During this pandemic, educators have been asked to do the impossible. Without notice or training, teachers have facilitated engaging online learning environments and performed out of their comfort zones to produce authentic digital learning experiences. For the students that were not participating online, the teachers worked around the clock to create learning packets and hands-on learning bags. As an administrator, I have never been so proud of or impressed by the teachers I work with every day. They remained positive and focused on the goal at hand: helping all students succeed. Even now, their positive mindset and determination are evident in all they do. This optimistic outlook is not a coincidence. I believe it all stems from the positive culture our district leaders and school administrators have established.
There are two things I feel our district and school leaders do well to promote a positive culture. First, our district’s values are shared and modeled. We believe that all means all. All students deserve an equitable education. We believe that safety is our number-one priority. A student cannot perform at their best if they do not feel comfortable and safe. We are passionate about supporting our student’s social-emotional growth through a Multi-Tiered System of Supports. Finally, we believe in the collective responsibility for teaching and learning through professional learning communities. Our leaders work hard to exemplify and model these norms. We don’t require teachers to follow our district values, we live them by being an example.
I had an opportunity to hear Anthony Muhammad speak on transforming school culture. He shared how cultural change does not happen through coercion, but requires leaders to gain cooperation through diplomacy, salesmanship, patience, endurance, and encouragement. When I think of great principals I have worked for and with, Muhammad’s description is spot on. Those exceptional leaders were encouraging and supportive and served as an exemplar of what was expected.
Second, our leaders are intentional with celebrating the successes in our schools. Teachers need to hear what they are doing well to combat the negative narrative they may be hearing elsewhere. It is our job, as leaders, to take the time to highlight the small wins we see throughout the day. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the weaknesses in our schools; however, when we are able to recognize improvements, teachers are reminded of their value. Thinking back to when I was in the classroom, one of my favorite memories is when my assistant principal wrote a short message on a sticky note saying, “Thank you for taking the time to create such engaging lessons.” This simple little note was like a five-foot trophy. I kept that sticky note on my computer because I needed that encouragement on hard days.
At the district level, I always look forward to our opening session ceremony where we come together to celebrate our successes and discuss our goals for the upcoming school year. This year the ceremony did not have the usual family reunion feel because we couldn’t hug our fellow educators or catch up on our summer experiences. We had to meet virtually. Even with the digital challenge, however, we were still able to celebrate our wins and discuss this unprecedented year. Our ceremony was successful because our positive culture is embedded in our shared values and collective commitments.
Our teachers are able to thrive because they have these values as their professional foundation. James Kouzes and Barry Posner said it best in their book, The Leadership Challenge, “Leaders ensure that through the process of affirming shared values, everyone is aligned—uncovering, reinforcing, and holding one another accountable to what ‘we’ value.” As leaders, it is essential we model what we value, build relationships with our faculty and staff, and celebrate the good things happening in the schools.
Dr. Amanda Miliner is Assistant Principal of Instruction at Matt Arthur Elementary School. She was named 2014 Miller Elementary School’s Teacher of the Year, 2014 Houston County’s Teacher of the Year, and 2015 Georgia Teacher of the Year. She also received the Governor’s Innovative Teacher Award and was a global fellow for the National Education Association.