Achieving School Turnaround Part V: Build a Committed Staf

Written By dwalker

On April 22, 2011

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This is the fifth in a series of blogs on the role of leadership in achieving school turnaround.  These entries are based on the research recommendations published in the IES Practice Guide: Turning Around Chronically Low Performing Schools 2009 by the What Works Clearinghouse.  So far I’ve discussed the four recommendations overall and highlighted three of them: signal dramatic change, maintain a focus on improved instruction, and achieve quick wins.  The emphasis in these blogs has been at the leadership level: what principals can do to initiate school turnaround.leadership blog image

In this post the focus will be on the fourth and final recommendation: build a committed staff.  There are two dimensions to this research recommendation: 1) the human resources aspect of recruiting, hiring and placing teachers who can address areas for instructional improvement, and 2) fostering a commitment to the turnaround effort.  For the first dimension, principal actions include the following:

  • Assess the strengths and weaknesses of staff and identify those teachers, or administrators, who do not have the requisite commitment or skills to meet turnaround goals.
  • Redeploy staff who have important skills but are not placed in the right position.
  • Replace staff who are barriers to the turnaround process.
  • Recruit new staff who have specialized skills and competencies, inlcuding reading specialists, mentors, instricutional coaches (IES Practice Guide).

For the lowest performing schools, state regulations based on federal priorities require one of four options: replace the principal and site council, transform current practice including tying teacher evaluation and ongoing employment to student results, turn over the school to an outside agency or for-profit company, or replace up to 50% of the teachers.  So you can see that replacing staff has support in both the research and in statute.

During the October 28, 2010 Bridging Event we lead on behalf of the Regional Education Lab – Appalachia, one of the presenting exemplar principals noted that she replaced a large number of her teachers during the first year of her middle school’s turnaround.  She had encountered a culture of low expectations and insufficiently rigorous instruction, plus some staff members unwilling to improve.  While this sounds harsh, such action was in the best interest of the students who were not getting the education they needed.  Of course her commitment to documenting poor performance and following  through on the evaluation and dismissal process was significant and time-consuming.  Yet while focused on building a commited staff, she also addressed the other three research recommendations:

  • She signalled dramatic change and made it clear that she wouldn’t accept business as usual.  Her strength of leadership and resolve raised the standard for good teaching in her school.
  • She also focused on instructional improvement, since her frequent classroom observations, and documentation of teaching performance and student results were all about the quality of instruction in the classroom.
  • While those teachers removed from their positions may not consider this a quick win, often the process of documenting unsatisfactory performance takes years and in the interim diminshes the educational opportunity of students who would benefit from more competent teaching.  In this instance, the change was accomplished within a year, and gave the principal the opportunity to hire new staff and move existing staff forward to achieve school turnaround.

So, the first dimension of building a commited staff has to do with the human resources management.  The second dimension is concerned with creating a sense of commitment to a new direction and a shared purpose.  This dimension cannot be achieved quickly and means taking considered action to instill in teachers a sense of self-efficacy and responsibility for the future of the school.  In my experience as school leader, an effective way to do this is to develop the leadership capacity of the faculty, engaging them more fully in direction setting and decision making, and in providing opportunities for teachers to function as leaders within their area of expertise.  This could mean:

  • Establishing a leadership team with teachers who are well-respected and bring a diverse set of skills, and opinions, to the task.
  • Providing opportunities for teachers to share content knowledge and pedagogical expertise with colleagues, during prep period and faculty meetings, as part of site-based professional devleopment, or in more formal roles as an instructional coach or mentor.
  • Having teachers work toward “model/demonstration classroom”  status, where they can showcase their student’s learning for colleagues within and outside of the building.

When teachers assume a leadership role it builds their sense of ownership and engagement in school turnaround efforts, and takes advantage of their skills and expertise.  The deepening of their commitment paves the way for other faculty members as well.  Everyone needs to be working together to achieve true school turnaround.  For more examples, both in writing and video, visit our blog: