As regular readers know, each month I interview people in the education world about whom I want to learn more. You can see read those past interviews here.
Ted Appel is the exceptional principal at the school where I teach, Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento. It’s the largest inner-city high school in the city, and over half of our students are English Language Learners. Ted has also been interviewed by Learning First, and he and I have co-authored an article titled The Positive Impact Of English Language Learners At An Urban School.
What led you to teaching in the classroom, and what prompted your decision to become a principal?
I had been working in outdoor programs for youth at risk for a few years, which was very rewarding and fun, but I felt like school had a overpowering impact on a child’s feelings about being a successful person. I also became interested in the experiential education movement and wondered how it could be applied to classroom learning.
I went into administration because I believed I had received some good training in strong instructional practices and I thought I could have a broader impact by training other teachers in some of those strategies. I eventually became a principal because I realized it was important to have influence over the whole culture of the school in order to really impact the practices in the classroom.
What are the three best things you think you’ve done since you’ve become Burbank’s principal, and what might be three mistakes?
I think the best thing I’ve helped to do at Luther Burbank is create an environment where teachers who are committed to making a difference in students’ lives, have an opportunity to do that work. We’ve created structures, in which everyone has a part, that have resulted in an environment that is orderly, consistent, respectful and dynamic. As a result, we’ve also been able to attract the kind of idealistic, talented, innovative, committed people, an urban school needs in order to make a real difference in kids’ lives.
The other thing I try to do is talk to a lot of people, a lot. The decision making/improvement process is ongoing. I put a lot of ideas out into discussion, hear a lot of feedback and alternative ideas. I think this dynamic leads to a positive professional culture and results in good decisions and creative experiments.
The first big mistake I made when I started was to allow students to use cell phones in the halls during lunch and passing periods. There was an incredible outbreak of organized fights including people from off campus. The hall monitors came to speak with me after three weeks and said, “change the policy or we quit”. What I learned wasn’t just about cell phone rules. I learned that if I think it may be a good idea to make some kind of change, I needed to involve the people who have different perspectives and or would be affected by the decision.
I understand that I make a lot of decisions every day and so I make a lot of mistakes, or don’t do things as well as I could or should. I approach the job like a constant job interview. You try to anticipate issues or questions and prepare with the best approach you know. You often need to think on your feet for what you perhaps did not expect. And you constantly analyze what you said or did and realize how you could have approached it better.
For principals who want to spend some reflective time on their own practice, what might be some important questions you’d recommend they might want to ask themselves?
I think principals need to consider who they talk to. Are they sharing ideas and listening to teachers and staff or just other administrators at the site and central office?
Are the structures, rules, and customs of the school currently necessary and relevant or do they exist for reasons that have disappeared?
Do you believe in the programs and practices of your school, or are you just managing and complying with rules and regulations that have been handed to you?
In looking at the beliefs of those who often self-described as “school reformers,” what do you think might be helpful ideas and unhelpful ones, and why?
It seems that the basis of the current school reform movement, is the belief that teachers and schools are not sufficiently motivated to get better. Thus, competition, punishment and rewards geared to outcome goals are their “innovations” for change and improvement. I believe this creates perverse incentives to manipulate outcomes rather than encourage know how and motivate sound practice.
I also don’t think it is helpful to refuse to acknowledge that some students come to school with intellectual, social, and cultural advantages to be successful in school environments. Acknowledging this fact is not a surrender to poor results. It is merely recognizing what anyone working in a classroom sees every day. It also helps when trying to honestly analyze what is needed, in terms of different approaches and resources, to help students to be successful. We have no problem acknowledging this in art, music or athletics. Why is there such fear in acknowledging it in academics?
I think it can be valuable to give students nationally normed tests. But these tests should not be used to label schools as good or bad. They should be used as a means to evaluate practice and examine ways schools can get better at helping students improve in the skills being assessed.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?
People want school improvement to come from a simple fix. With variables as complex as society itself, there will be no simple solutions for all schools and all kids. We need to approach improvement in education not as a fix but as an ongoing dynamic that is achieved through consistent commitment to a common ideal; all children, through education, are entitled to the widest possible array of intellectual, cultural, social, political and economic opportunity. This goal is certainly not easy, nor can we ever really know if it is fully realized. That understanding, that we will never have the absolute answer should not be a source of frustration, should be a source of energy and pride.