by David McGuire
As a budding school administrator, I was raring to go. I was so excited about my first job. I’d been teamed up with several other newcomers to lead a struggling Indianapolis school. What I lacked in experience I made up for in passion and dedication. I thought I was ready. We all did. In reality, we were the blind leading the blind.
This was one of four state takeover schools in Indianapolis, a “community school” serving grades 7 to 12, and I was named the middle school’s dean of students.
I’ve always been able to connect with students, and I’m thought of as a leader. I’d had two years of classroom experience, one at this school. I was familiar with the charter network, the building, and the students, parents, and teachers. Not only that, I had completed my Building Level Administrators program, passed the exam, and received my license. I had been interviewing administrators, shadowing at other schools, and reading up on school leadership. I was perfect for the job!
The school had been failing school for over six years. Most of the high schoolers there had been attending a failing school since middle school.
The new dean of the high school was a first time administrator, too. The assistant principal had a little experience, but this was her first full year in the role. And this was the principal’s first time out as a head of school.
Between us we had five and a half years of administrative experience, and we were put in place to lead one of the most difficult and challenging schools in the city. Our teaching staff was more of the same. Many of the teachers were in their first or second year with Teach for America and other programs providing transitions from non-educational backgrounds to teaching
We had youthful exuberance and were unentangled by family obligations or financial burdens , so we were happy to commit and give our all to our new jobs. But still we had no business leading that school.
We began the year with great excitement. Every year we have a summit to recognize the schools in our region. Last year’s summit was in Indianapolis. We were excited about our new leadership and our new staff and truly felt this was the beginning to something great. Our theme was based off the USA soccer team, “WE BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN”— that was our chant at the retreat when our school name was called. That day seeing the excitement on our staff’s faces I truly felt that this year was going to be something special.
As the school year went on I worked extremely hard to implement new strategies to improve the culture of the school and ultimately improve the overall quality of learning happening in the middle school. My appetite for change eventually became my biggest downfall. I wanted to improve the culture so much that I did not realize that trying to change an environment that had historically been poor would not happen overnight, but I was impatient and I wanted immediate change.
This craving for immediate change made me impatient and instead of sticking with a plan and seeing it through I changed direction quickly in hopes of finding the silver bullet. This forced staff to change direction too and eventually they became frustrated. So, even if the initiative was a good one, the staff was tired of change and did not commit to an initiative because they knew there it was likely to change.
Eventually another administrator with more experience was brought in to serve as co-principal. She lent the team some desperately needed stability and expertise. And by the end of the year, we were able to identify, with relief, some actual successes.
The addition of an experienced principal finally gave us an instructional identity that we were lacking. She implemented new instructional programs that would eventually improve the overall quality of teaching and learning. More importantly for me she was a mentor and a sounding board. As a dean of students you deal with all the negativity in the school, and for someone who prided himself for being a teacher with an orderly and well run classroom, dealing with disruptive students was tough. Her expertise and leadership was able to help me not take things so serious and to realize that you cannot take this job personally. Despite my shortcomings and inexperience, she convinced me I was greatly respected by those I worked with because I cared, and we know that goes a long way.
We teachers and administrators may have benefited from the steep learning curve such an environment provides, but the people affected most by our lack of expertise were our students. At the end of the year the school retained its failure status. Now, a year later, only one member of our original leadership team remains, so the students are starting over, breaking in a whole new batch of administrators. They’re the ones who have to deal with all the complications that arise from pairing teachers learning the ropes with kids who may have trouble learning at all..
Unfortunately, our school isn’t an isolated example. Letting inexperienced administrators get their feet wet at struggling schools is more common than not.
Though I appreciate the opportunity I was given, I know now I should never have accepted the job, even though I can see why it was so tempting to say yes—I was offered a role for which I spent 18 months training and a a salary double what I was making as a teacher. But I should have remembered why I got into education in the first place, and why I was interested in school leadership: not to make money but because I hoped to improve the education experience for students.
The next time I get a chance at a job like that, I’ll aim to serve under an experienced principal in a high performing school. Then later on I’ll be able to take what I’ve learned and pay it forward at a struggling school.
How can you lead a school to greatness if you’ve never experienced a great school?