School Improvement: Building a Covenant

For those of us who have been in education for a lengthy period of time, our longevity has classified us as “veterans.” And for those of us who have worn the mantle of time that only experience can provide, we are well aware of the volumes of books in the Library of Congress that deal with the topic of education. There have been a myriad of treatises and research articles on how we can improve, change, and revitalize education. Yet, in the course of our readings occasionally we come across a publication that is timeless. Regardless of when it was written or when it is read or who reads it, there are those universal principles that are ageless. The message conveyed resonates with educators no matter what era they may inhabit.

I read such a publication that was printed nearly twenty-one years ago; it was entitled Moral Leadership: Getting to the Heart of School Improvement by Dr. Thomas Sergiovanni. He is now professor emeritus of Education and Administration at Trinity University, at San Antonio, Texas.  Sergiovanni’s premise rested on the belief that if we were to improve our schools, there had to be a new leadership practice and the establishment of a true sense of collegiality with teachers. According to Sergiovanni that new approach is one where administrators embrace leadership with a moral dimension centered on purpose, values and beliefs. (Sergiovanni, Moral Leadership, 73)

Such an approach transforms a school from being a clinical bureaucratic organization to a vibrant learning community, which then inspires the type of commitment, excellence, and service that can make schools great.  This leadership practice can compel people to a unified sense of purpose. The by-product of this environment is the establishment of a covenantal relationship between administration and faculty.  A covenant that rests on shared commitment to ideas, issues, values and goals within an environment where teachers move to become self-managers.

Once we have established this collegial community where there is a purpose based on values and beliefs, the students become the beneficiaries. The covenantal relationship lays the ground work for what Sergiovanni calls the “virtuous school.” Some of the basic characteristics that make for a virtuous school according to Sergiovanni:

  • The virtuous school believes that to reach its full potential in helping students learn, it must become a learning community.
  • The virtuous school believes that every student can learn, and it does everything in its power to see that every student does learn.
  • The virtuous school honors respect. The virtuous school respects teachers by acknowledging both their professional commitment and their knowledge of craft.
  • In the virtuous school parents, teachers, community and school are partners… (Sergiovanni, 112-113)

For the virtuous school to be successful, Sergiovanni strongly believes in the “servant leadership” role of the administrator. This role is practiced by serving others, but its ultimate purpose is to place oneself and others for whom one has responsibility, in the service of the ideals that make for a virtuous school.  Such an approach reinforces the shared commitment in building covenantal communities, encourages empowerment and strengthens collegiality.  For Sergiovanni this reinforces the role of the teacher as an integral part of the community. For him, “Collegiality cannot be understood in the abstract. What makes two people colleagues is common membership in a community, commitment to a common cause, shared professional values, and a shared professional heritage. Without this common base, there can be no meaningful collegiality” (Sergiovanni, 91).

In a recent Catapult Corner our colleague Dr. Susan Abelein, in her article  Turning Over A New School Year: School Leaders as “Context Setters,” accentuates the fact that,  “The most effective path to change means creating a culture wherein a school leader… is willing to facilitate change through collaboration and consensus building among all teachers.”

What prompted me to share this reflection of Sergiovanni’s publication of more than twenty-one years ago is that these thoughts and concepts have relevancy for today, even more so. Although Sergiovanni focused his attention on the cultural environment of a school community, I feel that there are many applications of Sergiovanni’s tenets to what we do and how we serve our stakeholders within the Catapult Learning framework.  Even though we may be a third party contractor, and whatever role in how we function, whether it is in sales or operations, we aim to become part of the fabric of school life.

Catapult Learning is seen as an organization, but for those of us working within the confines of its mission statement we are a community of professionals. We have dedicated ourselves in ensuring that every student and partner interaction is excellent.  We truly fulfill that concept as defined by Sergiovanni. We have a leadership that embraces a moral dimension centered on purpose, values, and beliefs, which then inspires commitment, excellence and service.

Sergiovanni’s insightful treatise can still incite those who want to move our educational institutions from the bureaucratic and clinical approach of “schooling” to the vibrant, exhilarating, experience of creating “learning” communities.  We at Catapult can both set that tone while we partner with those who see the value of school improvement as an ongoing process. It is a process that relies on a servant leadership, building a collegial community, and willing to take risks for the sake of excellence.

Reference

Sergiovanni, Thomas J. (1992). Moral Leadership: Getting to the Heart of School Improvement. Jossey-Bass Inc, Publishers

Dr. Ronald Valenti has devoted forty-five years to Catholic education both as a high school teacher and administrator. He served the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for twenty-five years as teacher and principal. In 1975, Cardinal Krol appointed Dr. Valenti as the first laymen in the history of Catholic education in Philadelphia to serve as principal. In 1990 he was appointed by Cardinal Keeler to lead the Archdiocese of Baltimore as its superintendent of Catholic schools, a position which he held for twenty years.

His career has been marked by notable recognition and accomplishments. In 2008 he was invited by President George W. Bush to participate in the White House Summit for Faith Based Schools. In 2002 he received an award from the Baltimore Jewish Council in recognition of his cultivating a collaborative relationship between the Christians and Jewish communities. In 2004, His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, conferred on Dr. Valenti a Papal Award and Honor for his outstanding contributions to Catholic education.

1 Comment

  1. John Fergus September 25, 2012 Reply

    Thanks, Dr. Valenti! Service to others, collegiality, and consideration are integral parts of life, they begin as individual actions but ultimately benefit society as a whole. How could they not be part of the learning community?
    Great post..thanks again and I look forward to the next one.

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