As the new school year gets rolling, I’ve been thinking a lot about education in America. Over the years, I’ve been inside a wide variety of schools as an author. Rural, suburban, public, private, Muslim, Quaker, Catholic, rich, poor, free and incarcerated—you name it, I’ve probably seen it.
The diversity of American education can be head-spinning. But there are a few things that seem to hold true no matter where I am:
First – just like a book…you can’t judge a school by its cover. I’ve been in some truly impressive schools that were so decrepit on the outside, I half-expected the kids to be wearing hard hats and hazmat suits inside. At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen schools with all the latest technology and designer furniture and glass atriums…and not much else going for them.
Second – I know this will sound obvious, but principals really do matter more than anything else in a school. Good principals = good schools. Almost always.
Over the years, I’ve developed my own totally random list of what makes an excellent principal. It does not include things like: “achieves the highest test scores.” It does include things like: knows the name of every child, smiles at kids and staff (and authors), is willing to sweep up cafeteria floors or wipe down yucky tables when necessary, knows exactly what is happening in the school on any given day, is excited about learning and conveys that excitement, participates in nearly all school events, is someone who motivates people to be better people, is a leader that everyone (from parents to custodians) respects and appreciates…
Schools that are lucky enough to have these excellent principals tend to hold onto them very tightly. Like rare gems. They don’t let them leave or move or retire easily. I know of one principal who still goes on his school’s eighth grade Washington, D.C. trip as a chaperone every year—although he “retired” several years ago.
That’s the kind of dedication I’m talking about.
When I’m in a school where the teachers have pulled together a lunch potluck on a Friday—or for any special occasion, I’ve noticed that it usually isn’t a one-time event. They cook for each other often. They have favorite recipes and dishes that they share. They joke around with each other. They seem to genuinely like hanging out with one another as colleagues and friends.
Here is my theory: Potlucks = teamwork = school success.
Add in a dash of excellent leadership (an excellent principal) and you have a successful school.
And don’t worry too much if you don’t have a glass atrium.