School improvement… A journey not an event

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.   I have co-authored the book, Leading with Intention, I appreciate readers of this blog and my book. Thank you.

8 thoughts on “School improvement… A journey not an event

  1. I’m your first responder! Love this blog!
    You are helping students succeed with your amazing work! Thanks for all you do for schools and especially students!


  2. Love it, Karen!

    Now comes the hard part. You have to commit to that weekly writing. Whether it is every Saturday or Tuesday nights, chunk out regular time and write.

    What will be cool is seeing how this helps you in your work with this school. I bet that your reflection on that one building will lead you to discoveries and ideas and strategies and gaps that you hadn’t considered before.

    So whether you make anyone else laugh or cry — or whether you are the only one laughing and crying through the journey, the time will be completely worthwhile.

    Lemme know if I can ever help.

    wferriter at outlook dot com

    Rock on,


    1. Hi Bill,
      Thanks for your comments and I agree, I will learn so much from the reflection that writing this blog will involve. The time will be completely worthwhile and I am excited to publish the second one this week! Thanks for inspiring me to write!


  3. Hooray Karen! Great start. I think this blog will be helpful for three distinct audiences. The first is you. You will see how you are growing as you help schools through ever more complex hurdles on their way to continuous improvement. The second audience are other road warriors who will learn from your journey and will be validated when they encounter similar circumstances. I think the third audience could be schools who need a guiding hand to help them improve but have been reluctant to take the plunge. When they read how much you care, how hard you work and how much it is a partnership with the school, they may determine it is time to reach out to get some help. Looking forward to your next entry!


    1. Hi Claudia,
      Thank you for your comments. I agree with your description of how this blog can be helpful and I especially appreciate the reminder that I will learn from the reflection of this work.


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