image taken from pinterest.com
Last Tuesday night, I had the privilege of meeting one of my heroes, a legendary high school principal named Eric Shenninger. Most principals blog and use Twitter, but unlike most principals, Eric was recognized by Time Magazine as one of the top 140 people to follow in 2014. The reason? Eric took an under-achieving high school and turned it to one of the best performing schools in the state of New Jersey in just six years. Most of the credit for his success is linked to the way he transformed his school through the application of technology in the classroom (a clear passion of his). It didn’t come up in our conversation, but I believe after meeting him that technology in the classroom was simply the tool Eric used to create a ground-swell around his school. As the conversation went on, it became very clear that it was a conversation about leadership, not technology.
I have been one of Eric’s 107000 Twitter followers since 2010, and never did I imagine that I would be sitting down to dinner with him in Dubai six years later. Although we discussed a range of topics I walked away from our conversation thinking a lot about… walking:
Walk the school. Mr. Shenninger was adamant that lesson observation from administrators is essential. I agree. It’s important for a principal to be out in the hallways, visible to students and teachers. This is hard to do. Every day I try to get into classes. If I can not, I always make time for an “engagement walk” where I simply walk through the hallways and look into classes. I’m looking for one thing: student engagement. Here are the types of questions I ask myself. Are the kids in their seats or up and active? Are they given an opportunity to speak and process? What does the energy of the classroom look like? How are the desks arranged? How many computers are open? Are the students recording their information somewhere? How is that being processed? Do the lessons look like they have purpose? Do the lessons look planned?
Obviously we have formal observations that we do for every teacher every year, but those are almost always well planned and engaging. By simply walking around, we can learn a lot about the quality of teaching and learning in our classrooms. Generally, (though not always) lessons that look great are great. Balancing formal lesson observations with informal ones is a great way to identify the needs of our school.
Walk the talk. Eric was successful because he expected people to engage with technology. To lead that, he engaged with it himself; he learned… a lot. This is a man who knows about apps and tools. He is enthusiastic about them because kids liked him. Kids who hated school liked using these tools. I think Mr. Shenninger would agree that none of it works on it’s own. It is not the technology that matters, it is people’s interactions with the technology that does. That means people have to be free to choose the technology they want to use because it has to make sense to them. The key was to get people to be able to explain why it was useful. Once they could do that, they got the buy in from their students.
In case you are wondering, technology will be a part of how we grow UAS but it will not be all of it. We are an IB and American school and as such we have to consider different ways to engage our students. We remain dedicated to literacy, school culture and student voice. For the past month, when not in classes, I have been looking at data, examining the school’s values and reaching out to students to try and improve the school in these three areas.
When making change… walk briskly, but walk. Change is tough. In my first role as Principal, I moved too quickly. Unlike this school, I was in one that had some significant challenges. I moved too fast and was very critical of some of the practices I came across. I adopted what Daniel Goleman would refer to as a Pacesetting Leadership style (more on different styles here). At UAS, we do have some work to do, but we are coming at it from a very strong foundation. We have already begun to raise expectations and the school year has started off very well. Low level disruptions are down and attendance is up. Sustainable change must be accomplished at a reasonable rate. It took Mr. Shenninger six years to accomplish what he did. Not one, not two… six. His accomplishment is astounding but it took time.
I left my dinner with Mr. Shenninger extremely energized. I am so proud to be able to walk the halls of this school. There is a dynamic learning environment here and amazing teachers who genuinely care about their students. Being an educator an equally challenging and rewarding job. As UAS grows to become a world-class international school, I hope that parents, students and teachers will walk with us – it’s going to be a fantastic journey.
COMING UP IN OCTOBER:
October 3 to 5 – Grade 10 MAP testing
October 5 – Grade 11 and 12 Theatre Trip to Chiang Mai
October 13th – Progress Reports go live on the Portal
October 17th – UAS Family College Night 5:30 – 7:30MPH
PLEASE RSVP: UAS Family College Night RSVP & Questionnaire
October 19th and 20th – Professional Development Days (no school for students)