Leadership matters: What makes a good school?

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Educators play a huge role in shaping the lives of our future. It isn’t an easy profession as educators face many issues such as student homelessness, poverty, and increased testing mandates. The attitudes of teachers and leaders affect the students tremendously. Students respond to educators who sincerely care about them. In Pedro Noguera’s (2003) research in Northern California schools, 90% of black males indicated “agree” or “strongly agree” to questions such as “I think education is important” and “I want to go to college.” However, only 22% responded affirmatively to questions such as “I work hard to achieve good grades” and only 18% indicated affirmatively “My teachers treat me fairly.”

Noguera’s study confirmed that teacher expectations of students are extremely important for black students. He finds black males were least likely to respond positively to statements such as “My teachers support me and care about my success in their class.”  Ferguson (2002) also found teacher encouragement as critical for students of color, where 47% of blacks cite encouragement as crucial compared to 31% of whites. An evaluation of the discrepancies between the desire to achieve in higher education, the effort put forth in school, and teacher expectations suggest the need for more support structures in and beyond schools.

Teachers and school staff are responsible for the culture of the schools, student learning, and the upkeep of the building. Clearly not all building resources such as computer labs and per pupil spending are in their control. Educators who work in underserved communities need to work with what they have. Although school staff may not be responsible for the all conditions in the building, educators are accountable for instruction and facilitating meaningful and engaging lessons.

As an educator, I have encountered students whose attitudes appear to be apathetic. I say appear because many of these students have multiple issues that lead to this mindset, destruction in self esteem due to tracking and gatekeeping that occurred in elementary and middle school not to mention many of life’s issues, e.g. homelessness, residential treatment programs such as group homes, abuse, low skills, etc. To reach students who appear to be apathetic, I create relevant lessons that include knowledge of pop culture, e.g. movies and music, while building a rapport with my learners. To reach learners, assessments that are project based, student centered with engagement at the core are utilized.

Over the years, I have encountered students who gave me eye-opening experiences. One student will forever resonate. She asked me two months into the U.S. History Regents course, “Do you give us all this hard work because you taught AP?” I replied, “I challenge you all because you can do it.” Slowly but surely that class began to rise to my expectations. Her comment made it clear that other teachers weren’t holding them to the same standards. A fact I had known, but her comment illuminated  the effect of gatekeeping and low expectations. I cannot imagine that class’ various experiences from elementary to junior year that affected their views on learning.

Generally speaking, society has a negative view of the underserved communities as lazy and uncaring. Additionally, many of the parents may not be involved in their child’s education because of monetary reasons, e.g. working multiple jobs or cultural reasons, where many minorities feel the school knows best or don’t know the best way to advocate for their child. The use of gatekeeping and tracking can also affect a child’s self-esteem.

It is important to build strong school communities to support learners. A strong school would include effective educators who make learning relevant.  To increase student achievement, schools need administrators who are effective leaders, have experience, and are in districts that do not have a high turnover rate. An effective leader will:

  1. Recognize teaching and learning as the main business of a school
  2. Communicate the school’s mission clearly and consistently to staff members, parents and students
  3. Foster standards for teaching and learning that are high and attainable
  4. Provide clear goals and monitor the progress of students toward meeting them
  5. Spend time in classrooms and listen to teachers
  6. Promote an atmosphere of trust and sharing
  7. Have high expectations for all: students and staff
  8. Provide meaningful professional development for teachers to meet diverse learners
  9. Build a good staff and make professional development a top concern
  10. Not tolerate bad teachers

Advocating for students and providing support for students is crucial for many, especially those living on their own or coming from impoverished homes. All students should be connected with someone who cares at school, educators should stay informed and pay attention to research on school violence, have community meetings to inform parents, churches, and youth organizations about youth problems and expectations from students in school. Schools should develop collaborative associations within local communities to address the needs of at-risk students, and conduct asset surveys with students in the community to identify their behavior. Leaders and teachers should maintain high expectations for all students where learning in the classrooms is made relevant.

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2 thoughts on “Leadership matters: What makes a good school?

  1. This is so true and well said. As a social worker I have worked with many of these same children. They have extremely tough living environments at no fault of their own with limited resources and tools given for success. A little encouragement and words of affirmation can go a long way with motivating our youth.

    1. Absolutely, thankfully some of these children have other outlets in the community to help but so much more can be done…

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