“East” of the west

For the next few weeks, I want to use my school improvement blog to introduce you to a few principals, their schools and the turnaround work that they are doing (or have done) to make a difference in the lives of students.  It is my absolute honor to know them and to have worked with these amazing leaders. Today, we are going to start in Gresham, Oregon and my friends at East Gresham Elementary School. I may have included a few snippets from the school over the last year so I am apologizing up front about repeating myself… some great things are just worth repeating, right??

I met Kimberly Miles, Principal at East Gresham Elementary almost five years ago.  My first work with her was quite simply to conduct a needs assessment and provide a little bit of leadership coaching for her.  We identified areas in need of improvement to really grow her school and quite honestly, at the first, it was a little bit (or a whole lot) of everything.  Kimberly was new to the school and so were many of the staff. They had just received a school improvement grant and a team of us (well, two of us) were assigned to the school to support the work needed.

My colleague, Polly Patrick tackled the heavy lifting right away with the school.  Polly led the staff on a journey of growth mindset; working to establish a more positive culture that was focused on believing in student ability and supporting that same confidence in the students themselves. They did book studies and had deep conversations about purpose, values, beliefs and what they truly wanted the school to become. Picture2 GRIT became part of the culture at the school and refusing to accept failure soon took on a life of its own at the school.

In the meantime, I was working with the staff to establish a collaborative culture. Teachers initiated collaborative team meetings, forming professional learning communities as the way of their work in the school. They learned to agree on what were truly essential learnings for students, how they would assess and they became very, very good at using their data as evidence of learning.  It was such a pleasure to watch their conversations grow over the years to very focused discussions about what students needed to know and, most important, what the adults had to do to make this happen.

I wish that I could tell you that this all happened overnight and that the staff found it really easy to work differently with us.  I sure know that they persevered and stayed the course but the bumps and roadblocks that I often refer to in school improvement were alive and well at the school.  Not every single teacher always loves working in collaborative teams (well, for the most part, in my experience, they do once they see the benefits of the work but maybe not at first) and sometimes they do not get the increase in student achievement right away that they so desire from all of their hard work.  Changing practice is complex for many so as we are working on new ways to work together and better ways to be evidence-based and working hard to build confident learners, we still need to know what we are doing in the classroom is the most effective work. And, so, at East Gresham, instructional strategies were addressed and expectations of what great classrooms looked like were identified. Eventually, teachers owned the process of change and were continuous learners of the critical work needed to improve. And, here are their results:

Smarter Balanced Assessment (National Assessment)

  ELA Meets or Exceeds Math Meets or Exceeds
2014-15* (1styear SBAC) 27.07% 20.45%
2015-16 27.9% 20.1%
2016-17 28.77% 19.86%
2017-18 41.78% 32.85%
2018-19     

ODE Report Card (Oregon State Report Card)

Year Academic Achievement Level Academic Growth Level Student Group Growth Level
NCLB Waiver ratings, Percentages plus 1-5 levels
2014-15 20% 1 20% 1 22.5% 1
2015-16 30% 2 60% 3 42.5% 2
2016-17 40% 2 70% 4 52.5% 3

My proudest accomplishment at the school, (ok, not really my accomplishment but Principal Kimberly’s accomplishment) was the growth in leadership at the school.  Dr. Miles learned to work with a shared leadership model. She created a guiding coalition/leadership team that met consistently.  The teachers on her team truly became the school leaders.  Their agendas developed from business/administrative issues to student-centered problems to address and solve.  They learned to use school wide data as evidence of what they needed to do next.  And, I truly should not be writing here in the past tense because this is still “the way they work” at East Gresham School.  I have to say, when I first met Kimberly, I wasn’t sure if she was going to be able to authentically share the leadership at her school.  As most principals will say, that is a hard thing to do.  You are a new principal and you want to lead.  You were hired to lead the school and given the great responsibility to lead.  So, when someone comes along and asks you to create a shared leadership model and to bring real decisions to the team on a regular basis, that is often too big a mountain for many to climb. Kimberly learned that autonomy and empowerment did not mean giving away anything. It simply created more opportunities for others to provide expertise and discuss and think about their current reality and vision for improvement in a very collaborative way.

I watched Kimberly grow in so many ways over the years and I am most proud of her ability to share leadership.  This style of leading has led her school to successful growth and has provided the framework for a positive, truly collaborative school culture.  One sure sign that things have changed was shared with me this past week. Kimberly told me that she has had few teachers leave in the past year… anyone in a school turnaround situation knows that it is really, really hard to keep great teachers in these challenging schools. Kimberly knows that she has turned the page as staff now want to work at the school.

In closing, I invite you to visit Dr. Miles own blog- https://afewthingsworthreading.blogspot.com/2019/01/a-must-read-for-each-school-leader.html?spref=tw.  I appreciated that she used her blog space to write about a book that I co-authored.  Her ability to continuously read, study and want to learn inspires me  to do all that I can to improve schools.  Have a great week. I look forward to seeing you next Saturday.

 

Reset

During the holidays, I had the great opportunity to ride the “Rock ‘n’ Roller Roller Coaster at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.  I have been known to love my share of roller coasters but I have to say that this is always my favorite one to return to.  It might be that it features a high-speed launch of 0 to 60 miles per hour in just 2.8 seconds… or that it has three inversions, two rollover loops and one corkscrew!!  Or maybe it is really because it is also my daughters’ favorite ride so I have to love it too!  And, as I return to writing this weekly blog that is supposed to be about improving schools, it might just remind me of our school improvement work just a little bit…

As we all return to work this week, there is renewed energy, positive mindsets and lots of  hard work ahead of us.  It is a time to reset our priorities and focus our actions.  There are commitments to revisit, goals to address and a sense of starting over prevails.  It is similar to the very start of the roller coaster… when you first get in, things are quiet and you calmly consider what will happen next.  The first days back to school after any break can feel the same.  You are prepared, and even though you have been there before and know what to expect, you are still anxious to see what will happen next.  You want to feel comfortable and confident and you hope that you are ready to handle anything that comes along.  And, then the ride starts.  To Aerosmith music, the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coasterrockin_outside wastes no time twisting you, turning you and sending you upside down.  It is loud and it is fast and it causes you just enough stress to recognize that you are on a thrill ride.  And, just when you think that you cannot take another second, it quickly comes to an end. If you hang around long enough, the entire ride resets and you can go again. Same start-up, same speed, same thrill.

The school year can feel the same for teachers and leaders.  There are times when all appears calm; when plans are ready, goals are set and we are waiting for students and families to fill the halls and classrooms.  The ride itself can give us enormous positive energy and, at the very same time, be exhausting.  And, just when we think we have handled all that we can handle, it comes to an abrupt end.

Here is my new year’s challenge to you.  Use this time of calm and renewed energy as your “reset”. Reset your systems and practices to ensure you have taken care of the details that will make your ride feel smoother. Take the time to ensure that your actions align with your priorities and that you are truly putting the student first.  Reset your goals to match your focus and take the time to address how you will monitor and celebrate your successes.  Identify what needs to change and take care of these things.   Be evidence-based in all of your decisions and remember that, before you know it, this ride (or, as it really should be called, this school year) will end. Don’t run out of time before you have taken care of the things that are important to you and your students.

Have a great week. As always, I appreciate my readers and love to hear from you. If you want to receive this blog automatically every week in your inbox, please click on “follow” on the right side at the top of the blog.  Help me reach my goal of doubling my number of followers this month! Thanks and I look forward to seeing you next Saturday.

60

Today is my 60th birthday.  For many reasons, it is special.  Family has traveled to be with me for the weekend.  I feel so fortunate with  a strong family, amazing friends, good health, interesting opportunities and beautiful places to live and visit. A year ago, I made a commitment to myself to spend the year doing sixty things that I wanted to do.  I set 60 goals and I am proud to say that I managed to accomplish over 45 of them. It was fun to have a focus and to try some new adventures and have many unique experiences. And, as I write this to you, I am trying not to focus on the few that I missed. It is so easy to let my mind wander to the “I did not accomplish list” rather than celebrating all the things that I did do.

Why is this our mindset? Even though I appreciate my life and work very hard to see the positive in life’s little moments, it is easier for me to tell you what I didn’t do rather than the “done” list.  As the year was progressing, I knew that I was going to miss some. I had an injury that sidelined me for a few months and at that point I knew there were goals that were out of my reach.  There was even a day or two when I thought I should just forget about the list since I wasn’t going to see the whole thing through.  You know the feeling… it is similar to many, many diets that I have tried only to stop when I cheated once!  So, what does this have to do with school improvement? After all, that is what I said that this blog would be about! How can my”60″ list help you  improve your school?

Setting goals is a big part of what I support in my school improvement work.  We have to set direction, know where we are headed and then authentically progress monitor on our way to targets.  I know that anyone reading this who works in business is very aware of targets, goals and accountability.  This has to be the same in our school practices. We use the language of SMART goals and we ask schools to set long-term and short-term goals.  In coaching sessions, I help teachers and administrators think about the evidence that they can collect- daily, weekly, monthly and as the year progresses to know if they are on track with their goals. Sometimes, we have to adjust our goals for reasons that are real.  And, sometimes, we forget to involve the people who really should own the goals… the students.  I was in a school this week that was doing an amazing job of having students self-report. They were tracking their own progress knowing what was expected and having fun doing it with very creative and fun activities and tasks!

I really could have done a better job throughout this year tracking my progress towards the “60”. istockphoto-519362286-612x612.jpg Sometimes I would look at it and make a plan around one or two of them and then I might actually forget about the goals I set.  I lost time when I lost sight of what I said that I would do… what I would focus on. Does this sound like a problem you have as well?

One of the “60” was to publish a book and I was so proud when this book that I coauthored with my amazing, smart friend Jeanne Spiller, was released (https://www.solutiontree.com/products/new-releases/leading-with-intention.html). If you haven’t had a chance to look at it, it really is about keeping your eye on the target and being intentional in your work.  It doesn’t mean being perfect at this. It doesn’t mean that you will never drop the ball or make mistakes. But it is about having a vision of what you want your end results to be and what you will do to get there.

As the end of 2018 draws near, I challenge you to reflect on your approach and mindset.  Do you take the time to set realistic goals and actually progress monitor, adjust and stay the course? Do you get discouraged if you miss an opportunity or take a detour or do you see this as an opportunity to reset your plan?  Are you celebrating what goes well (your 45/60)? What can you do to become more intentional as we head in to 2019?

Thank you for reading with me. This will end my blogs for 2018 and I will look forward to being with you in 2019 (when I will re-focus on the 15 goals I have left to accomplish!).  It has been a pleasure to write and reflect with you and I appreciate you. Have a lovely holiday season and a very happy new year to everyone.

Understanding

At work or home alone, I believe that we set out to be our best selves.  And despite this intention, our days often fall off the rails. We might get lazy and skip that workout that we know we need or just not have the energy to do everything that we committed ourselves to do.  Perhaps, it is more about the distractions that we find in our way; created by others or ourselves.  It doesn’t matter what causes the detour, the distractions are real and often cause confusion and lack of focus.

Visualize a hard-working, dedicated school leader and her staff.  Add a school full of students with large academic deficits, difficult behaviors and some second language needs and consider what might be the distractions for this staff when they are going about the business of school.  They have developed great habits of collaborative planning, they work together to assess student needs and are doing a much better job of finding the most effective strategies to support their students. All signs point to continuous school improvement.  So, why is it so hard for this school to see the growth and feel successful?  What kinds of distractions are taking their energy? How can this work be so hard?

School improvement is not a smooth, straight line. It cannot be accomplished by reading a book and creating a checklist of actions that you can cross off as you do them. It doesn’t happen because someone tells the principal to make it happen.  It is more about taking a few steps forward and then finding that you are stuck, overwhelmed or just confused about what to do next. It sometimes looks like a jigsaw puzzle when you think you are getting close to finishing only to find that you are missing a piece or two.  Teachers and principals often tell me that they are not clear on their next steps or need more clarity on why they are doing what they are doing. Especially when the expectations or directions change.

I was reminded this week of the real issue of outside influences on a school. In this case they came from state  directions and district decisions.  I sensed that despite the common understanding and knowledge by the teachers and administrators of the focused work that was guiding their daily practices, they were constantly feeling that others were requiring more or different.  If it is “different direction” than it is like changing the flight path while the plane is in the air.  If it is just clarifying or expecting accountability on actions that are required, it might just be that the communication of this is new or different.

At the school level, it is critically important that there is a clear understanding of the district and provincial/state expectations.  1*K7xlyFfsYtPc2AKYe3T29QIt is necessary, for example to align school goals to district goals.  It is important that the mission of a district be reflected in the practices of the schools and it is critically important that everyone understands what is expected, why this is the work and how it really looks when we are successful.  A dear mentor and friend, Becky DuFour was often heard saying, “clarity proceeds competence”. How can we expect teachers to get really good at an instructional strategy for example, if they don’t know what it looks like in practice?  How can we expect accountability on result indicators when effective actions are not known or understood?  Where is the leadership in clarifying what this looks like? How can we support the “why” and “how” of the work, not just tell the what?

I believe that there is more work to be done by leaders at all levels to ensure that we understand the needs of teachers and teachers understand what is expected.  I also think that more time should be taken to ask questions of school leaders and teachers so there is clarity on what work is already being done.  In my travels, I do see initiative fatigue, too many new things to try, and not enough time to be clear on how to do that really well. I see opportunities to collaborate around an intentional focus missed because someone might have a different agenda or idea.  It isn’t that the ideas or agendas are misguided but it might be that the timing is off or the conversations have not happened that would bring great understanding of what the school truly needs and how we can best support it.

The first collaborative team has to be the district, state/provincial and school leadership team working together to accomplish the common goal of success for all students. It is a beautiful thing when all adult actions are aligned to this one common goal. And all has to mean all.  In any leadership model, communicating expectations and seeking to understand are transformational skills.  Working in silos will not create success. Consider the “village” that will raise the child and your place in this village.  Thanks for always being with me on Saturday mornings. Have a great week.

 

A Clean House

This week was a week off the road and home.  It was a time for me to do one of my “not so favorite things”, cleaning.  As much as I know how important it is to keep a clean house it isn’t how I want to spend my time.  As I was scrubbing and sorting I realized that this isn’t that much different from the work that I do on the road, school improvement.  You see, continuous improvement of schools requires a constant eye on “sorting and doing” and school leaders are constantly taking care of this kind of business.

As most of the principals who I work with would tell you, it sure isn’t their favorite thing to do.  You see, keeping things well sorted, clean and organized requires a serious commitment to staying focused. fullsizeoutput_fa7It means not letting things pile up and knowing when things need to be removed, discarded, given away or, at least, wiped clean.  In schools, this is about being critically aware of the distractors that need to be ignored.  It can also be about stopping the things that you are doing that are not providing an impact and actually getting rid of these ideas, practices or habits.  You see, “first practice” doesn’t necessarily add up to “best practice” and sometimes, it means eliminating in order to really bring your house in order.

Sometimes, “cleaning” resembles a chance to start over.  Sitting down to a nice clean desk or preparing a meal in a kitchen that sparkles and everything is where it should be. Or, it might mean that we replace worn out clothes or objects or make sure that the car is serviced to be ready for a road trip. In all of these examples, time is taken to look after the details and at the same time, see the big picture of what environment we wish to create.

Clutter, disorganization or a lack of clarity can create negative energy.  Can you work this way? I am sure many of you can and will say that this is how you work best.  I get that as I have been known to model this rather than what I am writing about!  I do believe that schools on a continuous improvement cycle are being led by someone who takes the time to stay organized, remove distactors and understands the need for a clean slate now and then.

As we head in to the busy holiday season and the last few weeks of school prior to the Christmas break, it seems like a great time to consider what needs to be “cleaned up”. Is it time to remove, eliminate and discard what is not working? Should you reflect on your current reality?  Is there a need to better understand what might be distracting you versus what your priorities truly are? Is the right work the work that takes your time?  Or, is it time to throw away a fixed mindset and ensure that you start 2019 with positive energy and a growth mindset?

Have a great week and, once again, thank you for reading my weekly blog intended on improving schools.  Keep it clean and see you next Saturday!

A Million Little Things

I do not watch hours of television, but sometimes a series grabs me and becomes “my show”. For the past couple of years, “This is Us” was that show for me. No matter where I was on the road, I had to watch it on Tuesday night.  This year, the new series by the same producers, “A Million Little Things” is my go to show.  I watched the trailer this summer and didn’t really think that a show that started with a suicide would grab my attention. For those of you watching it, you know that there is much more to it with twists and turns that were unexpected.  That is why it reminds me of school improvement work and so begins my blog for this week…

In the opening show, John eloquently explains what friendship means.  He talks about experiences we share with others that defines a friendship and he ends with “friendship is… a million little things”.  I could easily write this blog about just that; how perfect that description is to me with the amazing friends that I have. I could tell you about the way my friends draw me in and, as we share our lives, it truly does become about what we experience together and how we lean on each other. fullsizeoutput_fa3The energy we get and give our friends, the support and kindness that is authentically there, the people who you can not forget… it really is about a million little things.

However, this blog is not supposed to be about my friends.  I intentionally want to use my writing and this space to support continuous improvement of schools. I want to acknowledge the dedication and commitment to a common purpose that drives schools that improve. I share the experiences of others as well as my work to help you benefit from what is being done elsewhere.  I strive to give you encouragement when you think you are losing sight of your goals and that you are reminded that it is difficult work and you do have to learn and grow together in order to make the biggest impact on students.  In other words, it really is about a million little things.

One of the principals who I work with told me that the most difficult part of school improvement work for her was that there are too many pieces of the puzzle.  She described her stress to me by saying that she always worries about losing a piece or not knowing how all of the pieces fit together.  She takes the work home with her (physically and mentally) and admits that it seems overwhelming at times to really lead this work.

A million little things…yes… this is the work of improving schools.  Addressing cultural issues, getting all staff on one page about the common goals and commitments that it will take to change the way things are done is often job #1.  Being collaborative around what is taught, how it is assessed and how we respond to student needs takes great leadership. Being a skillful communicator who can match a vision for improvement with consistent messages and practices requires great courage, trust and patience.  Creating opportunities for evidence-based decisions to provide guidance is necessary. Sharing leadership with others, empowering and respecting the expertise of staff and allowing for your own vulnerability to be visible are skills that demand your on-going attention.  And, doing all this while students are in the building needing our daily attention (after all, schools do not close while we figure this out!) brings us back to the twists and turns.  A million little things…

The great news is that, in my opinion, the little things add up to the big thing. Sometimes, it reminds me of a complicated book. You read and read and sometimes want to stop because it doesn’t seem to be getting you anywhere. You find it hard to stay with it and you might even take a break sometimes because it exhausts you just trying to figure it out.  And, then, one day you turn the page, you start the next chapter and it all makes sense. The little things have finally led you to the big thing.

In the complex world of improving schools, I am so thankful for the teachers and school leaders who will continue the journey. They might close the book but most of the time, that is just temporary.  It is a bit like falling off a bicycle and getting up and back on it again.  We have to stay the course.  We are doing this for our students and they deserve every one of the million little things that it might take to turn a school around.

This is the time of the year when energy levels in schools start to be depleted.  When the rest and rejuvenation from the summer feels a hundred years ago.  It is the time to make sure that we don’t close the book  or stay off the bike too long.  It is a very great time to refocus, revisit our collective commitments and goals and to ensure that we are working on the right work.  Are we prioritizing everything so nothing is really important? Have we allowed the distractors to invade our direction?  Do we stand up for what we believe in when others try to move us off course?  What really is happening right now?  What do you need to adjust? Which of the million little things do you need to focus on? And, lastly, what are you going to do today, tomorrow and the next day to ensure improvement?

Thank you, again, for being with me on Saturday mornings. I appreciate your comments and your support. Have a reflective, successful week and to my American friends, enjoy a wonderful Thanksgiving. I am thankful for each and every one of you in my life.

 

 

Prepared

About a year ago I started this weekly school improvement blog. Writing has provided me with an opportunity to reflect on my work in schools and I have tried to make as many connections as I could to life in general.  Some weeks, it has been difficult to put pen to paper and have this ready for Saturday.  The “difficult” part of this is only time and staying on top of things. When a busy week is filled with lots of work and travel, I need to stay organized.  At first, I wrote several blogs and stayed ahead by knowing I had a few ready to go. As the year progressed, I decided that I enjoyed the reflection on the week and wanted to make my writing as immediate as I could.  So now the honest part… this is as immediate as my blog has been. It is midnight on Friday and I am just writing for you now.  It has been a busy week and prior to this week, I had an amazing vacation. So, this week I decided that I would write about something I know first hand…being prepared…or …perhaps not prepared.

As a young girl, I remember learning the Girl Guide motto, “Be Prepared”.  At the time, I knew it was important but I don’t think that I quite understood how much a part of my life that phrase would become.  In both my career and my personal life, there have been times when I was able to live up to that motto and other times when my guide leader would not have been impressed.  I have “flown by the seat of my pants” more times than I want to think about and eventually I learned to prioritize and figure out what I had to do to stay organized and on top of my life.  Two things this week (besides my own late writing) reminded me of the importance of being prepared; one involves my work in schools  and the other is, personally, near and dear to my heart…

Going back to work this week after a great vacation required me to “be prepared”.  It seemed to take a little longer than usual to pack, to organize and to have my work ready.  Once I walked in to my first school though, I was quickly reminded that my preparation was nothing compared to what the school leaders and teachers are doing each and every day.  And this time of the year, what is so obvious is a feeling that there is just too much to do, not enough time to do it all and a fear of failure when the list of tasks continue to grow. In one school, we looked at the calendar and quickly realized that the year is more than half way over.  The urgency of the work is obvious and requires care and attention to the tasks at hand. Staying organized, prioritizing and determining the best use of time requires a serious commitment to doing the right work.  It also means being prepared.  There has to be an intentional focus on knowing what to spend your time doing and taking the necessary time to be prepared; be prepared for class, for meetings, for the unexpected, for safety requirements, and the list goes on.

The second reminder I had this week about the very critical need for all of us to be prepared, comes from my son-in-law. Resized_20181108_152603_6278 As you can see in this picture, he is in the Canadian military and currently on an exercise that is all about “being prepared”.  Throughout the year, he participates in organized field practice to ensure his ability to respond if necessary. This keeps him acutely aware of what he would need to be prepared to do if he was called to action.  The seriousness  of his chosen career absolutely comes in to focus during these trainings.  Just like our work in schools, there are systems, effective actions, skills that can be learned and expertise to develop if we are going to improve.  This improvement does not happen without study, practice and commitment to being totally prepared.

My challenge to you this week is to consider if you are doing all that you can to be well prepared. Are you asking questions, reading, studying and finding out the most effective practices when you are not sure? Are you taking the time to work with others in preparation of meeting the needs of your students so that when you go in the classroom you have done all you can to be ready to serve your students? Does being well planned seem like an “extra” task instead of just part of needed preparation?  As a leader, do you reflect and consider carefully the meetings that you should have, where your time is best spent and how to manage all of the tasks at hand? Or do you go in to school each day with a more “reactive” style of leadership rather than a proactive one? And, lastly, are you spending your time on what matters most to the students? Are your preparations truly focused on saving the lives of your students?

This weekend,  we honor our veterans and share in remembrance of the sacrifices made for us. The commitment that is made when a uniform is put on represents the ultimate “preparation”.  With my sincere gratitude to all veterans and active duty members (including Bryan, who is in the picture and my daughter Elizabeth, who serves as an officer in the Canadian Air Force), I dedicate this blog.