Three years ago I was appointed principal of Calvin Christian, a secondary Christian school of about 530 students in grades 6–12, one campus of a PreK–12 system in Grandville, Michigan. Calvin Christian has a rich history of graduating students with strong Christian character and also a history of students performing well on standardized tests. Upon my hire, the head of school and board explained that, with my background in curriculum and instruction, they hoped to bring about change at Calvin. The board had concerns about Calvin’s ability to meet the educational needs of students in the twenty-first century, especially in an area saturated with successful Christian schools.
When I arrived, I found Calvin to be a school dedicated to its historical mission, despite extremely difficult economic challenges. The dedicated previous principal and the current staff did magnificent work navigating and surviving, but it meant tightening the belt on all expenditures, including professional development and teacher training. The consequence was that teacher practice at Calvin Christian was years behind other schools in the area.
Classrooms were arranged with desks in rows, facing the front. Teachers mainly delivered direct instruction, often in full period lectures, and assessed students through written tests, often knowledge level-based questions on Bloom’s Taxonomy rather than analysis- or synthesis-level questions. There was very little focus on students’ mastery of twenty-first century career skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, communication, and digital media literacy. Teachers demonstrated little knowledge of how to differentiate instruction for a variety of learners. In the areas of faith integration, students were asked to discuss their faith but not often to practice their faith.
I found the teachers to be fantastic, committed Christians who were welcoming and hopeful about the future of Calvin. Many of them expressed a desire to better meet the needs of their students through technology and new practices. However, few realized their instructional methods had slipped far behind other schools; instead, they believed that the high standardized test scores indicated they were meeting the needs of their students.
Learning at Calvin was teacher-focused, and it was clear that as a leader I would need to help transform the school learning culture to more learner-focused in order for the school to continue to meet the needs of its constituents. As a new school leader, I found myself asking these questions: How does one go about changing a school culture? How does one convince staff members that they will need to work harder than they ever have in their careers, but it will be worth the investment?
While I made many mistakes over the past three years, I also learned many valuable lessons about what a leader must “do and don’t” in order to transform a school culture.
Invest in professional development
It was clear teachers needed knowledge of best practices and an opportunity to become active learners in order to improve their practice in the classroom. To this end:
- We created a blog, Central Point, as a collaborative learning space for sharing articles on educational practices and student learning. Following each reading, the staff contributed to a forum.
- In addition, the school purchased books for whole staff book studies, which took place in both online forums and at local coffee shops.
- Donors also generously donated so we could send staff members to national conferences. Mini-conferences were held onsite and uploaded onto our Learning Management System for later viewing.
- Perhaps the greatest impact on our teachers came from opportunities to visit over a dozen Christian and public schools across the country. Observing master teachers implement best practices inspired our teachers to come back and implement those practices in their own classrooms.
After each learning opportunity, teachers shared their learning with their colleagues, stretching our professional development dollars and increasing teacher buy-in as the faculty learned from one another.
Provide time for teacher learning
By our second year, we needed to create more time for teacher learning. We gave the students a late start every Wednesday morning, during which teachers reported for 45 minutes of professional development. After placing teachers in Professional Learning Communities (PLC), our staff began the process of answering the four instructional questions:
- What do we want our students to know and do?
- How will we know if they know it or can do it?
- What will we do if they do not know it?
- What will we do if they already know it?
These questions continue to guide our professional development and PLC meeting time.
Identify leaders and give them opportunities to lead
As soon as I arrived at Calvin I was able to identify teachers who had been working hard to improve their own practice despite the lack of resources. I asked these teachers if they would be interested in becoming instructional coaches. They attended cognitive coaching training, we provided them with a release period, and we added an administration multiplier to their salaries.
Each teacher was assigned an instructional coach, and together they identified one area for improvement in the teacher’s current practice. The coaches developed a SMART goal process, which guided teachers in creating learner focused goals that were Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based. Teachers have shared that they greatly valued having an instructional coach because the coaches are able to help them prioritize their goals for professional growth.
In addition, our leadership team wanted teachers to own curriculum, instruction, and faith development in our district. In a powerful turning point, our school board agreed to dissolve our board’s education committee and handed decision making to a curriculum council of teachers and administrators PreK–12. Each year, members of the council complete a book study, chair task forces, and lead professional development in our buildings.
Have tough but loving conversations
Over the past three years, I have committed to giving staff honest but loving feedback on their practice. This was often difficult because staff at Calvin Christian have not received direct feedback on their practice historically. For example, students were delaying their Spanish requirement until their junior year because they found the courses to be difficult and not engaging. While meeting with the Spanish teachers, I shared data that I gathered, which included course registration data collected from the school counselors, as well as significant complaints received from students and parents. The conversation was tough, but together we planned for the teachers to attend training in Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) and Comprehensible Input, a program that had a high rate of success of both increasing student engagement and achievement. Additionally, the department members were granted release time to observe schools implementing this program and attend a national TPRS conference.
Our teachers embraced the new program and in two years the department has turned around because of their dedication. This fall, almost all ninth graders are choosing to take Spanish 1 as freshmen, and the retention rate for the program into Spanish 3 and 4 has doubled. Students are speaking, reading, and writing in Spanish at a level never before achieved at Calvin. We have celebrated these accomplishments as a community, and the teachers continue to receive new resources, such as classroom furniture and a Spanish library.
In order to build momentum and honor great work, we used time from our Wednesday morning meetings to celebrate our colleagues’ success. The instructional coaches would identify the staff members who were demonstrating innovative or creative instruction that impacted student learning. At the beginning of our Wednesday meeting, teachers would present 5 minute mini-sessions sharing the lesson or project learning target and highlighting examples of student work.
In another activity, called Carnation Celebrations, each teacher received a carnation at the staff meeting. In order to celebrate one another, each teacher came forward to publicly speak their appreciation for a coworker, and then lay the carnation in a large pile in front of the room. After each staff member had an opportunity to celebrate someone else, everyone took a carnation back to their desk or room, as a reminder of the ways in which we all benefit from each other’s accomplishments. I thought staff might only indulge me in this practice once, but they still love this exercise! At Christmas, we used Christmas ornaments and a mini-Christmas tree for the same activity. Each time we thank God for the wonderful gifts that we receive through each other.
I learned over the past three years that food and great coffee can be a great encouragement to teachers who are working hard to improve their practice!
Don’t persuade staff to change in large audiences
When I advocated for changing school culture and teaching practice in the blog or my staff notes, it often landed poorly with a portion of my staff. Since the tone of our writing can be interpreted in numerous ways, some misunderstood my well-intentioned writing not as an invitation to try new practices, but rather as a judgement of ineffective practice. The same was sometimes true when I spoke in front of the whole staff. Afterwards, staff members would come and talk with me and express hurt, saying “I feel like you are devaluing what we have been doing at this school for 20 years.” I needed to meet more often with teachers individually, celebrate their gains, and specifically invite them to look at areas for growth in their own practice rather than speaking or writing to them as a large audience.
Don’t talk about your last school
During my first years as principal, I found it difficult to resist using phrases such as, “At my previous school this programming worked very well,” or “Students or parents responded well to this change at my last school.” While these statements were true and my intentions were only to encourage staff, this approach was counterproductive.
Don’t push too far, too fast
Looking back, I can recognize times I pushed change too far, too fast. We introduced too many initiatives at one time. At times we expected teachers to advance faster than they felt they could. Some teachers came to me and expressed that they felt overwhelmed. A few teachers did leave our school due to the changes. While some feelings of being overwhelmed are to be expected, and while I believe some staff turnover during change is healthy, I think in retrospect I needed to ask a trusted group of teachers more often about whether to put my foot on the gas or on the brake.
School transformation is difficult and I looked to much research on creating change over the past few years. Rogers’ Diffusion Model of Innovation explains that when change is implemented people will assume the roles of Innovators (3%), Early Adopters (13%), Early Majority (34%), Late Majority (34%) and Laggards (16%) (Rogers 2013). I found this to be true at Calvin, right down to the percentages, and each of these groups presents unique challenges for the school leader. While Laggards will be vocal and negative about not wanting or needing to change, Innovators and even Early Adopters will become frustrated and impatient when the change is not moving fast enough and responsibilities are not being shared equally.
While I have not fully learned how to motivate or best support each group, I have realized that it’s necessary to pour into the Innovators and Early Adopters in my school. This year, I had the privilege of visiting Ron Clark, the founder and administrator of the innovative Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta. In his book, Move Your Bus, he describes the staff of schools and organizations as runners, joggers, walkers, and riders. The leader, the driver of the bus, should start by supporting the runners and, once they are off and running, the driver should turn his attention to the joggers, walkers, and riders. In order to move the organization forward the driver must either help these groups improve their practice or kick them off the bus (Clark 2015).
While I believe there is truth to this model, I also believe Christian organizations are called to show intentional care for each member of the team. Therefore, the most valuable lesson I have learned over the past three years is building a strong relationship with each staff member. When the time comes for the tough conversations, the teacher must know I care about them as a person, and I have supported their growth over a period of time.
Along these lines, I’ve also learned that changing a school culture takes time if you want to preserve relationships. It often involves pain as well. As a team we have learned to be more patient, listen more, empathize more, and compromise more, but also to keep the mission and vision constantly in front of us. We have learned we cannot change without a strong prayer life and shared leadership. As the school leader, I sought out strong leadership mentors to support me.
Key to changing our organization’s culture has been building relationships and continuing to have very honest conversations. While it was important to be sensitive to the history and culture of the school, this sensitivity had to be balanced with the responsibility of moving the organization forward. This balance continues to be a challenge, and one I still struggle to achieve.
At the end of this past year, I conducted a meeting with each staff member who reports to me. Throughout these conversations, staff members articulated they were tired, and carried some scars from the past three years; however, almost every single person shared their excitement about the new learning culture at Calvin. One teacher said it well: “I am excited. I am scared. But, I am committed to doing my best because I believe in where we are going.” As a leader, I am humbled by the commitment of my colleagues and, although we still have much to do, our school culture is now focused on student learning. With God’s help, we will continue loving, learning, and serving alongside the amazing students God has entrusted to us.
Clark, R. 2015. Move Your Bus. Touchstone: New York.
Rogers, E. 2013. Diffusions of Innovations (5th Ed.). Free Press: New York.
- Review the do’s and don’ts offered in this post, and consider whether and how you can incorporate them in your own instructional
- Ask the leadership team at your school to commit to a book study on changing your school’s culture, from teacher- to learner-centered. Suggested books are:
- 10 Principles For Schools of Modern Learning: The Urgent Case for Reimagining Today’s Schools by Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon
- Learning Deeply: The Six Great Relationships that Characterize Great Schools by Robert Kuhl
- Becoming a Learning Organization by Chris Bigenho
About the Author
Thelma Ensink is the principal at Calvin Christian Middle and High Schools. She served previously as a curriculum specialist, a director for a gifted and talented students program, and a high school teacher. Thelma received her bachelor’s degree in secondary education from Calvin College and her master’s degree in educational leadership from Grand Valley State University. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.