How a Principal Creates a Culture of Consistency
Karen Whitney arrived in Sisseton, South Dakota, three years ago and in her first year as a principal, there were not only 578 office referrals, but 87 inches of snow. This past year office referrals dropped drastically, with only 193 referrals, and was accompanied with a rise in student achievement. But, to everyone’s dismay, the snow kept falling!
Karen is principal of Sisseton Middle School, a school placed inside the homeland of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe, a branch of the Sioux group of Native Americans, on the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation. Native Americans make up slightly more than 50 percent of the student population.
Entering the middle school, the school's motto, School Means Success, written in English and the Dakota Language, is the first thing you will find painted from floor to ceiling.
Karen views the historically high dropout rate and low achievement scores of Native Americans as a professional challenge and she has created a Culture of Consistency that has enabled students and teachers to succeed. Time will tell if the students’ success will keep them in school.
The Need for Consistency
Karen's success began in the summer between her second and third year when she used professional development school improvement funds to purchase a copy of The First Days of School for every member of her staff, including paraprofessionals.
Karen says that she devoured the book herself and started planting the seeds for the need of procedures at Sisseton Middle School and sent out a summer bulletin with a selection paraphrased from the book:
“As you begin to prepare for the upcoming school year please remember that one of the most important gifts we can give our students is to be consistent and predictable.
“Our students come from homes where chaos and unpredictability are the norm.
“We can provide a place for our students that is safe, predictable, consistent, and nurturing. Research shows that providing such an environment for our students will increase achievement.”
The staff viewed the video series, The Effective Teacher, at every faculty meeting and, as a result, installed procedures, such as
- Students enter the classroom quietly and immediately get to work with a bellwork assignment.
- Students head assignment papers the same way.
- Teachers greet each student in the hallways and at the door as they enter and exit the classrooms.
These procedures were implemented schoolwide. Karen created a culture of consistent procedures and found that academic achievement increased when teachers used procedures to run a classroom that was efficient and effective.
Whereas procedures were initially suggested, procedures are now an EXPECTATION for every teacher.
Karen says, “Using schoolwide procedures has allowed my teachers the time they need to be effective teachers in the classroom. Procedures are how we do business in our school. My teachers are sold on the importance of Procedures!”
A First Day Script
To help the teachers implement their procedures, Karen created a First Day Script or Plan and an accompanying Classroom Procedures Observation rubric.
Teachers were given the schoolwide First Day Script to use on the first few days of school.
Karen taught her teachers how to teach a procedure (the three step process described on pages 175-178 in The First Days of School and demonstrated in the video, The Effective Teacher). She created and used the First Day Script so there would be consistency at her school.
Click here to see and download Karen’s First Day Script.
The teachers were appreciative to have the first few days planned for them. This decreased the stress for teachers who were already busy with many other back-to-school duties.
She also created and taught the use of a Classroom Procedures Observation rubric so her teachers can do a self-assessment of their First Day Script. Karen later used the rubric for a formative assessment to help teachers make progress.
Click here to see and download Karen’s Classroom Procedures Observation rubric.
To learn more about how to teach procedures and how to use rubrics, please see Chapters 19, 20, and 23 in The First Days of School.
Karen had two beginning teacher who would be starting their careers joining her staff. She met with these two first-year teachers during the summer. They read and discussed the book together and were given instruction in regards to using schoolwide procedures before the rest of the staff returned. Both of these teachers had very successful first years.
The Principal Is a “Teacher of Teachers”
Karen was a teacher for 14 years before becoming principal of Sisseton Middle School. She says, “I loved being a classroom teacher and my favorite duty as a principal is still being a teacher. I am now a ‘teacher of teachers.’”
- Effective administrators teach. They teach teachers the skills they need to be successful in the classroom. They have a plan for the teacher’s success and know how to convey this plan to establish a culture of effective teachers.
- Effective administrators model good teaching to their teachers, for their teachers.
- Unsuccessful administrators buy programs. They lack insight into what is needed for teacher success. They sink money into programs that promise results and when the programs don’t live up to the hype, the blame is put on the program for not producing results. They do not have the big picture plan to produce results for teachers and achievement for kids.
- Legacies are not left by installing programs.
The Greatest Asset
Successful administrators know that the greatest asset of a school is its teachers and that teachers are the single most important factor in improving student learning and achievement. The teacher is the difference in an effective classroom.
Karen did not purchase additional programs, change the structure of the school, or install any fads or buzzwords as none of these will produce sustained student learning and achievement.
Instead, she harnessed the most valuable resource in her school, the classroom teacher, and had these teachers, collectively, implement a set of schoolwide procedures beginning on the first day of school to create a school that has a Culture of Consistency.
Click here to see the PowerPoint presentation she used at the beginning of the school year with her teachers. While the slides may seem word heavy, Karen printed the slides as a handout for teachers and for documentation that they had received the information.
After viewing and discussing Karen’s beginning of school PowerPoint, there was overwhelming positive response and most all of the staff were excited to “get on the same page” and thought the move to using schoolwide procedures was a step in the right direction for increased learning for their students.
If there were any doubters, at the conclusion of the first day as teachers gathered in the hall, they were happy and hopeful with the success of the very first day of school. They remarked how calm and relaxed they felt. That first day set the tone for the rest of the school year and Sisseton Middle School became a place of learning where a culture of consistency is helping the students learn, especially the Native American students.
A Consistent Plan Allows the Curriculum to Be Taught
With a classroom management plan in place, the curriculum can be taught. Otherwise, time is wasted and energy expended putting out fires and dealing with behavior problems. The teachers, students, administration, and parents love a school that is safe, predictable, consistent, and nurturing. Research shows that providing such an environment for students will increase achievement.
Because Sisseton Middle School has a consistent plan, one of their most successful programs is their school wide reading program. A Culture of Reading permeates the school.
Two years ago, Karen and her staff began to make dramatic changes in how reading was taught. The goal was to decrease the academic achievement gap in reading at the middle school. The traditional English class became language arts, to reflect the broad nature of literacy. The time devoted to language arts instruction was doubled from 50 to 100 minutes each day. Language arts is co-taught by a general education and a special education teacher, aided by at least one paraeducator that supports differentiated academic levels and inclusion.
Each grade level meets at the same time to allow for flex grouping of students throughout the school year.
A library skills curriculum was added and is taught by the school librarian.
All language arts teachers have a common planning time and meet weekly as a language arts team to plan lessons, write assessments, and evaluate student work.
Literature circles are used in social studies classes, with support from the language arts teaching team. The science team requires students to read science journal articles and write summaries with skill and accuracy.
All core teachers and paraeducators were trained to teach note-taking and summarizing in a consistent format. See the Cornell Note Taking technique on page 290 in The First Days of School.
Note taking that started in the language arts and social studies classes has now expanded into the exploratory classroom, with teachers integrating independent reading time into their daily lesson plans.
Books are on display in every corner of the school, in baskets on desks and book cases covering the entire sides of walls. Books are everywhere and the message that reading will lead to school success is apparent. Students have access to books no matter where they are in school.
Conversations with students usually center around what book they are currently reading, would they recommend the book to other students or the teacher, and what is next on their reading list. At Sisseton Middle School reading is important and the culture of reading is consistently fostered in conversation and in the accessibility of books.
The students travel between classes with an independent reading book. When assignments are completed, students reach for their reading book. The expectation that all students should be reading is the belief system of all teachers. Teachers begin their class with a fast start of independent reading. Whether a student is in art, chorus, band, math, social studies, science, or language arts, the expectation is the same. A book is required at all times and reading is what students are always prepared to do.
Inspired by the book, The Book Whisperer (Miller, 2009), Karen purchased a copy for every member of her certificated and non-certificated staff.
Karen realizes that students need a literature-rich environment in order to facilitate literacy learning. A culture of consistency has been established to foster and create a culture of reading.
Choosing to not read is never an option. Choosing what books students want to read is the only option.
All teachers expect every student to bring an independent reading book every day to every class. When a student has completed his/her daily objectives, according to the standards in the classroom, the expectation of every teacher is for the student to use the remaining class time to read.
Students are encouraged and expected to read independently and class time is dedicated to independent reading time in all curricular areas.
Many students at Sisseton Middle School need an escape from a life of poverty, family dysfunction, and addiction. They need a vision for how school can mean success for them. Karen and her staff believe that developing a love for reading can provide a pathway to success in school and life.
Students are not the only ones reading at Sisseton Middle School—teachers read, too! This past year the staff read and studied four different professional books that have become the research-base for turning the school around. The books included are Results Now: How We Can Achieve Unprecedented Improvements in Teaching and Learning (Schmoker, 2006), The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher (Wong and Wong, 2009), What Great Teachers Do Differently: 14 Things That Matter Most (Whitaker, 2004), and The Book Whisperer (Miller, 2009).
A culture of reading permeates the school. Students, teachers and staff are talking about books. Teachers are talking about books with students and with each other. Not only are the students expected to be readers, but the teachers are role models of life-long readers.
The staff and the students are excited about their progress. There is a sense of accomplishment and excitement of the opportunities for higher learning and expectations to come.
Sisseton Middle School has come together as a collaborative team under the leadership of a principal who understands the effect of how lifelong literacy requires all teachers to be reading teachers.
The success of Sisseton Middle School can be attributed to Karen’s “stubborn persistence” that if there is to be a transformation in a low-performing school where students of color and students from low-income families are to achieve at proficient or advance levels, having a school with schoolwide procedures was not an option. It’s an expectation!
At the end of the school year, Karen shared that what made Sisseton Middle School great was the successful implementation of procedures, how the common procedures bonded the staff to work as a team, and how good those procedures had been for the academic achievement and success of the students.
Karen said that this was the highlight of her year as a principal. Everyone was on the same page at the school and the improved test schools confirmed Karen’s belief in creating a firm foundation of consistency beginning on the very first day of school.
The Resulting Test Scores
Students in the state of South Dakota take the Dakota STEP (The South Dakota State Test of Educational Progress) for NCLB accountability.
Implementing procedures has made a tremendous impact in student achievement on the student population, especially on the Native American population.
A Plan for Success
The plan for creating success for the students did not stop with the First Day Script. It carried over into the curriculum with literacy. The curriculum was re-developed and curriculum maps were created to match the South Dakota Content Standards.
Everyone at Sisseton Middle School put into place the known characteristics of an effective teacher:
1. They are good classroom managers.
2. They know how to construct lessons for student achievement.
3. They have positive expectations that all children are capable of success.
The Culture of Consistency created at the school allowed teachers the time to teach and students the assurance that all of the heart, love, and care demonstrated by the teachers was for one reason only—their success.
Karen is an example of a teaching administrator. Our April 2011 column featured Judy Jones, another teaching administrator. These administrators had a plan—and worked the plan for their teachers’ success with students. Use their plans to create and plan for success in your school setting. Please share with us what you’ve done so in subsequent columns we can share with others. Send your plan to RWong@HarryWong.com.
If you are a teacher reading this column and think this doesn’t apply to me, take heed. Look at Karen’s Classroom Procedures Observation rubric. These are solid procedures that should be happening in all classrooms—not just at Sisseton Middle School. Assess your level of competency with the rubric and use it to make progress.
At Sisseton Middle School, everyone works together to help students make progress. As Karen shared with us, “I am truly grateful for the teachers I work with every day. My teachers deserve all of the credit for working as a team to create the consistency we needed to make procedures work.”
You can be effective in a culture of effective teachers or as a single teacher. You are responsible for the growth and learning of your students for 180 days. What you do with the time you spend with them will have a profound impact on their lives. How you can create success for your students is known. It is our EXPECTATION that you do it.
Wishing you the most effective school year, yet!
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