A life lesson that we all experience- there are always silver linings even when situations are not what we want or expect. As I end the fourth week of recovery from a hip injury, I have to admit there have been a few silver linings. I have had more rest and relaxation, I have seen some of my family more and I spent wonderful hours doing the first jigsaw puzzle that I have done in years. Every colorful piece had its appropriate place and if one piece was wrong, the entire puzzle was thrown off. There was a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment as each section came together and a need for patience when there just didn’t seem to be a fit. And, in the end… even though the puzzle was brand new out of the box and stayed in one place the entire time… a piece was missing. So, at this moment, I have a 99.9% completion rate with no control over the final outcome! I can not find that last piece anywhere (if you look really close in the picture, you might see where it is missing!) Are you wondering what a jigsaw puzzle has to do with a blog on school improvement? I actually think that it makes a wonderful analogy. Let’s take a look at the comparisons…
I don’t know if there is a right or wrong way when starting a jigsaw puzzle (I didn’t ask anyone, I opened the box and started) and sometimes that is the best advice that I can give a school leader. If you want to improve your school, just get started and do something. Now, I know there is research and proven strategies that should be considered and they will need to be built-in to long-term planning, but just getting at the work is sometimes what has to happen. Look in the box considering all the pieces that you have to work with and start figuring out where they make the most sense and best fit toward school improvement. Opening the box and just looking isn’t going to get you anywhere- that is admiring the problem. You see, I could have spent some time just admiring the pieces of my puzzle- sorting them, looking at the themes within the puzzle, organizing them by color, shape, etc. (and this might have made more sense than how I went about it) however, you can not just “look” at the pieces, you have to do something with them. Action versus inaction. Taking steps, even if they are small ones like the hours that I spent looking for one piece of the puzzle, will get you closer to results.
Ok, honestly, I did start with the frame. I assumed that this was a good first step. In a school, what pieces would make up the frame? What forms the foundation that might be the places to start? As I have mentioned before, we often start with a comprehensive needs assessment to really take a good look at the current reality. Before you can build the frame, you should know what your school is about. What evidence do you have of student achievement, attendance, parental involvement, student behaviors, teacher retainment, course selections, graduation rate, instructional practices, teacher collaboration, polices and procedures that are effective, overall satisfaction with your school and other factors that can support the frame for continuous improvement? What happens when some of these things are missing from the box?
It took me a couple of “sits” to recognize that I had to pay closer attention to the details of each piece of the puzzle. At first, they were just a bunch of pieces but as I spent more time with them, I recognized their unique qualities. The same thing can be said for all that you have to work with in a school. Every student comes to school with their own edges and curves, bold colors, vibrant images and quiet sides. Each teacher and school leader also creates a special piece to the puzzle. If left in isolation, these puzzle pieces may be beautiful pieces of art but their real strength comes when they work in community and collaboration with others. The puzzle pieces are interdependent on each other. The “hole” that I might have in my expertise and wisdom can be complemented by someone else and vice versa. And, I learned, that trying to make pieces fit when the timing was not right was a struggle. So true with school improvement… it is better to make sure that you build a common understanding of the why of the work rather than to just force the practices.
Now, for my principals reading this, you might find that in this last paragraph I am contradicting what I often tell you… for many people, it might take practice before belief. If you wait for everyone to come on board as believers in collaborative processes, common assessment practices, sharing instructional strategies, etc. you may be waiting a very long time for things to change. This isn’t any different from my puzzle this week. I tried to “fit” pieces several times that wouldn’t go but because I kept trying and looking at different ways to create opportunities and above all, stayed patient and true to what I was working towards, I eventually found a way to make the pieces fit.
Lastly, I was super happy to have a picture of what the puzzle was going to look like in front of me. I have heard from my puzzle friends that you can buy puzzles without a picture… I am pretty sure that I am not ready for that! And, school improvement needs the same thing. A vision of what you want to accomplish… what are the goals- short-term and long-term that you are working towards? How are you communicating and helping others see this picture? If you are the school leader reading this blog, I want you to really think about the picture that you help others see of your vision. Is it clear? Can they make out the details? Does it make sense? Do you come back to it often or did you empty the box and put it away? Is it time to get it out again and really look at the desired outcome?
On this weekend filled with the colors of spring, special time with family and friends and the blessing of Easter, I wish you a lovely weekend. I hope that this seventeenth blog has inspired you to consider the pieces of your puzzle, personally or professionally. Perhaps, you will revisit the pieces that are challenging you and try again to create the picture that you want. I look forward to being with you next Saturday.