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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Part 2: A leader and staff at odds

Below is a continuing excerpt of my KnowledgeWorks Foundation book, "Learning to be Leaders." It documents the small schools transformation at Cleveland Heights High School over a four-year period. Part 1 is found here. You can download or order a copy here.

A Leader and Staff at Odds

As the 2005-06 school year begins, Engoglia is determined to prove to his staff that he’s capable of leading through change, of encouraging good classroom teaching and of reaching the students who haven’t been achieving. He is eager to show that he’s ready for this job despite having left the classroom early in his career, a criticism some on the staff level.

Engoglia’s interest in administration began when he was teaching in the West Geauga School District, where Cleveland Heights-University Heights Superintendent Deborah Delisle was assistant superintendent (She has since been named State Superintendent and assumes her new duties Dec. 1). He got his first chance at leadership there, joining a Professional Learning Community (PLC), a small group of teachers who foster collaboration in an effort to achieve measurable results. The PLC was able to influence professional development in the district, partly because of Delisle’s leadership.

“Working with her at West G helped me in terms of wanting to go into administration,” says Engoglia.

That experience helped to shape his views on teachers as professionals. “It was all about making teachers better and about helping kids.”

By his third year of teaching, Engoglia was vice president of the teachers’ union, a much different position than his current one on the administration’s negotiating team.

He brings those high expectations for professionalism, student achievement and leadership to Legacy School. But Engoglia’s approach continuously bumps up against the established practices of his mostly veteran teaching staff, often with painful results.

What’s more, his leadership style can be confrontational. Engoglia’s youthful energy and occasional defensiveness fuel teachers’ qualms as he takes on the new job.

His initial meeting with teachers is a disaster. The staff, used to teaching the brightest honors and AP students, is struggling to adjust to the demands of a more diverse student body, some of whom are disengaged from learning or unprepared for the rigor.

Engoglia talks about how important it is to teach all the kids, regardless of their background. But when the conversation turns to questions of whether a young white guy from the high-achieving community of West Geauga is qualified to lead Legacy, the comments feel personal. They do not know, or do not remember, that he student-taught at Cleveland Heights High School in 1993-94 and understands the challenges that the school faces every day. Engoglia lashes back, and the encounter turns ugly, wounding relations between him and his staff.

Complicating matters, Engoglia and the person chosen by the staff as teacher leader have very different styles. The teacher leader position is designed to bridge the divide between teachers and administration, and during transitions teacher leaders often encourage staff through the many changes needed to make a new school work. Legacy’s teacher leader first runs decisions by the union leadership, causing what Engoglia sees as endless delays that hinder meaningful progress.

The news isn’t all bad, however. While some staff members are critical or undecided, others embrace the new vision. David Stewart, who teaches the popular American Sign Language class, opted for Legacy. “I chose to come here because of Marc,” says Stewart. “He is approachable and accessible, and I don’t feel as if I have to walk on eggshells when I talk to him.”

“Marc listens and that’s vital,” says Stewart. “If I have a kid in my class who feels he can’t talk to me, I can’t reach him. The same is true for teachers and administrators. An administrator can’t do an effective job of leading if the staff doesn’t trust him.”

Year Two: Slow Progress Toward Trust

As the school moves into its second year in fall 2006, a few more of the ingredients for success are falling into place. The staff has changed, with many of the most vocal critics having retired and been replaced by newcomers open to the new model. The teacher leader still proceeds with caution, but Engoglia begins to rely on another teacher who is more allied with his vision.

But in October the differing views over Engoglia’s expectations boil over. The grievance over his memo about the literacy seminar is filed on behalf of the entire Legacy staff. Engoglia is troubled both by the grievance and by the fact that no one on the staff tried to talk to him before filing it.

After the grievance hearing, Engoglia is told to write a letter of apology to the staff. He does, but his letter is not so much an apology as a clarification of his expectation and does little to soothe hard feelings. Teachers, still uncertain whether their principal understands their concerns, consider writing a rebuttal, but don’t.

More than a year later, Engoglia remains resolute about his standards for the teachers. “I was not going to write a letter to staff refuting high expectations.”

Despite his conviction, the grievance rocks Engoglia. Uncertain whether he will ever gain teachers’ trust enough to be able to lead effectively, he considers leaving. He is offered the chance to return to West Geauga, where he lives and where the schools are generally excellent.

The offer presents not only the chance to escape the frustrations at Legacy, but also a tempting career opportunity. Since Engoglia has his superintendent’s certificate, it could be a stepping-stone to the top job.

Even so, Engoglia decides not to leave.

“I stayed for many reasons, but mostly I enjoy the people I’m working with and I enjoy what I’m doing,” he says later. “It’s challenging, but I see success. I see my juniors … and they are doing well.”

For now, he’ll remain in his spacious office with the large bay window that looks out onto the campus courtyard. Propped against the window are his credentials – a bachelor’s degree from Purdue University, where he also was a walk-on outfielder on the baseball team; a master’s degree from John Carroll University; and a certificate from Cleveland State University’s Leadership Academy for administrators committed to working in urban environments.

A former middle school English teacher, he has shelves of books on leadership, education, literature. On his desk are some of the books he reads late at night: What Great Principals Do Differently and On Common Ground: The Power of Professional Learning Communities.

He also keeps a stash of Costco goodies – penny pretzel sticks, fruit snacks, granola bars, pistachios and candy – in his credenza. With its almost-always open door, his office is a frequent stop for hungry teachers and students. Engoglia hopes that as time goes on his efforts at creating an inviting atmosphere will help more of his staff feel welcome there.

A Partner in Change

As the year comes to a close, Engoglia gets a reason for optimism. It is time for teachers to choose a new teacher leader, and in May they select math teacher Karen Kastor. Engoglia has been working with Kastor informally and is pleased to have an ally in a leadership position.

A product of Catholic schools, Kastor has been teaching at Heights since 1998. She had moved to the middle school, but volunteered to come back to the high school when she heard about the small schools initiative.

Though she commutes from a far eastern suburb, she doesn’t mind because she says the kids at Legacy need her more than kids at a more affluent school. With a husband and four young children at home, she has developed a nurturing, jovial and sometimes stern personality that helps her reach urban students.

“Once you get to know our kids, you feel obligated to help them succeed. They don’t have many people who care about them. But we do,” she says.

With a teacher leader well suited to help bridge the gap with staff, Engoglia could finally begin to see faster progress. Privately, though, he worries that the clipped, no-nonsense tone they share could turn off some.

Legacy can’t afford many more missteps. At the end of its second year, the school meets just two of 13 indicators on the state report card, the least of any of the schools at Cleveland Heights High, and has the highest number of teacher-initiated discipline referrals.

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