Something felt different in Southern California, and I’m not just talking about the beaches, the palm trees, or the bird of paradise flowers that don’t generally sprout here in Washington.
I admit it — I love this place. Many years ago, I went to college out here, and I can still remember my freshman roommate muttering in his sleep one predawn morning as our room shook like it was tethered to a roller coaster:
“Go back to sleep; it’s just an earthquake.”
Just an earthquake. It was — and here’s a California expression I learned that year — “No big.”
So when I visited the Long Beach Unified School District last spring to do a story on why this highly diverse, seaside district is one of the top-performing urban school systems in the nation, I was predisposed to like the place. But it wasn’t just palm trees and nostalgia. After spending hours talking to teachers, administrators, and other school leaders, including the superintendent and a school board member, I concluded: These people are good: They’re engaged. They’re focused. Dedicated. Not in it for themselves, it seems, but for the district’s mission itself.
For lack of a better term, I referred to the atmosphere as one of “relaxed professionalism.”
Kimberly Hough, who has a piece in ASBJ’s June issue, has another word for what produces this kind of working environment: “humility.” It’s something we don’t often talk about, but it’s enormously important to being an effective school leader.
“Humble people are curious people,” writes Hough, an assistant superintendent with West Virginia’s Berkeley County Schools. “They feel comfortable admitting what they don’t know and with finding the answers. They are able to simultaneously recognize their own strengths and see their own weaknesses. They are open to feedback and making adjustments.”
Hough has done research that measures school leaders’ humility and its correlation with student achievement in math and English. She arrived at humility – or the lack thereof – by comparing leaders’ estimation of themselves with the estimations of those around them. Not surprisingly, the in-agreement self-raters (as opposed to the over-estimators and under-estimators) correlated with the highest student achievement.
Pretty interesting stuff – and it pretty much nails the leadership culture I saw at Long Beach Unified, which has been widely recognized for its success.
“One thing I appreciate about this school district – they celebrate,” says Long Beach school board President Felton Williams. “And then they go back to work.”
Or, as my roommate might have put it: “No big.”