Keep Your Eyes on the Prize—But Give the Rest to the Players

Guest post by Robert Nolting

 

Great coaches have a notebook, clipboard, or corkboard in their office with the big picture written down. Then, they let the players, assistant coaches, and others run with great ideas to make it happen. Principals should take cue. It is our job to create a vision for our school, but it is our teachers, students, and parents who develop the details and make our vision a reality. 

The best way to illustrate this idea is to explain how our school—Victor J. Andrew High School in Tinley Park, IL—extended our bell schedule in 2012 to incorporate Advisory, Intervention, Enrichment (AIE). My team immediately identified this change could be a boon or a bust. An extra 35-minute period added to our day could be a transformative experience or a total waste of time. I was determined to make the most of it.

My vision for AIE was to have a dedicated time for all students to have an opportunity to succeed academically, foster leadership skills, and build personal relationships. Another goal was that I wanted students to change their perspective about academic support. Many of our students who sought help felt like they were wearing a “scarlet letter.” I wanted to eliminate that stigma and make getting help something that all students—regardless of their academic level—did as part of the learning process.

This vision we had for AIE was nonnegotiable. But how AIE was going to work was totally negotiable. As principal, I had to come to terms with the fact that this was not going to look exactly like I wanted it to look. Like the best coaches, the best school leaders don’t force change; instead, they facilitate change through collaboration and by empowering others. I worked with staff, student, and parent committees to develop AIE. We looked for common bonds between groups and established norms for this time. As the “coach,” I listened to ideas, provided guidance, built trust, and offered encouragement while my “players” worked diligently to develop the details and build the AIE playbook.

After six months of hard work, we had a framework for AIE that was awesome. Each department created their own plan on how best to utilize AIE, or “TBolt Time,” as we renamed it. “TBolt Time” would consist of two types of days: Gold Days and Black Days. Gold Days would focus on Advisory, and teachers would address a variety of academic, social, and future planning topics. Black Days would be used for Interventions or Enrichments, giving students time for teacher meetings, review sessions, and tutoring along with time for exploring new subjects, career choices, and leadership opportunities.

Did my team’s framework for AIE look exactly how I had envisioned it? No, it didn’t. So here is the hard part about being a school leader: I had to own it, champion it, and monitor it, even the parts I didn’t like. Our plan had the support of our school community. Teachers, students, and parents alike were excited about TBolt Time and were eager to participate. Isn’t this what a coach wants from a team? Teams succeed when they are motivated to play together and win. Who cares if I did not like some of the details.

Our AIE framework was a winning strategy. TBolt Time quickly became the transformative experience I had envisioned, where students were succeeding academically, fostering leadership skills, and building relationships. As a result, we’ve seen an increase in our AP/honors enrollment and a decline in basic/low-track programming. At the same time, we’ve decreased failures, increased graduation rates, and received national attention from The Washington Post and Newsweek. Since 2015, over 25 schools have visited our T-Bolt Time and are working to develop their own versions.

My advice to other principals seeking to make change is this: Keep your eyes on the prize, but give the rest to the players. Create a vision for your school and let your team of players run with your ideas and make it happen. It takes the collective efforts of an entire school community to make substantial impact.

What are your experiences in leading collaboratively and empowering your team? 

Robert Nolting is the principal of Victor J. Andrew High School in Tinley Park, IL. He is the 2016 Illinois Secondary Principal of the Year. His epitaph will one day read, “Class Clown who never changed then became a principal.”

2 Comments

  • Jay Dostal says:

    You hit the nail on the head here Robert. My school did something very similar with “Bearcat Time” 6 years ago with a focus on social/emotional development, college/career/life readiness, and academic advisement. We set up the advisory time so that students stayed with the same teacher adviser for all 4 years of high school. In a large school setting, we wanted students to have at least one adult in the building who knew them better than anyone else (40 Developmental Assets). Bearcat Time has become our students school family and it is amazing to see how these students grow with one another over the course of their high school career. Great job setting this up!

  • Michael Thomas says:

    Great advice, Robert. We can learn so many school leadership lessons from coaching and athletics.

    It’s a good reminder that as leaders, we aren’t always going to like how our staff brings our ideas to life, and despite this, we must, as you say, “own it, champion it and monitor it.”

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