Imagine a first-year principal coming into a middle school with test scores so low that the school is on its third year of program improvement. His background is counseling. While he believes in curriculum development and well-structured lesson plans, he believes more firmly that when a student is not connected to his school, nothing happening with academics and instruction will make a difference in his or her learning.
Staff listen to this new administrator’s ideas. They believe staff development and holding students accountable for doing homework assignments is the key to learning, yet their rookie leader talks with them about making personal connections with their students.
A lead teacher meets with the principal to explain that the perception of the staff is that either he doesn’t care or he doesn’t know how to improve student learning.
The principal’s mantra: “Trust me.”
“You’re taking a huge risk and you’re going to lose the staff,” the lead says.
“Just trust me,” the principal repeats.
Jean M. Haar, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and founding director of the Center for Engaged Leadership (CEL), in the article “Risk Takers in Educational Administration,” wrote:
Decision-making theory regarding risk indicates that there are risk takers and risk averters. Risk taking in administration involves leaders’ willingness to openly share and be true to their values, ideas, and philosophy. Risk taking is key to personal, professional, and organizational growth. Risk taking involves the leaders’ openness to trial and error—to being developed, stretched, and challenged.
Sticking with his philosophy that kids need to be connected to adults at school and open to being challenged, the principal asks the teachers to develop one goal for the year that centers on making student connections. One teacher starts an afterschool crochet club; another commits to greeting every student by name as they walk into the classroom. One teacher sends a birthday card to each of her students while another makes a positive phone call home to a different parent every day. Not everyone buys in. Those who resist break off from the staff and challenge the principal by saying, “We’ll connect with students once we see if it makes a difference.”
At the end of the year, the principal asks students to write down which adults they felt most connected to. The list is long and indicates that 85 percent of all students know at least one teacher who they think cares about them. Test results improved by 30 points and the culture of the school has begun to change.
The principal’s take (quoting Theodore Roosevelt): Students “don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
The staff’s take: “We didn’t think things would change by just focusing on the students.”
The students’ take: “It seemed like more of our teachers liked us this year.”
One principal took a risk. It could have been a failed effort. But he did what he believed in and it led to success.