Author Archives: Tresha Ward

School Culture Is More Than Fragmented Strategies — It’s Four Cohesive Elements

Culture can make or break a school’s success. It can propel academics forward or drag learning down into an unrecoverable spiral where kids lose precious time and teachers quickly burn out.

When I started my career as a teacher through the time I became a school leader, I pulled ideas about school culture and classroom management from a number of educators and resources. My inspirations included Lisa Delpit and Gloria Ladson-Billings, and books like Yardsticks, Power of our Words, Teaching with Love and Logic, and Teach Like a Champion. I also relied heavily on the experiences of my own upbringing as a black, West Indian woman in the 80’s and 90’s in New York City, with teachers and parents who let me know I was cared for but also “did not play” (in other words, they were strict). My guiding belief became, and remains, an unwavering faith in the limitless potential of each child, and the approach that followed was fueled by a lot of love, usually the tough kind.

My approach wasn’t foolproof. But this fundamental mindset was what I looked for in teachers that I hired. As a school team, we refined our approach to culture over time and adjusted the systems and practices that supported it. Building the culture of our school was a process we had to figure out through trial and error, which led to lost instructional time, frustrated teammates, or broken relationships with students when we didn’t get it right.  

Unfortunately, too many principals don’t learn how to build the kind of school culture where teachers feel successful and capable of teaching for many years and where students — especially students of color — thrive. Many of the existing resources on the topic tend to reduce advice down to ambiguous ideas, a few fragmented strategies, or case studies about charismatic leaders. They never demystify the elements necessary for a healthy culture or offer clear guidance on how to implement them.

School culture can be a touchy subject, particularly when leaders and teachers have different philosophies, approaches, and beliefs. While I have my own point of view on these topics, I unequivocally believe that consistency and alignment are the most important features of an effective school culture. A cohesive school culture isn’t built through a patchwork of random techniques, curricula, or professional development sessions. Instead, school culture is comprised of a thoughtfully defined cascade of four elements, described below in further detail:

school culture framework, by Tresha Ward of Bellwether Education Partners

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Reclaiming Your Time as a School Leader

“I’m overwhelmed. I’ve got so much to do and no time to get it done!” I can’t count the number of times I found myself at the end of a school day sitting at my desk and wondering where the hours went. As a young school leader, days went by in a poorly managed blur that left me working late into the evening and on weekends. But even though I worked all the time, tasks still slipped through the cracks at school and at home. I needed to do a better job of accounting and planning for my time if I wanted to get a good night’s sleep, endure as a school leader, and, ultimately, serve my students well.

black and white image of a clock showing 5:40

In order to increase their effectiveness and sustainability in the role, school leaders (actually, all leaders) need to ensure that their daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly schedules and calendars are planned in a way that reflects their priorities and maximizes every minute. I see this as a consistent roadblock with the leaders I support. With all of the competing and seemingly urgent needs at a school, focusing on your priorities and rigorously maximizing your time can feel easier said than done. The job of a school leader can feel never-ending and everyone wants some of your time.

Thankfully, January is prime time for setting resolutions, establishing new habits, and hitting reset on the school year. Here are a few strategies I used as a leader (and still use!) to help me be more effective, get the most out of the day, and ensure I have chunks of guilt-free time to spend with my husband or do other things that make me happy:

Get clear on your priorities

Ask yourself: What are the 2-3 most important things my school needs to achieve this year, this semester, or this quarter AND what is my unique role as the school leader in helping achieve these goals? Having a crisp answer to this question is the first step to reclaiming and reprioritizing your time. Your school may have several priorities, but they don’t all require your involvement — or your involvement 100% of the time. Getting strategic about your unique value add will help you decide what you need to engage in.

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What I Learned About Retaining Teachers From Having Done It Badly as a New Principal

Photo via Flickr user jeffdjevdet

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

As schools across the nation get back into gear, top of mind for principals and leaders is how to keep the teachers they’ve hired. I can tell you now: free coffee in the workroom, t-shirts during teacher appreciation week, “carrot and stick” methods, or other gimmicks by themselves don’t keep teachers. Teachers stay when they experience genuine care and investment from their school leaders and managers. Gallup’s well-known research, which led to the creation of the Q12 survey to assess employee engagement, points directly to the impact of a strong manager. Their research reiterates the common idea that “employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers.” Similarly, teachers don’t leave schools, they leave principals and leaders who haven’t been able to engage them. I learned this the hard way.

At the start of my first year as a principal, I hired a team of twenty one. By the end of the school year, only seventeen remained. Of the seventeen, only seven continued on into the following school year. While some of the seventeen were let go, I knew that too many of them had quit.

I felt frustrated and exhausted. I remember taking those seven remaining teachers out for dinner and asking them: “Why did you stay?” Their responses became my first leadership lesson as a new manager: They said: “We were the ones you invested in,” “we were the ones you trusted and gave leadership to,” and “we were the ones who you showed that you cared [about personally].”

This was hard to hear but true: these were the teachers who I invested in more, trusted, and encouraged, especially when they were struggling. I was thankful for this feedback. Moving forward, I tried each year to create this feeling for my whole team and not just a select few.

Here are some of the key changes I made and the ones I suggest to leaders:

Know the individuals on your team

No matter how big your school is, you need to know the individuals on your team. Know their strengths, areas of growth, interests, and aspirations. Ask about their significant others, kids, and life outside of the school — take a personal interest in them. Leverage a situational leadership style to tailor your support of them. Use your head and your heart when working with them. If you hired them, hopefully you care enough to see them not just as the teacher who teaches in room 202 but as a whole person.

Coach and develop your team

Make sure they have a coach who is providing personalized development, even if it’s not you. Ensure this is happening on a consistent and regular basis, and regularly make time to check in with them yourself on how their coaching and support is going. This includes joining coaching sessions to offer input and push the quality further. Plan professional development that is tailored and differentiated, whether that includes choice in sessions or structured pathways such as teaching fellow programs. Create stretch opportunities for them to grow in areas they may not even recognize as strengths yet.

Ask questions and listen to them

Be genuinely curious about their opinions and feedback, even if you don’t use all of it. Create the space for them to share constructive ideas and thoughts about improvement. Let them know when you have used their feedback or ideas. Gallup’s research affirms that employees who feel like significant contributors to their organization and believe their “opinion counts” experience a higher level of satisfaction in their workplace. If I had not taken my seven returners to dinner, asked them for their honest feedback, and genuinely listened to it, I would have missed out on a vital leadership growth opportunity for myself.

Be patient with them

Understand that they will make mistakes, drop balls, miss deadlines, arrive late, call out sick last minute, etc. Use these moments as a learning opportunity to reset expectations and plan for the future with them as opposed to becoming annoyed, holding a grudge, or looking for their next mistake. Keep the bar high and provide direction, support, and scaffolds to help your teachers get there.

Empower them

Create opportunities for as many team members as possible to lead and shape aspects of the school. Create opportunities for your teachers to start and lead initiatives that allow them to bring other aspects of their personal life into the school. This spreads leadership and ownership of the school while also enriching it with diverse perspectives and points of view. I remember the day my principal asked me to lead my grade-level team even though there were more experienced teachers on it. He and I didn’t know then that he had sowed the seeds of school leadership by recognizing something in me.

Show your appreciation

You should be your teachers’ biggest fan. Celebrate your teachers’ growth and accomplishments. And just like in an interpersonal relationship, don’t wait for Valentine’s Day or birthdays to show appreciation. Take a page out of the 5 Love Languages and demonstrate your appreciation in a variety of ways, like by saying “it was great watching you in action with your kids today…” or by genuinely spending time with your teachers. I fondly remember chatting it up with my teachers as they headed home after school.

Become the kind of manager our teams need us to be — our kids and communities can’t afford a revolving door of teachers.