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How I Handled...

An Undercurrent of Griping

I sensed an undercurrent of griping and some less-than-positive attitudes among staff members, so I knew I had to take some action. What were the issues? Knowing those issues would be the first step in the process of transforming gripers into a group.

The Problem:

I have been a principal for some time, but this year is my first year in a new school. Early on, I sensed an undercurrent of unhappiness; and I have seen some less than positive attitudes. I needed to get a handle on the issues, so I needed to come up with a plan.

The Solution:

In order to figure out if my perceptions were accurate, and to give teachers an opportunity to put their issues on the table, I decided my first step would be to survey the staff. I sent out a questionnaire in which I asked some general questions, including the following:

  • What is the most effective way for me to communicate with you?
  • What do you need from me to be successful?
  • What are your strengths?
  • What do you believe we can/should do to make our school more successful?

I decided this survey would be the most expedient way to learn more about the issues. It would give all staff members the opportunity to "speak their minds." Staff members might say things in a survey that they would not say in a meeting surrounded by their colleagues. The survey would also give me an opportunity to better understand their individual strengths and needs. And it would give them -- especially those responsible for the undercurrent I sensed -- an opportunity to be part of the solution rather than the problem.

The Reflection:

The survey uncovered a few issues to which I already have been able to respond:

  • The survey revealed that most teachers think that I support them, but at this early stage in our relationship it is clear they need more reinforcement. So I have set up monthly recognitions; I also make a point of placing notes and goodies in their mailboxes when I am impressed by their efforts. These are small things I can do to let them know I am aware of what they are doing and to encourage them to keep up the good work.
  • Many feel the need to be strongly supported in the area of student discipline. We have a discipline procedure in place. I will support teachers by enforcing those policies and taking seriously my role in improving school-wide discipline. That will include following guidelines when it comes to issuing detentions and in-school suspensions for students who cause trouble.
  • Many feel their strengths lie in their content-area knowledge; in that respect they are an outstanding group. We are fortunate to have three grants that enable us to provide weekly, after-school professional development. Those grants will help me help teachers build on their strong content knowledge by developing new skills and strategies for conveying it.
  • Many on the faculty are frustrated by the challenges of meeting the needs of our diverse student population. (Our students range from special needs -- a whopping 23 percent of our enrollment is identified as special-needs -- to gifted. They come from backgrounds that range from low-income -- 60 percent -- to upper income. We have a large minority population -- 70 percent African American.) Our student population is clearly an issue that I must address; the faculty needs additional training in meeting the needs of a diverse student body, especially our special-needs students. We are taking steps to accomplish that.
  • Most who responded to the survey thought that, so far, I have been an effective leader; but some expressed fear that I would leave the school. Now that I am aware the continuity of leadership is an issue for them, it will be my responsibility to convey to them that I am here for the long haul.

The survey is behind us now. We can focus on some of the themes exposed by it. Already I am sensing some changes in attitude. I think staff members are more convinced than ever that I am planning to stick it out with them and support them in any way I can.

About the How I Handled... Team of Principal Problem Solvers
The How I Handled... series is intended to be practical resource for all principals and principals-to-be. Each week, members of Education World's How I Handled team share how they solved actual problems relating to school leadership, parent involvement, professional development, and a host of other "principal" responsibilities. Six principals comprise our How I Handled team; two of them are elementary school principals, two work at the middle level, and two are high school principals. Team members remain anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day.