“One Success Tells Us What is Possible”

This quote is from Payne’s (2009) book So Much Reform, So Little Change. I read this book in my Turnaround Leadership class a few years ago, and many elements struck me to the core.

A question was posed to me recently: “Do you think the leadership plays a role in the climate of a school?”

In short order, yes.

As a long time classroom teacher, I have seen reforms, initiatives, directives, or whatever you want to call them come and go. Thus, it’s very easy to slip into the not again mindset when a new idea is presented (or when an old idea is presented as new). It makes sense that after awhile teachers become jaded with the trends that come and go, especially if the school has a weak leadership at the helm.

What often happens when a school is experiencing a decline (it doesn’t matter if it’s test scores, school climate, etc.) is that someone swoops in with a reform that is touted as the silver bullet to the problem.

I have worked under six administrators in my 25 years of teaching–two of which stand out because of their leadership ability, integrity, and focus on what’s best for students. But they also focused on cultivating relationships among all stakeholders. These relationships were built on mutual respect and authenticity.

However, when a school has weak leaders in place, it’s easy to succumb to the trappings of a demoralized school climate.

In a demoralized school culture, one will likely find disgruntled teachers (Payne, 2009). One will also find instances of where a distrust of higher authority exists, and where the status quo supersedes common sense (Payne, 2009). The factors that lead to a demoralized school culture are multi-faceted, complex, and likely have been festering over time. But these factors are all related to humans and the relationships cultivated (or not) among them.

Reformers who are quick to jump in with their magic bullet often attack the symptom, but not necessarily the root cause. And that is why many reforms fall flat. But here’s the catch, Payne (2009) aptly points out that “knowing what happens on the average…is often perfectly useless. We need to know more about what can happen, not what ordinarily does happen” (p. 7).

So, what’s the point, you ask?

My point is that instead of looking at the pitfalls or perseverating on the negatives perhaps we need to look instead at instances of where something did work. This is where research and practice mutually inform each other. Or rather, this is where research and practice should inform each other.

Organizations are complex. Schools are complex. And humans are most definitely complex. The solutions to turn-around a demoralized school may not necessarily be found what didn’t work, but rather in what did work.

All it takes is one instance of success to tell us what is possible.