It starts with the main (opinion)

Last week marked the opening of the 2015/16 academic year here in Los Angeles. On Monday, teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District reported to their school sites. This first day is traditionally known as “Studentless Day”. Teachers spend three hours on professional development, followed by three hours on planning and preparation. During the professional development portion of the day, most teachers receive a briefing from their principal about the upcoming school year.

Currently, there is a lot of talk about school culture and what it takes to create a great school culture. Many people have said, and I happen to agree with them, that a good school culture starts with the principal. The slide in this photo is from the lecture that my principal gave on our day without students.

It is based on research by Richard Allington. Our principal said he would like us to really try to practice these ideals every day in our classrooms and adopt them as our core beliefs as a school community. I shared the photo with a few colleagues on other school sites. Their reactions ranged from “All we did was go through the usual list of district policies and bulletins” to “Wow, your meeting was way more serious than ours.”

The culture of my school is excellent. This means we have many dedicated teachers who plan and teach great lessons with high expectations for all learners. The teachers at my school play a huge role in the culture, but our principal definitely sets the tone. And I think what he does, other directors can do.

One thing he does that leads to a strong and successful school culture is he invests in teachers professionally. I have never had so many professional development opportunities in my career. We had three years of study and coaching focused on writing. We also hired a literacy coach three years ago to help us learn and master the many components of balanced literacy. Last year, we started working with a professional development coach to start using guided cognitive instruction for math. Every Thursday we get paid to stay after school and plan with our level or subject team. Last year we were given planning time during the school day, one hour every two weeks, and this year we have that hour every week. In addition to this, it also sets aside money in the school budget to pay for our attendance at various summer institutes of our choosing.

In addition to all this, our director contributes to building our school culture by learning throughout the year with us. In my past role as a literacy coach, working with teachers at district and state literacy institutes, I rarely saw principals participating. How can principals evaluate teachers when they don’t take the time to learn what their teachers are learning? How can they assess the quality of external professional development if they do not participate in it? For the past three years, our director has taken part in summer reading and writing institutes alongside teachers from our school.

Last but not least, it lays the foundation for culture in our school through trust in teachers. By trust, I mean he’s not hiding in his office. He is constantly in the classrooms telling our parents and students how lucky they are to have us as their teachers because of our dedication and hard work. He often sparks our ideas, then supports them and makes changes based on teacher feedback.

I don’t talk much about my school to my friends who work elsewhere in the neighborhood because it frustrates them. They want what I have, a great environment. Schools like mine can exist anywhere if principals begin to accept the huge role they play in setting the tone for a great culture.

Carol C. Reed