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Uniting a School
Around Improvement


A former U.S. Army officer, Samuel E. Harris set out to change the culture at Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High School when he became principal five years ago. Harris's efforts have helped transform the school. Included: Strategies for engaging staff and students.

When Samuel E. Harris retired from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel, he started easing himself into the education arena. Before long, he was in all the way, and tackling problems with military precision.

Since becoming the principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High School in Sacramento, California, five years ago, discipline, attendance, and grades have improved after he instituted new policies and encouraged more cooperation among staff members. He is known as "the Colonel" around campus.

Harris recently talked with Education World about his enthusiasm for his new career, his approach to education, and his commitment to helping his seventh and eighth graders succeed.

"I truly believe this is my calling. I love children and want to help them be all that they can," says Samuel L. Harris, principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High School.
Education World: Why did you want to become a school administrator?

Samuel E. Harris: I was not thinking about becoming an administrator; it just happened. However, I profoundly believe in education. I enjoy being a leader and a manager. I truly believe this is my calling. I love children and want to help them be all that they can. After retiring from the military, I was called by a colonel who solicited me to apply for a senior ROTC instructor job at Grant High School. I was selected for the position, and soon after this, I was named the district senior Army instructor. I also served as vice principal of Grant High School. I assisted in initiating four additional programs in the Grant High School District. Approximately two and a half years later, I was nominated by the administrators, faculty, staff, and parents to be the next principal of Grant High School, but this did not manifest itself. A few months later, I was selected by the superintendent to be the vice principal at Martin Luther King Jr. Junior High School, where I have served as principal for five years.

EW: What are your goals as an educator?

Harris: My goals as an educator are to improve children's lives through education, improve communication, set and implement the highest standards, earn my doctorate (Ed.D.), and be a superintendent.

EW: How has your military background helped you as an educator?

Harris: As an officer in the Army, I had numerous leadership and management experiences. I was taught how to make an organization work. I was taught the importance of mission, training, and the welfare of people.

EW: What was the biggest challenge in making the transition from the military to public school life?

Harris: My biggest challenge was [building] work ethics, responsibility, and accountability. I also would say professionalism and an effective chain of command. In numerous positions, people were not doing their jobs. This occurred at all levels. Some were doing their jobs, but very poorly. In many situations, there was no follow-through or attention to detail. People in authority gave direction and subordinates would do it or not. There were no consequences; the chain of command was not apparent.

EW: How did you present your ideas for change to the faculty when you first came? What was the level of staff turnover?

Harris: The level of staff turnover initially was 50 percent or more. Why? Because people at all levels in the school needed to [develop] work ethics, [or be] non-believers or non-performers. In a speech, I talked to everyone about what I saw coming in as an outsider. I talked about the need for change and how we would do it. I truly preached the words: mission, training, and welfare of people. I talked to them about the importance of the work we did each and every day. I told them what I expected of them and what they could expect of me. I described myself and assured them that they could talk to me about anything and everything. I told them that the secret to success was teamwork, communications, collaboration, integrity, hard work, and attention to detail plus follow through. I must have done a pretty good job because 96 percent of my staff [now] totally supports me. I constantly refer to the "Geese Philosophy" and numerous sayings (see the Endbar for an explanation of the Geese Philosophy).

EW: What are some of the policies you have instituted?

Harris: I have instituted a philosophy and policy of family, teamwork, integrity, caring, and concern for students as well as one another. My philosophy is that each and every one of us has an awesome responsibility. I see the janitor's job as [just as] important as the principal's. We all are here at the school to support and take care of students. I work to instill in my teachers to teach daily. At our school, we employ the "TAPPLE" Technique:

  • Teach
  • Ask Questions
  • Pause
  • Pick Non-Volunteers
  • Listen
  • Echo, Explain

It takes each and every member of the school family to work together to get results. We have instituted a school leadership team that orchestrates the mission of our school. We believe in professional development. The administrative team [also] does many classroom visits.

EW: What do you think are some of the key factors for improving student behavior and academic performance?

Harris: Some key factors include faculty and staff communications, rules and standards, an effective discipline system, attention to details and follow through, remediation in reading and math, excellent teachers and staff, teamwork, and everyone being on the same sheet of music.

EW: What makes a good day for you?


  • My family (teachers, staff, and students) looking and seeming happy.
  • Attendance is 96 percent or better.
  • All students are in class.
  • Hallways are clear.
  • School is organized, well kept, and clean.
  • Teachers are focused and teaching.
  • Students are well-behaved and focused.
  • No serious incidents.
  • Staff doing their job.

Lessons from Geese

Samuel Harris incorporates the "Geese Philosophy" in his leadership approach. Geese flying in a V-formation have always been a welcome sign of spring as well as a sign that heralds the coming of winter. Not only is this a marvelous sight, but there are some remarkable lessons that we can learn from the flight of the geese, because all that they do has significance.

  • As each goose flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for others behind it. There is 71 percent more flying range in V-formation than in flying alone.
    LESSON: People who share a common direction and sense of purpose can get there more quickly.
  • Whenever a goose flies out of formation, it feels drag and tries to get back into position.
    LESSON: It's harder to do something alone than together.
  • When the lead goose gets tired, it rotates back into formation and another goose flies at the head.
    LESSON: Shared leadership and interdependence give us each a chance to lead as well as an opportunity to rest.
  • The geese flying in the rear of the formation honk to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.
    LESSON: Encouragement is motivating. We need to make sure our "honking" is encouraging -- and not discouraging.
  • When a goose gets sick or wounded and falls, two geese fall out and stay with it until it revives or dies. Then they catch up or join another flock.
    LESSON: We may all need help from time to time. We should stand by our colleagues in difficult times.

    (Adapted from Angeles Arrian)

This e-interview with Samuel E. Harris is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.