafeteria for all to see. Those who master their math facts are recognized, with the ultimate goal being for every student to see his or her name on the wall.
9. Reorganization of the gifted/ talented programs so that all students in grades four and five receive math and science instruction one day each week from the gifted/talented teacher. This is instruction that is normally reserved only for those students who have been identified as gifted. This inclusion involves both regular and special education students.
By performing these actions, the principal plays a leading role in convincing students the easiest thing they will do all year is to take a silly state test. At both Bucyrus and Butler, the teachers’ unit tests were far more comprehensive and difficult than the achievement tests.
People often ask, “How does a principal have time to do all of these things?” My response is always, “How do you not have time? What else could be more important?” All of these things have the effect of making teaching and learning fun, exciting, and, yes, more simple.
The policymakers of today who are responsible for school reform are missing the point. They are wrapped up in measuring statistics, thereby missing the human aspect of education.
It is time for politicians, policymakers, and “reformers” to believe in and support our highly qualified teachers, and to establish an environment in which school administrators can lead by using the Three C’s — cooperation, consistency, and common sense. This would allow schools to create real cultures of learning and to develop strong interpersonal relationships among administrators, teachers and students. This is the silver bullet of education reform.
Roger Knight is a 1964 graduate of Berlin Local Schools and resides just south of Norwalk, his home for the past 35 years.