Fresh voices signal positive change at DHS

By Brian Knox | Published Saturday, August 9, 2014

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The new school year always offers students and teachers a fresh start.

That will be especially true for Decatur High School. Newcomers include not only the incoming freshmen but also the principal and nearly a third of the teaching staff, including a new athletic director.

Brian Knox

Brian Knox

Turnover is a part of life in public education, as with any job. Some teachers find their spot right away and stay for 20 years. Others take some time to find the right fit, moving around to different districts (or within the district).

But it is rare to see the turnover rate this high. Most likely, it’s an anomaly. A few are retiring. A new athletic director was hired, and that usually means several coaching changes.

But there were also grumblings heard around the community about low morale at the high school last year, and more than a few people think that played a part in some teachers leaving. I can’t really say if that is true, or how big of an issue that was/is.

And honestly, since we’re talking about a “fresh start,” I’m not interested in assigning blame or looking to the past.

Instead, I was encouraged by what new principal Jeff Russell had to say when I interviewed him this past week. We visited for nearly an hour and touched on several subjects for a story in the midweek Messenger.

I was particularly interested to hear him talk about encouraging and building relationships with teachers.

On the subject of staff turnover, Russell said he’s experienced it before while at Birdville ISD.

“The first year I was principal, I had two new assistant principals and two new counselors,” he said. “We spent a lot of time communicating about how things should be done. It was cumbersome at first, but it became more efficient over time.”

Russell admitted it could be challenging at first with so many new team members, but that hard work pays dividends.

“It should be a rewarding year,” he said.

Russell has already started the process of building relationships with teachers. He held a series of breakfasts this past week and invited teachers to join him. When I visited with him Monday, he had just finished the first one and was pleased with the turnout.

“It says a lot about them that they are willing to come up here and start that process,” he said. “I saw a lot of good leaders.”

Those who attended received the book “Strengths Finder 2.0” about identifying individual strengths and putting them in a position to succeed. But perhaps just as important, Russell said, is developing strong relationships with each other.

Evidence of that can be found on a blog Russell created while he was at BISD. Aimed specifically at teachers, it’s filled with encouraging articles, videos, birthday wishes, daily events and even kudos to teachers by name for specific work they’ve done for students.

Encouragement is a big part of Russell’s relationship with students and staff. He pointed out that to change behavior, studies have shown you use a 5-to-1 ratio of positive comments to critical comments.

Russell used that mindset to help take an underperforming middle school and make it one of the most successful in the Birdville school district. When asked how he did it, he replied, “It was about the kids and teachers really believing in themselves.”

He also wants staff to feel safe – not just the “not getting bullied” kind of safe, he said, but the ability to feel safe to try, and fail if necessary, new things.

“The only way that happens is if people fail a few times and know that, ‘He wants us to try new things, and it’s OK. We’re going to get better,'” he said.

We had to wrap up our visit at the end of the hour Monday because another teacher candidate had arrived for a job interview – one more reminder of the changes taking place at the high school.

But it’s also a chance for new relationships to blossom.

If those relationships are positive, that will lead to the ultimate goal: student success.

Brian Knox is special projects manager for the Messenger.

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