Dan MacDonald, A Learning Leader

If you ask Principal Dan MacDonald about the secret sauce behind the rising student achievement levels at Shannon Elementary, he’ll smile at you and tell you he has nothing to do with it. In fact, he’ll tell you that the only magic of his is reserved for when he’s playing his guitar.

The numbers tell a different story. Tucked away on Marlesta Road in Pinole, Shannon Elementary is doing something right. With 70% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch, 30% of students classified as English Learners, 15% of students identifying as African American, and 12% of students receiving special education services, Shannon is a near mirror of West Contra Costa Unified’s overall statistics. When we looked at the last three years of SBAC scores from West Contra Costa schools, Shannon was an obvious standout. In three years time we’ve seen an impressive gain in both ELA and Math.

We visited Shannon on a rainy Friday just before a week-long break. With two teachers out sick, eager students gathering around to hear their temporary room assignment, and two students having a rough start to their day, Principal MacDonald does not miss a beat. He knows exactly which room will best accommodate each student; he helps the two students settle into their day by creating space for them to voice their needs; and he steps right up to the whiteboard in a 5th grade class to write out an agenda that best follows the classroom’s Friday norms.

Shannon’s hallways are incredibly welcoming. We are warmly greeted by every parent and staff; young people walk quietly and courteously to their destination; and older students help younger ones find their way to classrooms. Everyone stopped to say hello to Principal MacDonald. In what should have been a chaotic day, after weeks of rain, there is a calm and an ease in the air.  

So what’s really going on inside the halls and classrooms of Shannon Elementary?

We discovered three key themes that we propose are difference-makers: a focus on relationship development, a commitment to distributed leadership, and modeling authenticity for students and staff.

Strong Relationships Are Central to the Learning Process

The power of positive relationships is one of Shannon Elementary’s visible core values. That Friday, a teacher on a prep break checked in with young people working in the hallway and with the principal to see if any support was needed given that two teachers were out. The school’s support staff were equally as eager to contribute: the custodian helped a young man reset his day and the instructional aides knew the unique learning needs of each student and customized conversation, accordingly.

During our time with Principal MacDonald – both in conversation and as a captive audience – it is obvious that he is keen on maintaining healthy relationships with his students, families, and his staff. While the students are undeniably his first priority, Principal MacDonald is clear that he works to ensure “everyone is taken care of, as best as can be,” and that he is very protective of his relationships with his teachers. Principal MacDonald credits his mentor, Principal Greg Santiago of Hanna Ranch Elementary, with helping him understand the clear difference between supporting and enabling as a leader. In other words, Principal MacDonald is clear that he wants to see all of his teachers thrive, and he looks to grow their capacity as leaders by showing humility, generating trust, and encouraging autonomy.

Building Distributed Leadership

In the middle of the hallway, we found the school’s mission, vision, and theory of action clearly displayed on a central wall. Principal MacDonald gave us his summary: “We want all the students to be successful, we want all the teachers to run the school, and we want the parents to be supports.”

Principal MacDonald undoubtedly sees the potential to lead in all of his staff, and is passionate about further developing their leadership skills. He is open to all feedback and welcomes staff pushback in pursuit of what is best for students. Most importantly, he can yield the floor. “I had to admit when I was not leading very well,” he shared, “and people think I’m berating myself but merely I’m being honest.” In his mind, his job “is to study his teachers, and to be a historian.” He observes their craft and monitors what is leading to an increase in student achievement, and finds ways to lift up those best practices. “I have to let the teachers run it,” he said with a confident smile, “and they lead like nobody ever saw, because they gained autonomy, they gained power. They became leaders.”

Principal MacDonald also admits that Shannon’s front office staff truly runs the show.  He sees every role as vital to the health and success of the school, and values every member of the team for the key part they play. He turned our attention to the front office: “the place can run without me, but not without them.”

We Learn By Watching Others

Principal MacDonald does not think of himself as an instructional leader, instead he refers to himself as a “learning leader.” As a learning leader, he models the importance of personal growth, more specifically, what it means to learn from your mistakes and find ways to improve. Principal MacDonald strives to be honest, is candid about what he knows and where he needs support, and is not shy about seeking input.

One of Shannon’s veteran teachers explained that Principal MacDonald is constantly working hard alongside teachers, and he believes this to be a key factor in Shannon’s success. When a teacher is out, he jumps in and substitutes– he does everything in his power to keep a positive learning environment intact.  

In Shannon’s halls there is an apparent shared commitment to humanity that is seen among teachers, among students, and between adults and young people. We saw many individuals model grace, patience, and kindness on a day that was far from an average Friday.

Tiffany Cowan, now 8 years into her role as one of Shannon’s leading front office staff, said it best: “We are one big family here and it’s our job to guide our future generation.”

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