20 Things I Would Do if I Were a High School Principal
Sometimes I like to imagine that the plan I have for my life includes being the principal of a school. Sometimes I like to imagine that I have the particular blend of patience, people skills, diplomacy and a really thick skin I think a good school leader needs. And sometimes I like to imagine that principals would listen to the ideas of someone who has no experience doing what they do, telling them what he would do in their place… his only qualifications being a keen sense of observation and a desire to suggest innovative solutions.
This list was originally over 40 items long, but I have chosen to trim them down to 20. Perhaps I will do a follow up sometime in the future. In the meantime, I give you…
1. Love Bombs. I would make a point of dropping pleasant little surprises on deserving staff members. It would have to be a priority for me to try to keep abreast of all of the activities and projects my staff are involved in, so that I can reward their hard work with an unexpected message of encouragement or a small gift of some kind. People like being made a fuss of, and they like the boss to notice when they do something well.
2. No Moan Zone. I would have a strict ‘no negativity’ policy. It is often too easy to complain, especially when the pressure is on, or near the end of term. However, if we let negativity continue unchecked, the result is an unhappy staffroom and a less productive working environment. Left unchecked, negativity spreads like cancer. I appreciate that, from time to time, staff need to let off some steam, but even then, I would challenge them to match a complaint with a solution. Back-biting and rumour-mongering would be entirely off-limits. If people have to think twice before they moan about something, they tend to do less of it. As an additional bonus, I would get a steady stream of new ideas, probably on a daily basis, aimed at improving our school.
3. Develop Development. I would insist that staff endeavour to earn professional development points / badges for their appraisals by attending training sessions, going on courses, building their own PLNs and engaging with other teachers around the country, and around the world. I would try to encourage the same atmosphere of excitement at discovering and learning new things in the staffroom as I would like our students to have in class. Importantly, this is an ‘opt out’ process – that is, if staff do not want to do this, they need to explain why… in writing.
4. Showcase Talent. I would give my staff an opportunity to speak to larger groups about their personal interests. This can be in the form a masterclass for their peers or students, or simply an enrichment session at staff development seminars. Whether it is cooking Indian cuisine, creating iBooks or even something like Anthropology, I would encourage my teachers to follow their own interests and to share them with the rest of the staff. This would double as an example to our students of true life-long learning.
5. Short Sabbaticals. I would give miniature sabbaticals to those staff who seriously want to research an aspect of education that interests them, and which they can then share with their students and colleagues. These would be breaks of about two to three weeks, and could be granted during examination times. Alternatively, while staff are away on these learning breaks, we could have interns / substitutes running their classes, and perhaps even manipulate the timetable so that students go to other classes more frequently, and then catch up when their teacher returns.
6. Flip the Flippin’ Meeting. Anyone else tired of being talked at during staff meetings? Most of what is discussed could be emailed or put on the notice board. If I were running things, meetings would be flipped upside-down by allowing members of staff and even students to set the agenda. Even big decisions traditionally left to the ‘management executive’ of the school could do with staff input. I would encourage asking instead of telling, and preference questions over answers. Staff meetings would take on a similar feel and structure to how I would like my classrooms to work: less ‘telling’, more discovery, exchange and learning. Additionally, every meeting must involve some form of training and enrichment.
7. No Bananas. When presidents of countries are elected, it is usually for a term of four to five years – often less. CEOs of major companies have a similar term of office. They might be re-elected if they have done a good job and are clearly capable of continued good leadership. This encourages them to see their leadership roles as an active responsibility, not just as a title. Shouldn’t the institutions that nurture these future leaders be run the same way? Only banana republics and tailspinning companies refuse to rotate leadership roles, and, as a result, suffer from the stagnant ideas of tin-pot dictators. Do we really want schools to be managed by people who cling to their little positions of power? I say we need to rotate leadership roles and responsibilities every three to four years – unless it is shown that the person in the particular position of leadership in the school is doing a good job.
8. Make it Flat. As schools become established, they tend to become more and more hierarchical. At relatively newly established schools, everyone mucks in to get things done – without having to be told to do so. I would do everything I could to get back to that ‘new school feel’, by keeping the hierarchy as flat as possible. Most teachers do not need to have a ‘Head of Department’ or any other kind of middle manager to tell them what needs to be done… and some teachers actually use the fact that they are not in charge as an excuse not to take responsibility for the management of their own subjects. Granted, a coordinator is required to synchronise assessments and keep the teaching programme on track in each subject, but there is no reason this person cannot be rotated as often as once a year (see ‘No Bananas’ above). With a flat structure, my teachers might feel that they are contributing to the running of the school in a meaningful way, and not just as the smallest cogs in the machine. (See ‘Flip the Flippin’ Meeting’ above.)
9. Happily Ever After. What do parents think school is for? Ask them, and most will tell you that it is about their children getting the best marks possible so that they can get into a tertiary study institution (so that they can get the job they want and live happily ever after). If you really probe their answer, though, you will find that it is the bit in parentheses in the previous sentence that they truly care most about. It’s just that most parents associate getting good marks with eventual happiness. We need to change this mindset. School is about unlocking potential and helping kids find their passion (in the words of the great Ken Robinson). This is really what will make them happy and successful. Towards this end, we need to educate parents on what a truly relevant, twenty-first century, child-centered education means, at the start of the school year. I would do all I could to get parents to support learning over marks, and self-discovery over the syllabus. Imagine parents’ evenings where the major topic of conversation is not how Sarah can improve her marks, but how we can help her to discover her true talents, and motivate her to be the person she can be. (As a bonus, parents can keep my staff honest in terms of creating lessons and assessments that are sincerely student-centered, relevant and personalised.)
10. No books day. A little idea with a potentially large impact: To encourage more hands-on, active approaches to learning, I would have a day a week (at least) where students are only required to bring their lunch. They will not write anything down, thus, lessons have to be so engaging that students will remember them without having to record them. Linked to this, and if circumstances allow for it, I would also like to have an ‘e-learning day’ twice a term where students stay at home and submit work digitally. Truth be told, this is not my idea – I have seen it work at a school nearby. And it works brilliantly!
11. Exchange to Change. Too often, we become complacent in the safety of our own classrooms and within the confines of our own subject. To shake things up a bit, and to foster more cross-pollination, I would set up an internal exchange programme to take place at regular intervals. This could be in the form of one teacher teaching another teacher’s classes within the same subject, or (even better) teaching a different subject. To my mind, this would give staff many fertile ideas for collaboration, as well as giving them a little more empathy with the challenges associated with teaching a different class or subject.
12. Dismissing Belittling. All teachers are aware of the scourge of students bullying one another. However, quite a few are not attuned to how subtle bullying can really be, and they allow it to happen right under their noses. But what’s worst is that some teachers still employ undisguised threats as a ‘motivational tactic’, as well as insidiously bullying their students. In line with the type of education I would want my school to offer, no teacher may consciously insult or belittle a student. Telling my students that bullying is unacceptable means nothing if teachers can get away with it.
13. Boys and Girls and Brains. I have addressed the issue of how schools are failing boys in a previous post. For me, it is perhaps one of the biggest (and least addressed) problems with our current schooling system. (See the full post here.) Most boys learn differently to most girls, and if they are not taught differently, their self-esteem suffers massively. This is not about gender stereotypes, it is about brains. There is a reason that boys generally do better than girls in only the practical subjects like IT and Science. In essence, the reason is that unless they are actively engaged, most male brains go into a sort of ‘screensaver’ mode. And because many teachers only teach the way girls prefer, boys tend to underperform and cannot understand why. They then are berated and encouraged to ‘try harder’. A disturbingly large number of boys simply cannot understand why they cannot achieve better, and so begin to internalise this failure. Sometimes with tragic consequences. To address this, I would create ‘girl-heavy’ and ‘boy-heavy’ classes in Grade 8 and 9, allowing for the fact that some students may not fit the trend. (How to do this without causing offense might be a matter to challenge my staff with solving.) I would require teachers to adapt their approaches to ensure that they cater specifically for the dominant brain-based learning preferences of their classes.
14. Passion Project. Some educational systems allow students to research something which is of great interest to them as a core part of their learning in a particular year. I am enamored with this idea, but why not take it further? Whether a student is interested in Dance or Ancient History, Music or Philosophy, Quantum Physics or Complexity Theory – why not let them find out about it? Ideally, what they are researching should have something to do with their ‘One Great Thing’ (to quote this very cool Johnnie Walker advert, of all things). Staff members would need to work out who is in the best position to assist and guide each student – perhaps even forming support teams. And the purpose of such teacher mentors would be to co-learn whatever the student is learning, and to offer pointers and suggestions as the year progresses. Students would be required to report back in whatever way they see as apt. Imagine a report in the form of an actual performance, a painting, a mini-conference, a sculpture, a short story, a photography exhibition, a website or even a new invention. With a little bit of imagination, we can find the best ways to mentor and assess each individual project.
15. Uniform(ity) Sucks. And So Does ‘Tradition’. A great deal of schools around the world are obsessed with making their students conform to dress codes. Ties must be worn, hair must be of a particular length, shoes must be of a particular type, trousers of a particular length – unless you’re a girl, in which case you must wear a dress. And so on. It’s ridiculous! And it’s all based on a fallacious domino argument that goes something like this: If they don’t conform to the dress code, then they will not learn to be ‘self-disciplined’ (read: self-policing), if they have no self-discipline, they will be more difficult to control, if they are more difficult to control, they may begin to question our authority and not treat us with the proper amount of respect. And if they don’t respect their teachers, all hell will break loose, and we will have anarchy in our classrooms. I am not even exaggerating slightly. This means of manipulation also deliberately treats girls in a way that perpetuates stereotypes. Most school principals defend this tripe as being part of a school’s ‘ethos’ or ‘tradition’, and state that it aids camaraderie. What they really mean is that it is easier to control and manipulate the minds of students through fear and conformity. (A microcosm of government, if you will.) And it is a means of forcing respect… where it should be earned.
I would not do away with uniforms entirely, as I believe that allowing students to wear only mufti inevitably results in problems amongst students of differing socio-economic circumstances. But I would relax the rules a great deal. Let them wear something appropriate and comfortable in the right colours. Let them wear their hair as they wish. And for goodness sake, let them wear comfortable shoes. Giving them this kind of freedom tells them we respect them, and this is the first step towards them returning the favour.
16. Give Them a Say. At the beginning of a term, I would ask teachers to provide a rough outline of the content to be taught to their classes, and then give students a large say in how it is to be learnt and assessed. I think we would be amazed at the innovative ideas they would come up with.
17. Participation as the Goal. I believe that extra-mural participation is a vital part of a holistic education. I would encourage as many students as I could to be involved in after-school activities – and in all of these activities, I would stress that participation, teamwork, sportsmanship and personal growth by far supersede winning. Strangely, I believe that with this approach very firmly entrenched, we would probably end up winning anyway – just as I am sure that by encouraging learning and personal growth in our academic programme, our students would achieve excellent marks. The difference being that winning extra-murally and succeeding academically are symptoms of the right approach in each, and not ends in themselves.
18. Collaboration vs Competition. I would do away with any ‘academic’ awards which are based on some students having better marks than others. This is one of the primary causes of students and parents believing that marks are more important than learning. It is not a wishy-washy ‘everyone’s a winner’ philosophy, but one that seeks to address the misguided thinking which encourages ‘excellence through competition’ in learning. It is faulty to assume that these awards are solely about rewarding excellence – they are not. Rather, giving the mark-harvesters an award is assumed to be a good way to motivate those who have not received an award to try harder in order to get one next time. The logic used here is sound in many sports, but not in academics. (Ponder the difference between what an Olympic medalist is rewarded for, and why a Nobel Prize is awarded.) The reason has to do with the fact that it encourages the wrong sort of behaviour. Instead of giving awards for academic merit (ie: rewarding the test-takers) I would give awards to those students who have helped others through peer tutoring, those who have consistently handed in work which is innovative and beyond expectations, those who helped out with community projects, those who have set an example to their peers, and – most importantly – those who have tried to challenge themselves to learn better. There are a number of ways we could actually measure and implement this way of doing things. All we have to do is to look at how they do things in Finland! (Please take a few minutes to watch the video behind the previous link if you have never heard about Finland’s revolutionary education system.)
19. Thinking as a Subject. Very few schools teach students how to think. We expect that they will know how to study and maximise their time in our classes by harnessing their particular bouquet of learning styles, but we never show them how to actually find out what these are. We tell them to think carefully about where they find their information, and not to plagiarise, but we seldom give them the precise research and analysis skills required to produce a high-quality research assignment. And we certainly do not talk to them about logical fallacies and how to spot errors in thinking. To remedy this, I would have Thinking 101 as a subject, particularly for the junior grades. This compulsory subject would include training students to think critically about any information they receive, turning them from passive consumers of knowledge, into active thinkers. I would also want them to explore theories of multiple intelligence, and to develop the twin habits of reflection and metacognition. Web research skills, and web-site evaluation techniques would also be emphasised, as would spotting and avoiding common logical fallacies. Learning how to think must always precede any actual syllabus related content at my school. As part of this Programme, I would want students to come to realise that a good blend of subjects is vital towards becoming a more holistic thinker. Also, that developing compassion and emotional intelligence are as important as good cognitive abilities. Every student must, therefore, be encouraged to select a good balance of subjects from the Arts, Humanities and STEM subjects.
20. No Detentions. There has to be a better way than imprisoning students and making them do menial work as punishment for their crimes. Schools should be centres of learning, not incarceration facilities. Perhaps if students are excited about learning, and perhaps if we show them the respect we want them to show us, and perhaps if learning is individualised and relevant we will have less truancy and acting out, and thus less of a need to punish. But how to punish those who do break the rules? Honestly, I am not sure… but I fail to see how belittling and embarrassing students by putting them on detention can be the answer.
My own principal listens to many of my ideas, and has also implemented many of them, so this is by no means directed at him. In fact, a fair portion of these ideas are derived from what is already happening where I work, under his dynamic leadership. However, I do believe that many school leaders (including my own) could find something here of worth to implement at their own schools. I would love to know if you have tried to make any of these ideas work, either as a teacher or as a school leader.
Please feel free to add your experiences and suggestions below.
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