Guest Post: Principal-ed Leadership

By Lillie G. Jessie, author of the Quick Reference Guide, 10 Principal’s Principles for High Performance in Diverse, Low-Income Schools

Dr. Jeff Howard of the Efficacy Institute once wrote an article asking educators, “Whose Children Are These?” Until you can answer, “Mine,” he said, we’ll never achieve high levels of student performance.

Dr. Rick DuFour, one of the founders of Professional Learning Communities, whom I have had the honor of having as a mentor, describes leadership as individuals who enable “…ordinary people to do extraordinary things.” Nationally recognized educator Marva Collins achieved extraordinary results with students from the urban-poor sections of Chicago. Her book had a similar title.

My personal definition of leadership is the ability to get people to do what they would not normally do. Until you can do that, you don’t deserve to be called a leader.

High levels of performance should be so easy. More than 40 years ago, Dr. Ron Edmonds, the father of the Effective School Research, said, “We know all we need to know about student learning. We just need to do it.” Dr. Edmonds found many islands of high performance in places where students were not supposed to learn, but were outperforming their middle-class peers.

John Hattie, the guru of meta-analysis, conducted 25-30 years of research on what works. He said, “We have a rich educational research base of what works but rarely is it used.”

My belief in the ability to learn is based on research, but equally based on my own experience. I grew up in the segregated south with no access to books. More importantly, even if I had access, I didn’t have parents with the literacy skills needed to read them to me.

In spite of this, I succeeded. So, in a very strange (and perhaps, to some, incomprehensible) way, I cheated! I came into leadership not just hoping, but knowing that all children can learn because I was one of those children.

I was always looking for people who believed what I knew to be true: that every child can and should learn. Every child in my school became mine, and I also held onto the reflection of the dirty little girl named Lillie Mae Gallman, whom I once was.

Once you’ve seen high levels of learning, you never forget it, nor can you accept anything else. Once you’ve seen teachers and students achieving a 100% passing rate, it gets into your blood. You become addicted to finding ways to achieve it again.

As a principled principal, you should see more than numbers on a data sheet. Behind the graph, you have to see the joy on the faces of kids who are cheering with excitement and unbridled hope after hitting a high target. You have to experience what can only be described as an Olympic gold medal rush.

I saw a celebratory “wave” occur when one of my teachers obtained our first 100% passing rate. She and I decided to play a trick on her fifth graders by telling them that the entire class had to go to the library because I was going to chew them out for something they had done wrong. I must say I played my “disappointed in your behavior” part extremely well.

I told them that they all had done something that no one in the school had ever done before, and that I had to inform all of their parents about it. It shook them up. Some started to weep—until I told them that ALL of them passed the fifth grade state writing test.

Then I saw what could only be called a three-part wave response. The first part of the wave of students who jumped up, screaming in delight and running around the library were the so-called gifted students. They weren’t surprised at all because they always pass any test. This was followed by the middle-of-the-road students who first asked, “Mrs. Jessie, us too?”

To my surprise and dismay, a third section remained seated with pensive, worried looks on their faces. These were the students who, by fifth grade had accepted failure as a way of life. They stared at me and, one by one, asked, “Mrs. Jessie do you really mean me?” They even pointed to their chests as if asking, “Are you sure?”

When I said, “You too!” that section ran around the room the fastest and screamed the loudest.

Ron Edmonds once asked, “How many students do you have to see learning at a high level before you believe all students can learn?” He said if it is more than one, you have problem.

On that day, I learned something. Not only can all students learn, but all teachers can teach. A 100% passing rate moved from being an extraordinary feat to an ordinary happening at our school.

Principal-ed leaders are those who believe strongly that there are gifts in all of “their” children and staff. Their job is to unwrap it and sprinkle a little “I believe in you” into that gift box.

Lillie G. Jessie’s quick Reference Guide, 10 Principal’s Principles for High Performance in Diverse, Low-Income Schools, is now available at the Learning Sciences bookstore. Place your order today to have her valuable guidance a glance away in your classroom!

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