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. It 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.