Coaching

Credit Thoka Maer

POLITICIANS and education reformers are fixated on the performance of teachers, but they often overlook another key ingredient for improving student achievement: principals. The problem is that great principals often don’t end up in the schools that need them most — those with poor and minority students. School districts, states and universities need to do much more to get outstanding principals into these schools.

A generation ago, good principals were efficient middle managers. They oversaw budgets, managed complicated bus schedules and delivered discipline. That started changing in the mid-1990s. Today’s principal needs to be much more focused on the quality of teaching in the classroom.

Take Clayborn Knight, principal of Nesbit Elementary School in Tucker, Ga., where more than 90 percent of his 2,100 students live in poverty. Mr. Knight arrives by 6 a.m. to form his game plan for the day and handle administrative matters so he can help teachers improve instruction during the rest of the day. He roams from classroom to classroom to observe teachers, give them informal feedback and present model lessons.

Dewey Hensley, the former principal of the J. B. Atkinson Academy for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in Louisville, Ky., where nearly all of the roughly 400 students were living in poverty, used data to get teachers to own their students’ performance. He lined a wall in the staff room with photos of teachers and color-coded charts showing whether their students were at grade level, below grade level or significantly below grade level. Once one of Kentucky’s lowest performers, his school doubled its proficiency in reading, math and writing.

Kimberly Washington, principal of Hyattsville Middle School in Hyattsville, Md., zeroed in on behavior that interrupted teaching and learning — students who were hanging out in the halls and coming late to class. She instituted uniforms, got extra help for misbehaving students and celebrated students’ accomplishments at rallies. Creating a positive culture helped cut suspensions by 90 percent from one year to the next.

Without strong principals like these, student achievement won’t improve. My organization, the Wallace Foundation, has spent a decade and a half working with states and districts nationwide, including the districts where these exemplary public school principals operate.

We also commission research on school leadership. In the largest of these studies, covering 180 schools in nine states, researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Toronto concluded, “We have not found a single case of a school improving its student achievement record in the absence of talented leadership.”

We need a bigger pool of outstanding principal candidates; we need to get them into the schools with the greatest challenges; and we need to support them on the job. Right now, that’s not happening in enough communities.

Most principals start out as teachers. They typically earn master’s degrees in educational administration, but many university principal training programs are “inadequate to poor,” according to a study by Arthur Levine, the former president of Teachers College at Columbia University. Would-be principals take classes in general management, school laws and administrative requirements, with little emphasis on how to improve teaching and student learning. The head of the University Council for Educational Administration estimates that only 200 out of the 500 university preparation programs for principals are effective.

New principals are often thrown into these tough jobs to sink or swim with little assistance from their districts, prompting many to quit before they can turn things around. On average, principals nationwide stay at a school about three to four years. That’s less than the five to seven years recommended by the Minnesota-Toronto researchers who conducted our study of school leadership.

In Congress, lawmakers debating re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act need to make principals a priority. Currently only 4 percent of federal dollars for improving educator performance is spent cultivating principals. Federal policy should fund improved training and mentoring for principals and require the equitable distribution of effective principals to schools with the greatest needs.

States should be much tougher about which university principal training programs get accredited and about principal licensing requirements.

University programs should selectively admit outstanding candidates who really want to become principals, not teachers looking for a credential to get a pay raise. The University of Illinois at Chicago, which has participated in our foundation’s meetings, has made its curriculum for principals much more challenging. It carefully screens applicants, who get hands-on experience during a full-year internship, as well as three years of on-the-job coaching by former principals. U.I.C. reports that schools led by these principals outperform comparable public schools in Chicago on measures ranging from keeping freshmen on track for graduation to standardized test scores to actual graduation rates.

School districts need to groom many more outstanding school leaders, in part by making sure they get proper training, but also by matching principals’ strengths with schools’ needs. It should become routine to provide new principals with mentors for several years.

Great teachers are essential but not enough. They need to be led and developed by great principals. As the federal government, states and local districts work to turn around schools, we need to figure out how to get more people with the right training and support to take on one of the hardest jobs in America.

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“Revolution doesn’t have to do with smashing something—it has to do with bringing forth something. If you spend all your time thinking about that which you are attacking, then you are simply bound to that in a negative sense. You have to turn in to find what the zeal is in yourself and bring that out.”

Joseph Campbell,

Phil Jackson’s 11 Principle’s of Mindful Leadership:

Phil Jackson, considered one of the greatest coaches in the history of the National Basketball Association, has won 11 titles as a coach. The most in NBA history. Eleven Rings is a memoir that, for me, is more about leadership and relationships than basketball.

Jackson’s principles are worth taking a look at. They support the idea that a leader’s job is to build leaders at all levels. You could take back to your organization and put into practice today any one of the following 11 principles:

1. Lead From the Inside Out. Avoid fads. Lead from who you are. “As time went by, I discovered that the more I spoke from the heart, the more players could hear me and benefit from what I gleaned.”

2. Bench the Ego. “The more I tried to exert power directly, the less powerful I became. I learned to dial back my ego and distribute power as widely as possible without surrendering final authority. Paradoxically, this approach strengthened my effectiveness because it freed me to focus on my job as keeper of the team’s vision.

“Some coaches insist on having the last word, but I always tried to foster an environment in which everyone played a leadership role, from the most unschooled rookie to the veteran superstar. If your primary objective is to bring the team into a state of harmony and oneness, it doesn’t make sense for you to rigidly impose your authority.”

3. Let Each Player Discover His Own Destiny. Jackson’s goal wasn’t to provide all of the answers. “I’ve always been interested in getting players to think for themselves so that they can make difficult decisions in the heat of battle.”

“My approach was always to relate to each player as a whole person, not just a cog in the basketball machine. That meant pushing him to discover what distinct qualities he could bring to the game beyond taking shots and making passes. How much courage did he have? Or resilience? What about character under fire? Many players I’ve coached didn’t look special on paper, but in the process of creating a role for themselves they grew into formidable champions.”

4. The Road to Freedom is a Beautiful System. Similar to the principles used to foster greater creativity and innovation in an organization, Jackson used a system known as the triangle offense. “What attracted me to the triangle was the way it empowers the players, offering each one a vital role to play as well as a high level of creativity within a clear, well-defined structure.”

5. Turn the Mundane into the Sacred. Leaders take note. Jackson writes, “As I see it, my job as coach was to make something meaningful out of one of the most mundane activities on the planet: Playing pro basketball.” He incorporated meditation into his team’s practices. “I wanted to give players something besides X’s and O’s to focus on. What’s more, we often invented rituals of our own to infuse practices with a sense of the sacred.”

6. One Breath = One Mind. Players “often have to make split-second decisions under enormous pressure. I discovered that when I had the players sit in silence, breathing together in sync, it helped align them on a nonverbal level far more effectively than words. One breath equals one mind.”

“If you place too many restrictions on players, they’ll spend an inordinate amount of time trying to buck the system. Like all of us, they need a certain degree of structure in their lives, but they also require enough latitude to express themselves creatively.”

7. The Key to Success is Compassion. “Now, ‘compassion’ is not a word often bandied about in locker rooms. But I’ve found that a few kind, thoughtful words can have a strong transformative effect on relationships, even with the toughest men in the room.” Compassion breaks down barriers among people.

8. Keep Your Eye on the Spirit, Not on the Scoreboard. When a player is “playing within his natural abilities, he activates a higher potential for the team that transcends his own limitations and helps his teammates transcend theirs. When this happens, the whole begins to add up to more than the sum of its parts.” He adds, “Most coaches get tied up in knots worrying about tactics, but I preferred to focus my attention on whether the players were moving together in a spirited way.”

9. Sometimes You Have to Pull Out the Big Stick. Sometimes Jackson used “tricks to wake players up and raise their level of consciousness….Not because I want to make their lives miserable but because I want to prepare them for the inevitable chaos that occurs the minute they step onto a basketball court.”

10. When in Doubt, Do Nothing. “Basketball is an action sport, and most people involved in it are high-energy individuals who love to do something—anything—to solve problems. However, there are occasions when the best solution is to do absolutely nothing….I subscribe to the philosophy of the late Satchel Paige, who said, ‘Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.'”

11. Forget the Ring. We all hate losing. “And yet as coach, I know that being fixated on winning (or more likely, not losing) is counterproductive, especially when it causes you to lose control of your emotions. What’s more, obsessing about winning is a loser’s game: The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome.”

Jackson concludes with: “What matters most is playing the game the right way and having the courage to grow, as human beings as well as basketball players. When you do that, the ring takes care of itself.”

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