Headmaster’s Thoughts – October 2012

My, there are a lot of complaints about education. Scarcely a week goes by without a New York Times editorial bemoaning how poor our educational system is. We are fourteenth, eighteenth, twenty-first—some gloomy comparative statistic assessing us against other first-world countries. The whine is consistent about how inadequately we teach our students, particularly our secondary school students. What is noticeable in virtually all of these articles is that there are absolutely no solutions suggested except monetary ones—no pragmatic strategies of how we could get better, no specific and simple ways to improve the disaster that, they say, is American secondary education.

So let me say right up front that it is true that there are some awful schools in the United States, schools that have a dropout rate approaching or even exceeding 50 per cent of their students. These are most often public schools where students are required to attend for geographical reasons. You live in this neighborhood and so you must go to this school! And, if one used the analogy of hospitals, they are indeed awful. Who would go to a hospital where 50 per cent of the patients going in die during their stay? If anything, these “dropout academies,” as they are sometimes called, sadly represent the despair of those families forced to send their children to them. They have no alternative and no real voice in changing the system.

But there are also some wonderful public schools in similar neighborhoods, schools servicing the poorest and most underprivileged areas, which somehow manage to maintain high standards and graduate virtually all of their students. How they do it is almost always because they are well led. Articles are written about the wondrous change that the principal brought about: the discipline, desire for knowledge, sense of community, etc. The principal is rightly hailed as a hero of the education system. No mention is made of the fact that the previous principal must have been mediocre at best, and, when the “wonder” principal leaves, little mention is made of the fact that in many cases the school reverts back to its former, sad dropout status.

What I would like to do is give some simple suggestions to future leaders as to how to make real changes if they find that the school they have been given to lead does not give them pride. None of these suggestions would require getting the approval of the local Board of Education or even the Superintendent of Schools. Nor would they necessarily cost any extra money, although a principal should always try and get the most funding for his or her school.

Let us start off with the beginning: A new principal (and for the sake of pure simplicity, let us use the masculine form throughout) should make some impact on the physical appearance of the school if it is not clean and attractive. From day one, he should set the example of picking up trash off the floor and encouraging everyone in the school community to treat the building with respect. The effect of sprucing up a building from the get-go is to make a statement about standards and personal pride. I have walked into schools (public and private) and have been appalled by the dirt and garbage around. To turn that around requires a force of character and determination.

Fortunately, there is often a honeymoon period with a new principal. This school beautification program is an essential beginning. Graffiti must be cleaned immediately, blackboards cleaned after each class, paper picked up off the floor of every room and hallway, bright and optimistic messages should abound (more on optimism later), and the curb appeal of the school should be dressed up in the way one would dress up a house one was going to sell.

Students are also part of the environment of the school and self-pride is part of the message of a good school, so what the students wear may have to be looked at. Gang colors are clearly unacceptable, but so are provocative clothes that affect the educational goal of the school. The word “appropriate” is vague and applies differently in different parts of the country, but nowhere are boys’ underwear displays acceptable nor girls’ clothes that deliberately sexualize the student who wears them.

From the start, the principal has to introduce himself to the parent body and establish a sensible form of communication. A weekly or monthly blog on the school website is critical. If, heaven forbid, there is no school website, one should be started immediately. The cost is virtually nothing nowadays, and it is inconceivable that a school can function without one. A website provides a vital tool of disbursement of information to the parent community, which promotes a team approach to student improvement.

The principal’s blog should encourage feedback, and the principal should give out his email address as well as a phone number with functioning voicemail to receive messages. Students and faculty should be given the same email address and phone number on the first day. The message must be clear: I am someone who will listen and act if I can help a child, but I will always listen to both sides of any dispute; I am a solution-finder, not a blame-finder.

The third innovation that is rarely made, except by good principals, is to avoid their office during school hours if possible. The principal needs to be seen around the school all the time. Office hours are for after school if possible. Since I believe in the rule of twenty-four—namely, that all calls should be returned or dealt with in some way within twenty-four hours, even if the return call is just to say that the principal will look into the matter—the principal will need to set up a delegate who can call people on his behalf to either say that the principal received the message or actually give a solution if the solution is simple and non-controversial. A good deputy is essential since there are only so many hours of the day, and a principal will often have to resist the desire to micro-manage everything in his school.

Finally, security must be a very high priority from the beginning. No student should be afraid to go to school, and the principal must insist that there is no tolerance of violence in any part of the school or its surroundings. This has to be a non-negotiable issue. Schools cannot function if students fear attending.

Soon, the principal will be faced with the job of arbitrating between the faculty and the Superintendent or School Board. In a private school, the Board of Trustees serves a similar, although by no means identical, role as the Board of Education. The prime role of a principal is to lead the faculty as one of them. In any conflict, he needs to retain the trust of his teachers. In Britain, the principal is called the “head teacher” for a very good reason. That is his first duty, and the easiest way to do that is to teach a class himself. It need only be one class one time a week, but teach he must. It will show the faculty that he understands both the environment they are in and the student body they are working with. I teach every senior at my school. I also teach a select group of eighth and tenth graders. I understand that I am a headmaster of a very small school of about 350 students. I equally understand that teaching more than once a week might be difficult in a larger institution. But teaching is critical for a principal. Indeed, every member of the administration should be required to teach at least once a week and preferably much more. Just that requirement would help break down any potential we/they conflict between the principal’s office and the faculty room.

The lectures of a principal are somewhat of a show-boating nature. They have to be open (other teachers should be invited to watch if they want) and exemplary. I remember that one year my faculty felt that the seniors were difficult to teach first period on Monday during the second half of the year when they already had been accepted to college. They were concerned that seniors came late after partying during the weekend and, if they did come on time, sat listlessly through the first lesson on Monday morning. So I taught the entire senior class (some sixty of them) for the first Monday period that term. There were no more complaints from the faculty (and, I like to think, no more listless seniors).

The principal will have to establish some social events for the parents in which parental issues rather than school issues are discussed. An outside speaker program works well. And a school sponsored get-together for parents of each class, where no representative of the school or administration is present, is also a good idea. If issues are raised about how poor the school is, at least there is discussion, and parents should be encouraged to delegate a spokesperson to have regular dialogue with the principal after such meetings. The problem I have found is that if faculty or administration members actually attend these get-togethers, the tone of the meetings changes and individual agendas are brought up. The meetings should be at times that are convenient for most parents and should have either food brought in at the school’s expense or a pot luck dinner of some sort.

The most outgoing teachers should be encouraged to give a series of talks to parents about their field of interest. The history teacher might give a walking tour of the neighborhood; the guidance teacher, a series of discussions about sexual issues facing adolescents; and the computer teacher might give classes on social media or using a spreadsheet program. Outreach must be real, and I sincerely believe that if offered, parents will come.

If change is not made during the first year, the new principal will have lost the opportunity to create a dynamic first impression. So there has to be a great deal of action. The following is a list of “should be there” items which must be introduced in short order if not in place already.

An open grade book accessed through the school website should be developed. There is a variety of good grade recording software programs (GradeQuick is one) just as there are a variety of programs that can publish the grades in a password-protected area for students and parents to review. Edline is a good example of a program that does just that. In effect, every week the parents should be able to see how their child is doing by connecting with the school’s website. Faculty members input homework grades, quiz grades, and test grades into the electronic gradebook; the data then should be made available to parents, preferably each Friday. In this way, parents get information they can use in a timely manner. What good is it to tell a parent at the end of a term that the child has failed due to missing homework? How much better to tell parents in the midst of the process so that they can require the child to get the homework in and still get credit for it? Throughout the year, it is critical for parents to be kept informed of triumphs and failures, both academically and behaviorally.

There will be parents without computer skills, so it is up to the school to help with this. At our school, every single “Curriculum Day for Parents” has a session on the use of the Edline program. There is a parent software advisor available by phone to help those who have a hard time working the program. That same individual is also available to faculty members who have difficulty with the various programs we internally use. We require that our faculty come in late August before school starts (as most schools do), and the teaching of software is a vital part of that faculty orientation program. So you need a faculty member who is going to be both a teacher of teachers and a teacher of parents.

The byproduct of making the grading program available each week is that it sends parents, students, and faculty to the website. And this is an opportunity not to be missed. The website should contain as much information as possible about what is happening at school. I have already mentioned the blog by the principal, but he should delegate a faculty member to keep it fresh with news of past happenings and a calendar of upcoming activities—school plays or musical performances, athletic events, school trips or special speakers, and parent meetings.

For students, each teacher must be required to have their own class website brimming with information: dates of upcoming tests or when long term assignments are due, which books to bring to class, and, most importantly, the homework for each night so that a student who is sick or absent can keep up with the homework requirements. The college guidance department should have its own web area for juniors and seniors, giving dates and times of upcoming SATs or ACTs, due dates for college application and financial aid forms, sites from which forms can be downloaded, and as much information as possible about the tense process that getting into college is nowadays.

You will remember that I began this piece quoting the criticisms of American secondary schools. What is usually not mentioned along with these attacks is that our universities are admired around the world. In fact, we have a greater number of universities in the top fifty (as evaluated by the Chinese government, no less) than any other country. You need to have great students to have great universities, and we have them. So the next piece of advice to the new principal is to echo something I have already alluded to. He must have, and frequently express, optimism about his school and his students and faculty. Optimism is a quality that is vital in a principal. I have been a headmaster of one school for 44 years, and there has never been one day that I have not believed in the transformative power of our school to improve the lives of our students, the innate abilities of our students, and the professionalism of our faculty. This message of hope and success through education is what a principal has to believe in and project. If he cannot, he should not be a school administrator.

All of this speaks to the internal public relations that should be a never-ending story within the school community. Successes should be noted; students who triumph should be congratulated publicly, and teachers who are remarkable should be given recognition and their names forwarded to those public agencies that look to celebrate successful teaching.

The principal, as the head teacher, is responsible for the curriculum of the school. This is another project that will not wait until the principal’s second year. He needs to ensure that the right curriculum is taught to the right students. That means that weak students should be able to succeed if they work and gifted students should be challenged. There are several ways of doing this, from tracking students in different subjects to providing extra help and offering supplementary challenging classes. This is a delicate issue, but I believe that confronting it with sensible class placement is a far better idea than ignoring the problem. I would suggest that one distinguish different abilities. Skill in math does not necessarily mean skill in English.

It is imperative that those teachers who provide extra help be qualified to do so. Too often, the tendency is to give the best teachers the honors classes. The new principal will have to ensure that teachers teach only those subjects they are qualified to teach, and that the teachers of the weak classes be every bit as good as the teachers of the ablest. For me, if a teacher is state certified to teach in a remedial program and has a Master’s degree in the teaching of remedial students, this is a good indication that the teacher wants to teach those students. I am with them: there is nothing more rewarding than helping weaker students find their self-confidence and desire to succeed.

Certainly, we have students destined for the Ivy League from the day they come to our school. So long as we keep them optimally engaged, we need not worry about their motivation. Their success may rightly be a source of pride, but it is not the full measure of our school. The students who arrive feeling beaten before they have begun, whom we can turn around, are among our real challenges. And when we get them into a great college they never thought they would even be able to apply to, having properly prepared them to succeed there, these are the successes that give enormous satisfaction.

The new principal should use every curriculum tool possible and appropriate—from honors courses to remedial reading programs—to raise the standards of the school. He will also have to contend with the “No Child Left Behind” federal requirement (sometimes referred to as the “No Child Left Untested” program). I am not a fan, but I recognize that reality is reality, and this is the current educational fad. Students have to be taught how to take the particular test and be encouraged to take these tests seriously (something that is easier said than done).

A great deal of this rests on how the principal can “sell” the value of education to the students. For that reason alone, the new principal needs a strong personality. I have had students “shadow” me from Teachers College, Columbia University, where they are getting a Master’s degree in school administration. Without exception, they have been smart and of great character, but only some of them were forceful enough that one could confidently predict success. The job of being a principal is not one for the meek and the shy. It requires a quality of showmanship that degrees in education cannot by themselves confer.

Sometime during the first year, the new principal will be faced with an irrational parent, a self-destructive student, a school board member who disagrees with him, and a teacher who just cannot teach. Since every situation is different, there are few words of advice I can give here, except to say that empathy is also a needed quality. With the obvious statement that the school must be protected, a sympathetic approach to conflict resolution is always the best. Eventually, there will be stands that will have to be taken, and so the principal (by now, you may be wondering if such an individual exists) must have a strong stomach and the ability to stick to his guns when sticking to guns is required.

So far, the principal has had challenges on how to succeed in his new job. The final challenge cannot be created: he has to love it. Good principals love what they do. They like their teachers and students (and parents) and are able to get satisfaction and pleasure by taking the long view even when the issue of the moment is irritating or worse. At no time can the principal forget who he is. At no time can he forget he is a leader of an educational institution. It is a heavy responsibility, and yet he must embrace it with joy.

I hope, in the future, that editorials would recognize the fact that we have wonderful public schools in America, that great principals can turn around any wayward school, and that we should sing the praises every day of those men and women who successfully lead our schools.

[A version of this piece was first published in 2008.]

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org

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