I am often asked what I do for work. I leave home most weeks and travel to work in schools in places unfamiliar to me. After a few visits, I can usually find my way around without a GPS and I can join the locals in recommending a good restaurant or place to shop. I often can call the rental car agent by name and look forward to a welcoming greeting from a familiar face behind the hotel desk. And, as crazy as this sounds, this time of the year, I look forward to the holiday decorations in the airports.
This has been my life on the road, full time, for the past five years. A road warrior. And, when I am asked, I try to explain that I do “school improvement” work. “You go to schools and do what to improve them?”, I am often asked. Is it a one-time visit or do you have to return often? Why are you there? Isn’t that the work of principals and districts? And, if you are helping them improve, why do you go back so often? The longer I work in “school improvement”, the harder it gets to explain the work. Why is that? Well, let me try to sort it out.
First of all, I have to work from the mindset that people who work in schools want the best for the students. Every single day, the principal and his/her staff get up and go to work to be successful; to help students learn and achieve their goals. And this positive mindset about student success has to be the culture of the school. Sometimes, I start with a needs assessment; a formal assessment of the culture and other aspects that are important for learning. Often, however, I have to rely on the evidence that I see, hear and read in a more informal way.
Are adults and students respectful with one another? Is there evidence of relationships being built between the adults and the students? Are procedures and practices in place that provide organization to the day rather than chaos? Is it clear that the students know why learning is important and take on the responsibility for this? Do they pay attention to school expectations? What do the school hallways, entrances and classrooms tell me about what is important in the school? Are the adults highly skills and well trained to provide the most effective and engaging learning opportunities for students? Are parents welcomed as part of their child’s learning journey? Are decisions being made based on facts, research and evidence or is it clearly that we doing what we always have done hoping for the best? Is the principal building shared leadership in a spirit of community and collaboration? Are leadership skills needed to sustain continuous improvement? Is it really about the students? In other words, what is needed to start to positively impact the school?
The ultimate goal in school improvement work to increase academic student achievement. Student by student/skill by skill attaining what is expected for proficiency. To influence this in a positive way, in every school I work in, is why I head out the door and get on a plane week after week. Can we tackle all of the questions above right away? Does the “improvement” happen overnight? Why is it a journey rather than an event? Why isn’t there a recipe that I can pass out for every school to follow? Where does the work start?
You are reading the first blog in what I hope will be a series of writings that will take you on a school improvement journey with me. (Thanks to Bill Ferriter for motivating me to put this to paper.) I am going to describe the hard work and dedication of a staff and the bumps and setbacks to the real work. I will introduce you to a principal who is doing all the right things to improve her school and share the stories from the students and adults that make the work fun, touching and challenging. I hope to make you laugh… and maybe cry. I look forward to you being with me. See you next Saturday.