Gunston Middle School is a school in northern Virginia with more than 60 different nationalities and more than 30 different home languages represented within the student body. We were a school that celebrated rich diversity, but we did not equitably educate all students for high levels of success. Gunston had a history of not meeting all the federal benchmarks until school year 2017–18. It is challenging to drive change in a school, but even more so when the school culture operates as if change is not needed.

“Warm” schools are schools with robust traditions for celebrating diversity and established routines to demonstrate care for students. But providing social support to diverse students isn’t enough, as Lisa Delpit explains in her book Multiplication Is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children. The more efficacious combination for a school to strive for is “warm” and academically “demanding.” “Warm demanders” are able to produce the greatest academic gains for students.

As a principal, you may not be able to change teachers’ attitudes; however, you are able to change practices and routines. While taking steps to make schools more academically demanding, it’s important to continually reiterate that the shift is not away from “warm” and socially supportive, but rather it’s a shift toward more inclusive and demanding attitudes, practices, and routines.

Here we share some strategies and processes that we used to shift the culture at Gunston Middle School to support all learners.

A Culture That Values Data

During an initial gallery walk using data from the state assessment, Gunston teachers had difficulty acknowledging the reality of the school’s poor performance. In the debrief, multiple comments were made about “warm” activities that should be highlighted alongside the data, like International Night. Looking at data is very personal for teachers. Some may think that bad data means you are bad at what you do. If some of your staff feels this way, remind them that the purpose of reviewing data is for students to receive the best instruction and to address individual learning needs.

Start by auditing existing data-monitoring processes—obviously you need to know how students are doing to determine whether and when to fix the system. You can tap into Richard Dufour’s work on professional learning communities to approach data using three guiding questions:

  1. What do we want students to learn?
  2. How will we know they have learned it?
  3. How do we respond when students have difficulty?

If teachers operate with great levels of autonomy, the ability to monitor growth is hindered, so a common data source is essential. When teams create common formative assessments, data can be used to adjust instruction. If one teacher has significantly different results, the team is better able to identify what contributed to the difference.

Once you’ve gathered your students’ data and are looking to improve results, consider tailoring a plan to effectively help those who are struggling the most. Effective core instruction is present when 75–80 percent of the learners demonstrate mastery of the skill. How do you operate with surgical precision to impact the remaining 20 percent? Learners who need the most should have access to the best. Implement strategies that:

  • Create and analyze learner data to support instructional placement
  • Restructure classes in response to data
  • Review and modify the continuum of services (treatments) for each department
  • Establish criteria for learner placement

Curriculum is the heart of core instruction; it is the “what” (standard or learning objectives) and “how” (unit plans, lesson plans, assessments, and other materials). Focus on curriculum is key in shifting the culture to support achievement for all learners.

Standardize Curriculum to Build Culture

There are some inescapable realities when dealing with data; a single department can have wide teacher variance, and schools contain a range of personalities and pedagogy, as well as teachers with varying skills and abilities. Given these truths, we must acknowledge that every teacher may not be equipped to meet the learning needs of all students. Standardization of curriculum is essential. The quality of learners’ experiences should not be dependent on which teacher they happen to get.

Creating a standardized curriculum is important to building a positive culture of the school. Ensure there is common language and processes so that all learners can understand. Common language is not just created horizontally by grade level teams, but also vertically across all grades. When schools are not intentional in crafting curriculum and standardizing it across grade levels, for example, students might face a new writing process every year—making it much more difficult for a struggling learner to master the skill of writing.

The most salient point in curriculum consideration is maintaining focus and momentum. With competing district initiatives and a plethora of resources to choose from, it can lead to paralysis in the curriculum planning and the implementation process, impacting the quality of instruction for all learners.

What can a principal do to ensure the school’s curriculum work remains focused and momentum on curriculum planning is not lost? You may need to embrace the idea of selectively abandoning anything that is not in alignment with the plan, system, or processes that have been established by the school or department. This may require something as large as respectfully pushing back on district initiatives when they are not thoughtfully curated or lack a plan for systemic implementation at the school level. It may also be as small as saying no to a departmental field trip request.

Transforming Teacher Leaders

Making a culture shift that results in high levels of achievement for all learners—and especially for diverse learners—also requires leveraging the expertise of teacher leaders. As a principal, you cannot be a part of every conversation about instruction and instructional practices. Strong teacher leaders bridge that gap.

The role of the principal is to foster the development and support the work of teacher leadership. Initially, this work may include removing long-standing individuals from positions and elevating different teachers to those leadership roles. Look for new teacher leaders from among those recently hired or from teachers who have not previously been selected for those positions. Teacher leaders invite teachers to work in a different way, and the principal’s role is to communicate, reinforce, and hold their staff accountable.

Be sure you transform the teacher-​leadership position away from being mainly about management functions and toward a focus on instruction and instructional practices. It is important to establish that department time is used to learn together to better meet the needs of students. To make that expectation a common practice, it will need to be reiterated and reinforced.

Giving teacher leaders time during the instructional day to coach other teachers, to assist with data analysis, and to model lessons is also effective in shifting a culture. Allowing the teacher leader to retain some teaching responsibilities (both to serve as a model classroom and to keep their practice grounded) is another effective strategy.

Finally, you may not initially have strong teacher leadership for each department or team. You will need to be creative and leverage teacher leadership in nontraditional ways.

Lori Wiggins, EdD, is principal and Shantha Smith, PhD, is a reading specialist at Gunston Middle School in Arlington, VA.

Sidebar: Making It Work

Use these three high-yield strategies to support all learners:

  • Data: Encourage conversations around data to include individual student performance (e.g., by student or by standard performance).
  • Curriculum: Audit curriculum to evaluate curriculum needs and assess its ability to meet the needs of all learners.
  • Teacher leadership: Elevate teacher leadership to support instruction, not just management of department and teams.