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Alma Intermediate School Newsletter, September 2018

IMG_0175From the Principal…

The most significant learning in my life has often come as a result of discomfort or discontent. As a seventh grade percussionist (drummer), I auditioned for All-Region Band. While listening to some of the other players, I realized just how unprepared I was. I didn’t make All-Region that first year which hurt my pride.

However, my discomfort with the weakness of my performance caused me to practice and seek out players better than me so I could learn from them. I ordered music books and figured out ways to read difficult rhythms from musical notation.

The next year and every year after that, I made All-Region Band and then All-State in high school. Those were great experiences, but if I hadn’t had that early failure and the pain that resulted, I might never have understood the work and new learning required to perform better.

Fast-forward many years, and I’m a school principal in south Arkansas with just a few years of experience. Everyone seemed happy with what we were doing, so I thought things were fine.

Then, I attended the Arkansas Leadership Academy and what would later be called the Principals’ Institute. I was challenged to make big changes in my approach to working with teachers and students. I saw the ineffectiveness of what I had been doing, and it was a painful experience.

That discomfort pushed me to learn better practices as a principal. I’m still trying to improve today, but without that challenging and unpleasant experience, I might have continued for years without making changes to help my teachers and students reach higher levels of performance.

Learning can be a little painful sometimes, but it’s also exciting as we master new skills and knowledge. What both of these challenging learning experiences had in common was that caring and skillful teachers supported me through the process of gaining new skills. It excites me today to see our teachers work with our students in this same way every day as we all continue to grow and learn!

Link to open this month’s newsletter: News Alma Intermediate 0918

Unlearning

Sometimes what you know can hurt you.  During a wilderness first aid course I recently completed, the instructors spent a fair amount of class time debunking ineffective first aid actions and replacing them with evidence based actions and protocols.  Many of my assumptions about first aid were wrong and I had a lot of unlearning to do.

The trainers had a habit of saying, “The body counts are in and that’s no longer the right way to treat that emergency.”  In other words, new evidence suggests new practices.  Will we learn from the evidence and change our practice or continue to do what has been shown not to work?  Will the victim of an emergency be helped by our involvement or will we make things worse?

My first session in the Leadership Academy Principals’ Institute was all about unlearning.  I’d entered the principalship with some misconceptions about what was important in school leadership.  I was overwhelmed when faced with all that I needed to unlearn!  This was a painful and sometimes embarrassing process.  I describe the leader I was back then by saying, “He looked and acted like a principal.  Folks liked him and he cared about the kids but he wasn’t anywhere close to being what the teachers and students needed.”  This was hard to admit, but that admission was necessary before growth and new learning could occur.

In last month’s AAEA newsletter, Dr. Abernathy challenged us to think outside of the box and apply for waivers to enable us to implement new and different approaches to helping our students.  He challenged us to look at barriers to innovation and apply to have those barriers removed.

As I began to work with teachers on this I found that I needed to unlearn ways of thinking that have become automatic over the last few years.  We’ve always said, “We can’t consider looping classes from fourth to fifth grade because of certification issues.” But now the question to ask is, “Why not?”   It took effort to suspend judgment long enough to let an idea float for a moment without moving immediately to constraints of present rules, time, or money.  As we worked together, we found several innovations that didn’t even require waivers.  Thinking in terms of “what if” and “why not” allowed those ideas to present themselves and we look forward to continuing this process.

A great educational leader speaking to our staff a couple of years ago said, “You would be appalled to learn how some children are treated right here in our own state.”  Part of what he meant was that some adults who should care the most about children are harsh and cruel in their interactions.  He was also referring to poor treatment in the form of ineffective instruction.  Evidence has shown that certain teaching methods are ineffective yet we often see these practices continuing.  Being stuck in a classroom under an ineffective teacher is the ultimate in cruelty.  If the “body counts” are in and the evidence shows that a practice is ineffective, it’s time to make a change!

Changing what we do with students at the point of delivery in the classroom is difficult. Changing teaching practices requires a willingness to unlearn and a deliberate effort to do something in a new way.  There will be costs in time, money, and emotions, but the rewards for persistence are great.

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When we’re moving toward more effective practices and feel pushback, we must be relentless and keep plugging away.  We can work with early adopters and the big middle of our staff to move forward, giving resistors limited attention.  If we provide the conditions for change and allow teachers to gain the necessary learning, we’ll reach a tipping point and see acceleration in positive change.

During classroom walkthroughs recently, I enjoyed seeing the results of a challenging change we made in teaching practices over the last four years.  If I tried to take teachers back to their previous ways of instruction in this area, they’d run me out of the building, and rightly so.  I realized that the change was real and now part of how we do things. Making this change was hard but seeing the benefits to children and adults is rewarding.

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When we feel resistance to change, we must ensure that we’re doing the work needed to support that change but, we must not fall into the trap of believing all change must be slow and incremental.  Sometimes we must have the courage to say, “ENOUGH! The body counts are in.  We’re stopping this practice and beginning to do that practice instead.  It’s time to unlearn, relearn, and change!”

Written for the April issue of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators newsletter

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