You can’t hate the roots of a tree and not hate the tree.
Being a principal is a rewarding profession. It is also one of the most challenging.
Each year, I had the pleasure to watch young people at the Mastery Charter School – Shoemaker Campus grow as young men and women, the culmination of which being their graduation. One of the great joys I had as a principal was watching our students walk across the stage with diploma in hand as family and friends cheered loudly. Our students were the manifestation of the hopes and dreams of their families. They were also the borne fruit of the competence, dedication, and commitment of our school community.
The competence, dedication, and commitment necessary to produce the fine young adults who left our school were made possible by our school’s positive culture. Our success as a school community hinged on our school culture and as principal, it was on me to cultivate such an environment.
Administrators play a huge role in establishing organizational culture. Organizational health is crucial, and so is a culture of learning—for everyone. While the chief role of the principal is as the instructional leader in their building, a principal wears many hats. We serve as advisors, mentors, disciplinarians, and guardians. However, our ability to be what our institutions need hinges on the culture we establish within our buildings.
In The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni describes healthy organizations, which would include schools, as having minimal politics and minimal confusion. Healthy organizations are those operating with clarity of vision, missions, and methods and thus experience high morale and low turnover. Lencioni also speaks of the skills that can facilitate such healthy environments and how they aren’t often developed in college. Sadly, most teacher colleges fail to center their instruction on the skills necessary to cultivate such environments: how to build trust, resolve conflict, commit to a goal, allow for accountability in one’s work, and keep the objective in focus.
Meeting performance measures is a part of the work; however, strong growth rates and test scores don’t mean that Black students are making the full progress they deserve. For me, student performance on exams is just one component, albeit a huge one, of the success of a school. I wanted students to cite positive racial and cultural experiences, healthy relationships with their peers and the adults in the building, and the high expectations and excellence they demanded to meet – all necessary to pursue their aspirations and goals.
My goal was to create a culture where Black children, upon entry into our building, sincerely believed that their success, academically and otherwise, was a foregone conclusion. I wanted the same for our faculty and staff. It was a goal of ours that when you walked into the Shoemaker Campus, the sense of community welcomed you at the door. Our students felt safe and our faculty felt right at home. It was a collective endeavor and I am proud to say we achieved the community we wished for.
I am sure that’s what any school leader who cares for children and families desire for their school. But it takes for school leaders to set the tone.
If we consider Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions, it was my goal to be proactive with addressing these areas of dysfunction. It wasn’t that our community was filled with dysfunctional people in need of repair. Rather, we needed an environment, a culture, whereby dysfunction couldn’t flourish. To build trust with our students, we established a culture that was pro-Black. I shouldn’t have to say that pro-Black is not anti-white, but I want to be clear. A culture that rests on being pro-Black is a culture that values the humanity of Black people; in our case Black children, in a society that did not.
In order to value the academic progress of our students, 95% of whom were Black, we needed to value them first.
While our white teacher percentage was far from the national statistics, a good portion of our teachers were white. If building trust among the students rested on a foundation of pro-Blackness, resolving conflict and ensuring commitment on the part of those teachers would be involved in our work to build culture. Curiosity is positive for both young people and adults with respect to continuous learning. We held professional development each week—one week for content support and the following week was for professional learning communities (PLCs)—ensuring we interrogated our mindsets and how race, class, power, and privilege showed up in our leadership and in our work.
It was the willingness of the staff to have those conversations that solidified their commitment to our students. Through supporting one another with opportunities to learn and reflect, we could engage in courageous conversations designed to make us better professionally and personally.
We were modeling the sort of learning environment we desired for students inside the classroom. We were accountable and it couldn’t be avoided. The foundation of pro-Blackness in a school where the vast majority of students were Black was and is a revolutionary idea. It forced us all to confront our own identity formation, issues of race, class, and power. We forged a community of trust to engage in conflict and reaffirm our commitment. It didn’t come without some scars. But scars heal and we were accountable to the students, the families that raised them, and each other to utilize the truths we internalized in ways that provided students with the culturally relevant and affirming education for them to exhibit their proficiency, as well as actualize their purpose.
I became accountable for maintaining the synergy I helped to develop.
With that, we were able to identify our performance goals. Those goals never came at the compromise of our foundation—which was pro-Blackness. Rather our foundation informed our desired outcomes for our students. In our work of confronting and learning, we internalized a spirit of servant leadership; our community was valuable and we each had a part to play in the educational success of our young adults. We internalized a spirit of humility whereby we encouraged students to question everything; from the content to authority. We internalized a spirit of love.
The essence of our culture helped lay the groundwork for a place where performance measures became a byproduct of the fruit we produced each day working and striving together in community. Our goal was to ensure that Black students made the progress that they deserved. And, naturally, with our students’ progress, so came ours.
Modeling behavior, consistency, collective accountability, and relationship building are key to school leaders’ building the culture of their building. The role of an administrator also calls for problem solving and high levels of self-efficacy. If a principal and the leadership team model this, they can accomplish much. If not, it means looking beyond their locus of control and blaming everyone else for their failures—parents, community, policy makers, and so on.
This doesn’t mean that principals shouldn’t speak out; they should and loudly. But one can’t fight and rest on their laurels at the same time. When it comes to delivering outcomes that were promised to children and parents, it’s hard to be hungry and satisfied at the same time. Choose hunger.
A former principal and teacher, Sharif El-Mekki is founder of the Center for Black Educator Development and The Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice; a founding member of the Mayor’s Commission on African American Males; a former US Department of Education Principal Ambassador Fellow; and a US Delegate to the International Summit on Teaching and Learning and the Conference on Integrating Refugees and Immigrants into Schools. He writes for the Seventh Ward blog and is a and podcaster on 8 Black Hands.