Leadership That Inspires Change: Three Keys to Success

When Rita White stepped into her first principalship at an inner-city school in Memphis, Tennessee, she faced daunting challenges. The school of 980 students was on the state’s “needs improvement” list, students were not making adequate yearly progress, and discipline referrals exceeded 1,000 a year. The approach to discipline was punitive and students lacked engagement. “There was no joy in the school,” remembers Rita.

Against this backdrop, Rita set about to inspire change. Her ultimate goal: a school environment that was safe and respectful, full of learning and fun for teachers and students, a place to which people wanted to come. Over time, change did come. Test scores rose, office referrals fell, staff turnover dropped, and the school became a Responsive Classroom beacon for district teachers.

Many factors led to Rita’s success. She carefully nurtured teacher leaders, allocated resources and time for professional development, and educated teachers about how to embrace and defend best practices.

But before any real change could occur, Rita had to create a climate that supported change. Recently, she talked about how she prepared the school to change its disciplinary approach. “It was an enormous shift,” recalls Rita, “to move from a culture that condoned corporal punishments to one that embraced Responsive Classroom practices.” Here are three key strategies she used to lay the foundation for change.

1. Engage teachers and parents in an open conversation.

Rita knew that lasting change would come only if all key stakeholders were involved from the start. Although eager to change the punitive disciplinary approach that teachers had relied on for so many years, she knew the place to start was not to issue directives but to invite teachers and parents into a conversation.

She and the school’s instructional facilitator, Wendee Beller, began by convening a parent book study of Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline.

At the same time, a small group of teachers began discussing the school’s disciplinary approach. “We began by asking a simple question: What is discipline?” Rita recalls. “We didn’t really have an answer when we started.”

An attitude of curiosity framed the work, and together, these two small groups of parents and teachers began to create a vision for how they wanted their school to be. The teacher group grew over time. Through regular dialogue, they began to unpack their assumptions about discipline and try new strategies for building a positive school environment.

2. Use data to inform practice.

Rita remembers looking at discipline interventions and referrals with the staff and asking, “Is what we’re doing working?” It quickly became clear that the established interventions were not preventing misbehavior or teaching children positive behaviors.

Wendee and Rita asked teachers to photograph their classroom behavior charts every week for awhile and reflect on what they noticed. The teachers saw that the same children were being punished over and over again and that office referrals were increasing rather than decreasing. Once faced with this hard data, teachers were more open to examining a different approach.

3. Remove obstacles to change.

One of the most important things school leaders can do to bring about change is to help identify and remove any roadblocks. Rita engaged her staff in articulating their ideal visions for their school and then asked, “What obstacles are getting in the way of realizing our vision?”

For example, the staff talked about the importance of a welcoming physical environment and named the “ugly” hallways as an obstacle to creating a safe and orderly school climate. The hallways were untidy and unclean, worksheet-type work was displayed and often torn or ripped, and graffiti littered the walls.

Rita explains the first step of addressing the hallway challenges: “We started by taking down all the displays, deep-cleaning the hallways, and then painting the walls so that the space was pretty and clean.” Rita and Wendee then worked with teachers to showcase students’ original work in beautiful displays throughout the hallways.

“When students first saw the displays, they were awestruck,” Rita remembers. From here, they engaged students in conversations about “what we will need to do to preserve our work so that we can all enjoy it.” They then taught, modeled, and practiced hallway procedures.

“It wasn’t a quick fix with the hallways because these children had had years to form bad habits,” Rita acknowledges, but over time, behavior did change dramatically. Wendee remembers a significant turning point: “After about five years, we knew we had made it. One of our teachers had a wonderful collection of glass eggs from Russia. He brought these fragile eggs to school as part of a second grade Around the World unit of study and displayed them, perched on tiny stands, outside the classroom on a table in the hallway. Those eggs were there for three weeks and not one was ever broken or removed.”

That’s success! And it was Rita’s strong leadership, along with her steadfast belief in the potential of their school community to change, that made it possible.

Babs Freeman-Loftis is a Responsive Classroom consultant and coauthor of Responsive School Discipline (NEFC, July 2011). She was assistant head of the lower school at the University School of Nashville for nine years.

About the Principal

Rita White has been a principal in the Memphis City Schools for 13 years. She is currently the principal of Riverwood Elementary. This K–5 school has an environmental science and community service focus and uses a Responsive Classroom approach to teaching throughout the school.

Rita was recently named a National Distinguished Elementary Principal by the National Association of Elementary and Middle School Principals. She will be delivering a keynote address at this summer’s Responsive Classroom Schools Conference at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware.

Tags: Hallways, Professional Community, Professional Development, Schoolwide Rules