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September 1, 2005
Vol. 63
No. 1

The Principal Connection / New Year, New Journey

The Principal Connection / New Year, New Journey- thumbnail
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Aristotle said, “A good beginning is more than half of the whole.” Nowhere does this maxim ring more true than at the opening of a new school year. Our industry is the only one that, each year, shuts its doors for several months and then reopens at the dawn of a new school year.
Although teachers treasure our long summer vacation, most of us will concede that schoolchildren no longer plant and harvest crops, and that the act of closing school in summer and reopening in fall is an anachronism. Nonetheless, there are advantages to beginning anew each year.
School reopening allows educators to start anew and reimagine. As principal of an elementary school in the suburbs of Chicago, I regularly dropped in on teachers as they trickled back to work in August. This rare opportunity for one-on-one visiting enabled the teacher and me to share thoughts about the fresh school year. Visiting in the classroom—on the individual teacher's turf—realigned the relationship. We chatted as confreres, perhaps even as friends. Vacation stories, family news, and the teachers' concerns and hopes for their “new kids” surfaced. We reengaged about “our” kids and the dreams we shared for “our” school.
  • What essential qualities of our school would we pack and bring with us? What do we as a school value so highly that if we were to lose it, we would not be the same school?
  • What has outgrown its usefulness or holds us back?
  • What new resources or qualities must the school acquire as we chart and prepare for this trip?
  • We need to continue to emphasize learning—not just test scores.
  • Gossip is killing us—let's resolve to accept one another's differences just as we try to celebrate the diversity in our kids.
  • We need to find time to plan and work together—we can't go it alone!
After 10 or 12 such conversations, clear patterns about what teachers were experiencing and wishing for began to emerge.
At the first faculty meeting, I would share with teachers the patterns I had observed in their thinking. As we conversed, key ideas would surface, concepts like knowing and caring more deeply about students, working more closely with one another, streamlining the curriculum, getting rid of our pettiness, and spotting needy kids before they failed or exploded.
As we sketched a portrait of what we wanted for our school, we clarified important questions: What is our school really about? How can we balance such competing forces as test scores and learning, family and profession, parent perceptions and reality? What do we promise each student who attends this school? The logical question that followed was, How do we translate these ideas into the everyday reality of school life?
We sometimes called the answers to such questions our school goals, but unlike traditional goals and objectives, this portrait of an ideal school was more of an affirmation of our beliefs. These goals were dynamic, and we allowed ourselves freedom in implementing them. They were less measurable in the traditional sense of that word but we held ourselves directly accountable. The ideal image we formed of our school embodied what our teachers and administrators dreamed of and what we would have to discard to create that dream.
We often want our schools to be orderly and predictable, but if we are not careful, they may become staid and inflexible. The quality of a school's work is often measured by data that objectively show improvement. Yet deep in our hearts, we know that measurement is not the essence of our work.
This sense of the school community allows educators to live in a messier, less predictable world, one that trusts the common beliefs of teachers and continually reorganizes to achieve what teachers value.
This is the hope that the new school year offers. Teachers are the artists who collectively design the picture of their ideal school. Principals supply the paint and the canvas, consistently clarify the limits of the frame, and support the ongoing creation.
I wonder if Aristotle realized how right he was!

Joanne Rooney has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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