The First 100 Days in the Main Office: Transforming A School Culture
reviewed by John D'Auria - August 03, 2018
Title: The First 100 Days in the Main Office: Transforming A School Culture
Author(s): Alan Jones
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1641131462, Pages: 174, Year: 2017
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Every seasoned educational leader comes to realize the power of a schools culture on the interactions, communication, and decisions that occur in classrooms, hallways, and meeting spaces. Experience often brings the realization that the vitality of a schools culture is the lynchpin to insuring that improvement efforts make a difference for students. Learning how to shape and strengthen a school culture in order to improve teaching and learning is a potent but uncommon skill among administrators. It is rarely taught as an important leadership domain, and consequently, people who are new to the main office often have little insight into how to shape this powerful force.
In The First 100 Days in the Main Office, Alan Jones helps the reader to identify the often hard-to-spot dynamics of school culture. According to Jones, school cultures bring some semblance of order to the noise of reforms and techniques of the day by fitting yearly goals, methods, and managerial bents into standardized organizational and instructional routines (p. 1). Jones points out, however, that this sense-making is often aimed at keeping the process of schooling efficient, and that this focus on maintenance leaves schools stuck and unable to make progress towards narrowing the gap between the aspirations often expressed in mission and vision statements and the day-to-day experiences of students.
Each chapter in this book presents a series of managerial situations that help the reader to see the opportunities embedded within the mundane and to identify strategies for moving the work of the school closer to its overarching values and beliefs. Jones points out that when confronted with problems of practice, administrators too often aim at solutions and quick fixes that maintain smooth operations rather than opportunities to illuminate the core values and essential principles that underpin high-quality teaching and learning. Effective leadership, according to Jones, is about constantly thinking about narrowing the gap between maintenance and greatness.
Jones does an outstanding job describing common scenarios and offering solutions that demonstrate both administrative skillfulness and a means of reinforcing an overarching set of values. This bridging is the work of culture-building. In one example, he notices a student who, having arrived late to class, cannot enter the room because the teacher, as a strategy to limit tardiness, locks the door once the period begins. In a dialogue with the teacher, Jones points out to the teacher that, despite her claim about the effectiveness of the strategy, public humiliation is never an acceptable discipline strategy. Jones, as principal, does not write the teacher up or send out a memo to the staff. He continually models the idea that direct conversation that links to values and beliefs will shape the culture in small but important ways, and that the sum of these conversations will provide the foundation for a cultural shift.
In one of the books richest scenarios, Jones recounts how he took advantage of a new state-mandated teacher evaluation plan to shift the supervisory culture from one that emphasized a bureaucratic approach to evaluation to one more focused on ongoing teacher growth and development. Jones notes that the problem with past evaluations was a lack of trust in administrative practices that felt unprofessional and disrespectful to teachers. As a result of this insight, Jones developed a series of principles of visitation etiquette in which he replaced the ineffective practices of the past with new recommendations: Always remain in the classroom for a full lesson; avoid unannounced visitations; never schedule a visitation before or after holidays... Multiple visits are the only means for gaining an understanding of a teachers pattern of instruction (p. 80). While I cannot recommend that each of the principles listed in the visitation etiquette section be universally embraced, the idea that Jones heard and acknowledged the feelings of the teachers related to past harmful practices was a key factor in reshaping the culture of evaluation within his school.
Jones also shines a light on another important domain that influences culture significantly but that often goes unexamined: meetings. Jones describes his efforts to shift meetings from being informational (where participants are to listen, ask for clarification, and implement) to instrumental, meaning participants are engaged in a deliberative problem-solving process and are invited to discuss, deliberate, and author.
One of the scenarios in the book focuses on students who are chronically absent. Jones examines this common issue through the lens of out-of-the-box thinking. In this scenario, Jones ability to listen carefully to his insightful truant officer, who understood the needs of these students and recommended an approach that would require the school to bend its policies and procedures, was key to the development of a creative and effective approach to this problem. While Jones analysis of factors contributing to the schools longstanding but ineffective approach to poor attendance is strong, it is his emotional insight and thoughtful listening that breaks the log jam of this problem. The content of this analysis would be strengthened if he explored more deeply and consistently the emotional aspects to effective leadership. When Jones describes a series of cultural levers that can be pulled or pushed to shift a culture, he notes the desire of students and teachers to work in an environment that provides them with the freedom to decide what gets done, a signal that they are being listened to and a feeling that they are making a difference in the world (p. 121). He also notes that teachers and students will only make the effort to venture beyond their intellectual comfort zones when respect, trust, and meaning are restored to classrooms (p.121).
While the book is rich with tables, lists, and other resources that document the work that Jones did and that others can do in order to reshape a culture, the strategies from this book would be better supported by a deeper exploration of the actions of a leader that inspires trust. While Jones mentions this important domain, his analysis does not focus on it deeply. Jones practical strategies, recommendations, and techniques, as potent as they may be, will not shift a culture without a foundation of trust.