This year marks the beginning of the seventh year of my second principalship. I’ve learned that years six through nine are where things really seem to come together for me as a school leader; it takes me that long to know the students, the community, and my staff to the depth that is needed to effect positive, long-term change and impact. The school culture at Owen County High School (OCHS) has really taken shape over the last half decade, and we look forward to “making hay while the sun shines” for the next few years.
When the school council hired me to come to OCHS, they emphasized their desire to have someone who would come to stay; the school had had several principals over the previous five years, and it was clear that the school had stalled out, largely because no one knew what direction they would be going as they changed leaders again. Interestingly, recent education reports from sources like Education Weekand The Chicago Sun-Timeshave commented on the positive impact of stable school leadership and staffing as well as the cost of high turnover, especially in the principal’s chair. We often underestimate the power we create as leaders when we simply stay and struggle through the tough times that we all face.
All of that is to say: we cannot truly do the most important work of creating and caring for the culture of our schools unless we are committed to working through the entire life cycle of leadership. It takes time to build a solid school culture; we often think our work is in maintaining an existing culture, but the real work is in creating one that is the most effective for our students and teachers. The truth of the matter is that you can only do this as you hire teachers and entice excellent teachers to stay with you as you build an excellent school.
Built into a commitment to excellence is a commitment to stay. Research has shown that not only does principal effectiveness increase with experience, but also that teachers tend to remain at a school when an effective leader is in place over time. For the second time in my career this past summer, I experienced teacher turnover in my school of less than five percent. The common thread in both cases? I had been at my school 6+ years. I have had the opportunity to build my faculty, and we have built a school culture that values students and teachers.
Once you build your staff, work to keep them. Build their competency by spending time in their classrooms and talking with them. Build their confidence by encouraging them to take risks and by recognizing failure not as a “gotcha” moment, but as an opportunity to shape and sharpen a fellow professional. Build your community—your extended family—in your school. Find your staff’s favorite restaurant (shout out to Moe’s Southwest Grill!) and feed your people! Give them t-shirts and pens and parking passes that declare that they are all on the same team. It always astounds me how the little things can build extraordinary esprit de corps.
And one last thing. Take pictures! Plaster them all over your school, on social media, in your office. Students love posing, even (especially) when they are working on classroom projects. Make it a habit to take at least one picture of a student working in every class you visit. It won’t be long before you hear students bragging that the principal took their picture, and it will take even less time before you get kids asking you to take their picture—and send it to their moms as evidence that they are working!
Every year on the day before students return, I gather the staff in our front foyer to take a family picture. This has become ingrained in our pre-year routine to the point that staff members will beg me not to take the picture until they can be present. They want to be a part of the family, and they remain a part of our family, largely because I am committed to being there with them. Stick around. Build a family that teaches and learns together. Leave a legacy.
Have you made a commitment to staying at your school long enough to build a real culture? How do you communicate your commitment to building your school’s culture, your faculty and relationships with your students over time?
Duane Kline is in his 32nd year as a public-school educator, and 17th year as a high school principal. He lives in New Liberty, KY with his chemistry-teaching wife, Anne, and he is the proud dad of his special educator daughter Hannah and soon-to-be history-teaching son, Aaron. He was blessed to be recognized as the 2016 Kentucky Secondary Principal of the Year (he’s kind of proud of that).