What does it mean to make a personal commitment? To say, out loud, to others, or reflectively to ourselves, what we are going to do… to honor others with our promise, our integrity, to live by our vision and values. In both personal and professional lives, we make promises to ourselves and to others. And, as we all know, a commitment is just that until we match our actions, on a consistent basis, with what we declared. We get in to patterns, good or bad. Habits, or as I often hear in schools, “it is just the way it is here”, are tough cycles to break. And, that is what school improvement is about…not accepting the status quo and making commitments to change what is needed for students. In this twenty-second blog I want to take you on the road with me to two schools that I visited this week. Both are led by principals who truly understand the need to personally commit to leading change. And… I will tell you a story about how hard it was to get a staff to buy in to living by their personal commitments and what happened when they didn’t…
Let’s start with Fox Elementary School in Columbus, Georgia. You may remember this school from a December blog when I wrote about their fun holiday activity, “An Island of Misfits”. The school is led by Dr. Yvette Scarborough and this year ends her third year as principal and my fourth year supporting this school. On Tuesday, I had one of the best days I have had as a school improvement consultant. With Dr. Yvette and others, we spent the entire day reflecting on progress and determining the current reality of the school. They faced the facts of where they were with student achievement, with instructional practices, how the teachers were developing their skills collaboratively, what gains had been made in improving the overall learning culture of the school and what parent and community partnerships were developing. We used a rubric to evaluate all aspects of their work and compared this to what we had determined to be the current reality a year ago.
Now, as we all know, when we make commitments (even just to ourselves), following through can be difficult. Taking time to reflect and actually see where you are can led to a tough reality- facing the brutal facts. It isn’t the easiest thing to admit to ourselves and others that we didn’t do what we said we would do. The good news at Fox this past week was that we had so much evidence of follow through and actions that matched the commitments made a year ago. And, what really is worth writing about is the fact that in the areas that we did not see growth, Dr. Yvette and her team admitted what they did or didn’t do and what had to happen next. There was no blame or defensiveness, it was just honest reflection and, in my opinion, continuous improvement doesn’t get much better than this.
Unfortunately, commitments do not always lead to appropriate actions. A staff I worked with at one time did not believe in the students or the collaborative work that had to be done. They were not interested in truly determining what was essential for students to know and be able to do and they sure did not want to work together to evaluate students or decide next steps to meet the student needs. They met as teams when I was on site out of compliance for what we were doing but they were not committed. At one point, I had a break through with them (well, I thought I did!). I had presented them with the results of a comprehensive needs assessment and we had a frank conversation about the needs of the students. We talked a long time about how important their role was and what could be done to support the students. We ended the day with each of them making personal commitment statements of what they would do. Here are a few of the things that they said:
- I will work harder to be more optimistic and positive
- I will provide more engaging lessons for my students
- I will push my students to work at their level and challenge them
- I plan to work on academic rigor to teach the standards
- I will use more formative practices in my classroom
- I will celebrate student progress- no matter how small
These statements (and others) gave me hope that this staff could work together to improve their school and make things better for their students. But, I was wrong. Over time, they did not follow through on their personal commitment statements and they did not change their actions. When I was on site, they continued to blame the students for the lack of improvement. (I remember, at one point, being a little frustrated with them and wanting to tell them that the parents were not keeping the smart children home under the bed… these students are the ones that we have to work with and deserve our best efforts.) In the end, most of these teachers moved on to other schools and the current staff at this school is now more comfortable with the necessary work and their belief in the ability of the students.
Lastly, I want to tell you about my visit with Principal Amy Wohler at Jordan High School. Ms. Wohler became principal of this school in 2016 and immediately made a personal commitment to build trusting, respectful relationships so that students and staff would feel valued. She felt that this was her leadership strength and as a new administrator, she wanted to work from her strengths. We also spent a day this week reflecting on the progress and the current reality of the school and really looked back on the needs we had identified and the goals that we had set together. Principal Amy is the first to admit that the instruction and collaborative practices are not as strong yet as she had hoped that they would be but she does feel that she has led and contributed to a stronger, more positive learning environment for students. She believes that both adults and students know that they are valued and that there is a stronger sense of belief in the strengths of the students and what they can achieve. For me, this was a day with mixed emotions… a strong foundation is built and there is still so much to do at this school. However, Ms. Wohler is moving out-of-state for personal reasons and will no longer be leading the school. Her ability to lead with personal integrity and pride will be missed. Her understanding of what it takes to build trust and hope in others is still needed at the school. She has led by example and this will be her legacy. The staff and students, hopefully, can follow in her lead. The will need to personally commit to maintaining what areas that they have improved on and being prepared to focus on the next steps for growth.
As I leave you this week I ask you to reflect on your own personal and professional commitments. What have you said that you were going to do? What actually are you doing? Is there alignment or is this a good time to reconsider, make adjustments and move forward? Thanks for being here. See you next Saturday.