The Fourth and Current Principal: Wiley's Way

"The three principals who preceded me had a real commitment to share decision making and move teachers toward ownership in what was going on in the school, so when I came it was clearly understood when I interviewed for the position that was the way business was done at Dibert." Thus, Wiley came with the attitude that he would maintain things and, if possible, bring new ideas into the school. He had a sincere appreciation for the management team that represented experience, knowledge, and leadership in the school. The team served as his colleagues as well as his guide in the transition period. "If you are not intimidated by that, then you put your faith in people you work with, and you can become oriented very quickly and get a great deal accomplished," he noted.

A teachers' strike in the district led to considerable tension across the faculty, and it was resolved through "circle table" discussion that was beneficial to both Wiley and the faculty. They sat and leveled with each other about how they were feeling about the strike and their role in it. It was hard for everyone to deal with, but in so doing, they learned how to give Wiley and each other feedback in a group setting or individually. Wiley solicits feedback at times, but on some occasions the faculty lets him know they need to talk about some issues. At other times he pulls them together for a series of meetings to discuss things, where they are "very blunt and deal with emotional kinds of things where people have a hard time saying what they are really feeling . . . but we work our way through it."

This kind of catharsis is used regularly, sometimes with a facilitator. They believe they make the best progress when they sit down as a faculty with an agenda and lay their cards on the table, giving each other explanations about why and how things happen. They liken their process to that of a family where feelings get hurt and where concerns and animosities build up. They recognize the need for a vehicle to dissipate some of that through talking it out. Another family aspect is that staff members address each other and Wiley by their first names. Typically in classrooms, they address each other as "Mr." or "Mrs." but it's not unusual for first names to be used in the presence of children.

To set the family tone, Morning Meeting is used to start the day together. This special daily time with all children, staff, and numbers of parents who attend, is used for sharing and for honoring students. The children have learned how to focus and to listen as their peers contribute to the meeting. These contributions could be a child reading a poem he or she has written; first graders reading a bit from the first primer they have completed; reports about field trips that have been taken; presentations of projects underway or finished; or a demonstration of peer mediation from fifth or sixth graders who use their skills to ameliorate problems on the play yard. Wiley conducts this meeting, but it is really the children who are the participants.

Wiley's area of specialization and professional preparation is in curriculum. The teachers report that he has brought an emphasis on the use of technology as an instructional tool and a focus on curriculum. His tenure as middle school assistant principal shaped his concerns that students be ready to matriculate from the elementary to middle school. With Wiley, the faculty examines their California Achievement Test data to identify areas of non-mastery and partial mastery. Their goal is to move all kids up, with particular - attention to students in the bottom quartile with whom they have had good success in moving into the second quartile.

One of the goals that Wiley and the faculty set for the new school year was to explore and adopt a curriculum to which they could all subscribe. They had been thinking for quite a long time about the need for a consistent curriculum so that every child received an adequate and appropriate set of learning opportunities. Further, they wanted a curriculum that would foster their vision of multiculturalism, since the school had always been diverse, the rainbow school, and they want to perpetuate that.

From attendance at a national conference, one of the teachers brought information about a curriculum for exploration. Wiley and this key teacher planned how to share information and support the staff in their curriculum decision-making process. An initial activity, led by Wiley, was to revisit the school's mission and reiterate its operating principles, and then to look at the curriculum in light of the vision that the faculty shared for the school. They did a force-field analysis of the benefits and disadvantages of the curriculum in relationship to their vision for the school and its multicultural mission. They planned a thematic unit from the curriculum so they could feel a real sense of how the curriculum would work, the materials needed to start, and areas of need for inservice. They also planned how to use a consultant (a teacher from another state who was using the curriculum).

In addition to spending a great deal of time at the copy machine preparing materials for teachers' inspection and analysis, Wiley encouraged staff to go to a national conference in another state, that would focus on the curriculum, its users, and adaptations made by schools. Sixteen teachers and Wiley flew to the two-day conference at their own expense to attend general sessions and breakout sessions related to their own teaching assignments. Twice daily Wiley gathered them around the swimming pool to discuss their learnings and how to share them with their colleagues at home.

At various times in the curriculum search process, Wiley was seen by observers as "pushing" and at other times as showing patience and reassuring the staff that he was not unequivocally "for" this curriculum. His role in the process could best be described as "guide on the side" in contrast to "sage on stage," to borrow terms from the popular press. "Are you sure you want to do this?" he asked as they all became weary. "Yes," they said," it's just that it's going to be a lot of work and we all need to commit to it." They did.

Next Page: Creating a Learning Community at Dibert

Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 4, Number 1, Schools as Learning Communities (1994)