The first principal I ever worked for as a teacher had this way of empowering her staff through freedom. She allowed teachers to experiment and try new ways to engage and reach their students. Regardless of how a day went in the classroom, my principal offered me space to reflect and grow into a better teacher. If she received a parent complaint involving me, whether about a grade discrepancy or a report that I’m not teaching their kid well, my principal always had my back. Her motto was, “If I hired you, then I trust you. My job now is to help you get even better.” In other words, she knew how to trust teachers.
Under this principal, my students and I thrived. A survey found that students at our school were twice as much engaged than any other school in our county. We were breaking ground on incredible innovations in education, even becoming a national demonstration site for other schools to observe the amazing work happening in our building. Whether it was the high-quality instruction or the fact that we had a ping-pong table for students to blow off steam in between classes, kids were learning, succeeding, and happy. The teachers were too, and daily I’d go to school grateful that I worked for a principal who allowed this magic to happen.
Losing a great principal.
And then one summer, she unexpectedly quit.
While disappointed, I hoped that her replacement would have the same approach to the job. I’d only had one principal in my career, and I guess I kind of believed they were all like my first one. That was until I met my new boss.
Our first staff meeting didn’t start with an icebreaker or get-to-know-you activity. Instead, the new principal displayed test scores from the previous year to us. He explained the situation: The district was disappointed in the scores, and he had been brought in to improve them. Right off the bat the new principal made it apparent that in the coming year we would be shifting our focus to increasing test scores. Projects that were not directly linked to content were considered a waste of time. I submitted my lesson plans to the new principal daily so he could ensure their rigor. The ping-pong table disappeared. Rare was a day that I did not look over my shoulder while teaching and not see the new principal standing in the back of the room observing my every move.
School culture crumbles when there is no trust.
I would get called into the principal’s office and asked exactly what I was doing on my laptop during instructional time. I once received an official reprimand letter in my file for inviting the media to my class to cover a project my students were working on. The letter stated something along the lines of, “Teacher did not use the proper channels to contact media. Possible waste of time and resources.”
All year we observed the culture of the school change before our eyes. Of course teachers still engaged students and built relationships, but now that important work was hampered. There was always the fear of getting in trouble, even if we were doing nothing wrong. The freedom we once had to teach in our own unique ways was virtually gone. We were left with a new culture that was solely motivated by test scores and getting a positive teacher evaluation at the end of the year.
And at the end of that first school year under the new principal, half of the staff quit.
There are two sides to every story.
Now before I go any further, allow me state that I recognize there are two sides to every story. I’m sure part of the struggle of adapting to the new principal was the simple fact that change was occurring. It’s hard to move people out of a certain way of doing things, especially veteran teachers. If I’m being honest, at times I probably was more resistant than I needed to be during that year.
The truth is, I don’t think the new principal had any intention of destroying a school culture. I don’t believe he wanted the staff to feel fear every day they walked into the building or for kids to feel the effects of that fear. He had an objective and goal for the school and led in the way he thought he could make that happen.
Unfortunately, the existing culture wasn’t ready for that kind of dramatic change. It’s not that our school didn’t need improvement. We had a lot more to do to make the school what it could be. However, I believe the principal failed to realize the collaborative effort a successful school requires. Success cannot be willed into being or commanded from the top of a ladder. All parts must work in unison to achieve success. The teachers at the school were experts at their positions. They had created a culture where students were enthusiastic about school, and many successes followed (including above-average test scores). But that culture was based on trust and permission to do what we do best. When the trust from our leader was gone, so eroded the culture.
Schools need trusting, strong leaders.
When I reflect on that chapter of my teaching career, I have two major takeaways.
First, the leader must trust their teaching staff. Teachers need to feel like they have room to fail. Principals should serve to help teachers learn from this failure. If a new principal wants to introduce new directives in a school, they must give their staff input on the decisions. Of course, the final call still belongs to the principal. Schools need a leader and a person to make those difficult decisions. But teachers need to feel like they can give input on decisions that affect them and their work.
My second takeaway is that it is difficult to have a strong school without a strong leader. The principal sets the tone for a school. Their positivity becomes their staff’s positivity. That staff then passes that energy down to the students. The morale of even the strongest staff of teachers becomes weaker when they do not feel safe and supported.
Great principals are essential to a strong school.
A trusting school culture requires open discussions where everyone’s voice is heard. It means trusting each other until you have reason to do otherwise. It’s working to get the whole team on the same page, aligning with a common goal. It is compromise and teachers and principals working to find understanding.
A school is like a complex building made up of many parts. Each part is essential in the overall structure of the building. And in the case of school, the foundation is often found at the top. That foundation not only has to support other parts of the structure but also trust that those parts will do their portion of the work.
Plus, check out 8 Ways Principals Can Build Positive School Culture.