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Anne O’Brien is Deputy Director for Learning First Alliance. She previously worked for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeast Louisiana, where she managed first school-based mentoring and then...
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Rules of Engagement

We all know of school improvement initiatives that failed when they should have succeeded. Technology initiatives~ new evaluation systems~ even changes to the school calendar these are ideas that research suggests should improve student outcomes~ but for some reason~ in some contexts~ they don't.

One reason that many education initiatives struggle to succeed is stakeholder resistance or stakeholder apathy. When education leaders do not take the time to create a trusting culture that supports a vision of excellence and improvement~ their reform efforts are at a severe disadvantage~ if not doomed. As Bill Milliken~ founder and vice chairman of Communities in Schools said~ Its relationships~ not programs~ that change children.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the National Association of Secondary School Principals' (NASSP) 2013 Ignite Conference. There~ I had the chance to learn from a number of education leaders who have created cultures that led to true change in their schools and communities. One was Tim Healey~ Associate Superintendent for Student Learning and Accountability in Virginias Prince William County Public Schools and a former high school principal~ who presented a session called~ You Are LeadingBut Is Anyone Following?

In it~ he referenced the Milliken quote. He also presented the "Rules of Engagement~" four key ideas to remember when attempting to improve the culture of a school.

1) Honor your teachers. This means a number of different things~ including protecting them when they are right~ respecting their time and giving them ownership of student learning. To me~ this idea was best explained with a Todd Whitaker quote that Healey shared: Base every decision on the best people. What does that mean? When setting school policy be it around staff dress code~ timesheets~ or other consider how the top five teachers in the building will react. It is easy to target policies to the few individuals who exhibit bad behavior~ but that can decrease morale among top performers those you most want to keep happy.

2) Each and every student is different and important. As a parent himself~ Healey truly understands how rational people can become irrational when an issue involves their child. He reminds educators to treat each child as an individual and make him or her feel special~ to put students before policies and recognize when to bend the rules for an individual. And he urges them to validate parents concerns once parents trust you to do what is best for their children~ they will support new ideas on what that looks like.

3) Power in the word "Yes." When someone comes up with a good idea~ say yes. It could be a teacher who wants to establish a mentoring program~ a student who wants to design a pep rally~ or a parent who wants to take over care of a practice field that has fallen into disrepair (all examples from Healeys time as a principal). While you do have to vet the proposals~ saying yes often gets you not only creative solutions to problems you might not even know you have~ but loyalty and leverage with those who come up with them.

4) Our school is a special place. As Healey points out~ everyone wants to be part of something special. School leaders have to believe~ and make the school community believe~ that the school is a special place. Efforts to do so can be started simply. A brag sheet celebrating test scores~ robotics team awards and any other achievements~ either quantitative or qualitative~ can help the community see the school in a positive light. Staff and students can be reminded frequently~ in a number of ways~ how special the school is and how special they are for teaching and learning there.

While Healey directs these rules at school leaders working with teachers in schools~ they can also be adapted for superintendents working with principals~ teachers working with students~ or even school or state boards of education working with superintendents. The basic principles remain the same. To create a culture that can lead to innovation~ you have to develop positive~ trusting relationships with those you work with. Only then can real change occur.

This content originally appeared by Anne O'Brien on Learning First Alliance's blog and is posted here with permission.