(Originally posted on On Principal.)

By John Falino

The beginning of the school year is always an optimal time to engage teachers in some “big picture” thinking. Enthusiasm and energy are at a high as teachers are well rested and optimistic about the possibilities of a new school year. As part of our two-day opening meetings this past week, @careim2 and I spent some time discussing the idea of going from “good to great” with our faculty. Based loosely on the work of Jim Collins, our teachers considered what it means to be a “great” school, what we have done to get us closer to “great,” and what we still need to do in the upcoming year and beyond. I engaged the staff in a similar activity during our first faculty meeting in 2011 and shared their responses at the opening of this meeting. It led to some chuckles and a realization that we have come a long way in our two years together.

The question of how a school goes from “good” to “great” is an “essential” question in every sense of the word. It is thought provoking, lacks one definitive answer, and prompts additional questions and ideas. Ask any school leader if they feel that their school is “great” and you are likely to get a quick “yes” based on that person’s respective definition of the term. I can do the same. In addition to having full participation in the prestigious IB Diploma Program, our students excel in the arts, enjoy a full menu of co-curricular offerings, and are regularly among the best in the county in academics, athletics, science research, visual arts, film, and music. I can go on and on…

So do we have a “great” school?  What makes for a “great” school? And what do “good” schools need to do in order to get to the next level? Our faculty took to Twitter to share their thoughts on the subject. Check out our hashtag (#DFHS2014) for the full list. Here are some of the highlights…

1. “A great school has a common set of values and a shared vision for success. All stakeholders share accountability.” (@ScottPatrillo)

Having a shared vision that fully captures the values of the entire community is a fundamental component of any successful organization. Think Understanding By Design (UBD) on this one. Just as students attain greater understanding when teachers plan (and think) with the end in mind, the same holds true when members of the school community are guided by a common vision along with a shared sense of direction and purpose.

2. “Keep the long view, but also remember that change happens one day at a time.” (@Hoffmanr2044)

Perspective is critical and stakeholders in the most successful schools have it. While schools must be guided by a clear vision that aims for a better tomorrow, it is equally important that all stakeholders recognize the importance of putting in the work each and every day in order for it to be realized. Just as “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” the same holds true for schools that are “great.”

3. “In a great school every participant, EVERY, is engaged and challenged and learning something new everyday!” (@MegHalberg)

Connecting and reaching ALL students is without question the most important function of every school and is what the “great” schools do better than the rest. “Great” schools are differentiated to the core and truly provide “something for everyone” through co-curricular activities and a flexible curriculum that is designed to maximize the potential of each student. Teachers in “great” schools also recognize the importance of engaging ALL parents as true partners and work tirelessly to connect them to the school in a meaningful way (@LisaFerrara).john-falino-quote

4. “Great schools recognize struggling students and come up with a unified strategy in handling those situations.” (@ms_sardinia)

A collective commitment to the success of all students goes beyond mere talk in “great” schools as teachers and community organizations work to design and provide programs based on the instructional, social, and emotional needs of the entire student body. Above all else, communication is key as all members of the school community work together to meet the needs of all students. Again, engaging parents and community organizations is a critical aspect of this process along with strong school-based programs in guidance, special education, ELL, and counseling.

5. “Teachers collaborate to build interdisciplinary units and rubrics, making students aware of uniform expectations in all classes.” (@MrCohn9

While you would be hard pressed to find a teacher who would disagree with this point, the challenge is to find schools (particularly high schools) with a structure that allows teachers to collaborate across the disciplines on a consistent basis. “Great” schools not only provide time for this work to occur, but are rooted in the understanding that students must be prepared for an “interdisciplinary” world that continues to change with each passing day. Given that, all subjects are approached from a global perspective and emphasize the importance of learning “how to learn” as opposed to the memorization of rote facts and figures.

6. “A great school has motivated, passionate teachers, motivates students to passion, and is motivated by its leaders.” (@gjdefalco)

I’m sure that most of us can recall a time when we were personally motivated but felt our energy being sapped due to the apathy (negativity?) by those around us. This tweet is significant because it speaks to the importance of synergy within an organization and how passion and motivation are fueled by the energy of others. Take any successful innovation or change that has been successfully implemented and I bet you will find a positive culture that supports new ideas, ongoing learning, and continual growth.

7. Great schools recognize that “better test scores don’t always mean better schools…sometimes scores decrease when making changes to go from good to great.”  (@sarahhmstern)

Perhaps there is no single factor that can greater impact a school’s (in)ability to achieve “greatness” than the influx (barrage?) of standardized exams. As students are being raised in a high stakes test environment that seemingly measures one’s worth based on his/her “level,” teachers, principals, and schools are being evaluated in this same fashion. The danger of course is that schools will go into “survival mode” and demand that teachers redesign their classrooms into test-prep factories. The “great” schools recognize, however, that “greatness” does not lie exclusively in numbers. The schools that continue to lead the way are the ones that can effectively negotiate between the top-down realities that exist and the “real world” skills that students will need to thrive in college, the workforce, and beyond.

Please feel free to comment below or post to our hashtag (#DFHS2014) to share your thoughts on what makes for a “great” school!

John Falino is a Principal at Dobbs Ferry High School. He shares his insights on his website, On Principal. Follow John on Twitter at @johnfalino1.