An Empty Seat

During the past couple of weeks, I have been “absent” from most of the things I love to do in my life.  I have a hip injury that has caused me to take a pause; a forced rest and time to reflect. I am that ’empty seat’ on the plane; you know, the one that you secretly hope to happen next to you when someone doesn’t show up for their flight. Just having that extra space on a plane, as anti-social as that sounds, can be a beautiful thing.  This is very different for me. I am usually the one coming down the row at a concert or sports event to climb in to that empty seat beside you that you were hoping would stay vacant.   So, what I thought I should write about in this fifteenth blog about improving schools is just this… being absent.  How absenteeism by students impacts their learning.  Let’s take a look at this issue…

I want to take you back to Jan’s high school.  As she continued to work with her leadership team and look at who is in danger of failing courses and not graduating, one of the first things that we noticed was attendance.  For some of the students, attendance was a non-issue. They are failing and they are attending on a regular basis. These are the students who clearly need more support, remediation and interventions. They are willing to learn and need more time and attention to help them understand. It might be their study skills,their own lack of engagement or our ability to reach them in the classroom, but they are coming everyday so we have to assume that they do want to learn.

The other group of students that Jan’s team finds difficult to plan for are the students who skip classes or full days.  Looking at the “current reality”,  some of the seniors in danger of not graduating are not coming to school much at all.  One student had missed forty days and still was passing some courses, but not all that he needed. Ok, I can hear some of my friends right now saying… don’t we have another problem?  How can it be that you can miss forty days and still be passing at all?  Yes, this does bring us to a different discussion; about instruction and assessments.  Does a student just have to show up to get a grade?  All of these concerns have been discussed by Jan’s team as she continues to drill down in to the data in front of her.

What I appreciate here is that they are facing the brutal facts.  They are looking at the data student by student and figuring out the “why”. Why is a student struggling? What are the patterns of attendance, failures, etc. in specific courses or with specific teachers? And, all of this work has led to some critical discussions about the overall messaging in this school about attendance.  Honestly, as a student or parent, would you understand how important attendance really is?  Who owns the responsibility of student attendance?  Doesn’t everyone have a part in this?

I love this sign at Fox Elementary, “we can’t teach an empty seat”.  For many teachers, this is the current reality.  fullsizeoutput_9efWhen students do not come to school, they miss valuable instruction. In elementary schools, this means foundational reading, writing and math skills and when they miss these basic lessons, they fall further and further behind as they move along in their studies.  Rates for dropping out of school , non-graduating students and incarcerated young adults can usually be predicted by most schools based on attendance and this starts at a very young age.

There is much written about the disadvantages created at a young age when students can not read and it is extremely tough for elementary teachers to work on literacy skills if students are not at school. These same children are often in homes without books or with adults who also struggled with reading.  And, in many cases, the parents of these young children did not have the school experience that you and I did; they did not grow up understanding the value of education and being in school. They know what they know and we have a responsibility to help them understand that this has to be different.  So, how are schools working on this?

A few things that I notice that positively impact attendance include paying attention to it, making sure that others know how important it is and having conversations with students and families about it.  These may seem like simple solutions (and I appreciate all that schools do with many other initiatives) but I could tell you many success stories when attention is given to truly looking at it and dealing with it.  It might be tracked in every school but like any data point, it is only informing decisions when something is done with it.  In elementary schools, for example, young parents need help in understanding the critical importance of getting their child to school, on time, every day.  I have been told by many parents that when they are clearly informed of the importance, they do more to get their children to school.

One of my favorite memories of the past month is the young mom I met in a school hallway… she was in her pajamas and house coat. When she saw me she stopped to explain that she had overslept but was determined to get her first grader to school on time.  She brought him in a few minutes late and told the teacher that it was her doing.  She owned it but also did what she could to get him there. The most interesting part of our conversation was that she also told me that on these days, she used to roll over and go back to sleep. She didn’t bother to get up and take him to school if she already knew that they were late. She doesn’t like getting up in the morning however, the school has taken great steps to help parents understand the importance of attendance and she has taken her responsibility in this with serious intent.

I  remember learning about a “walking school bus” project in another school.  The neighborhood felt unsafe to many of the young children who had to walk themselves to school so grandparents of one child created a “walking bus”, stopping at houses along the way so children could come out and walk with them. This was just what was needed for many of these young families.

I know, in many of our high schools, our students are doing all they can to juggle jobs that support families, take care of siblings and get themselves to school. I see amazing teachers deepen their relationships with these young adults and find flexible and individual ways to support their learning.  There is much to be gained in a conversation that creates two-way understanding of both needs and expectations… this can go a long way in helping a student find the motivation to keep on when things are tough. Sometimes we learn about bullying, safety issues and other concerns that may be the real reasons that students are not attending when we truly listen.

Wishing everyone a wonderful safe and fun St. Patrick’s Day!  With the luck of the Irish behind me I am hoping to “attend” to my life again real soon! See you next Saturday.



South Dakota

The greatest thing about my work is the amazing people I meet and spend time with in the schools.  Even though the conversations can be challenging and the expectations might be difficult, almost every time, the teachers and school leaders find a way to rise to the occasion and steal my heart.  This describes my trips to Rapid City, South Dakota for the past three years.  First it is about the people and their commitment to making a difference in the lives of students.  I want to tell you about three of the schools that I visited last week…

Let’s start with General Beadle Elementary School. Cary Davis and her staff have welcomed me with open arms.  I appreciate that they accept coaching and are working collaboratively to change the lives of their students. During this visit they were able to show me evidence of student growth and I could see a change in the student conversations as well.  There was more talk about what and why they were learning and many more were engaged in what they were working on then I can remember seeing there before.  It is also a fun place for me to go because they love to tease me about being from Canada. They know I love sports and so they were all ready for me this trip… presenting me with a hockey stick and a silver medal to remind me of the loss of the Canadian women’s hockey team to the US team for the Olympic gold medal. IMG_9071 Of course, they also had to torment me about our lack of medals in curling.  I love mixing fun with the hard work that is needed in these schools so it means a lot to me when I feel so welcome!

My next stop was at Horace Mann Elementary School and what I love about this school is the focus on student writing that is so evident in all classrooms.  Kelly Gorman and her teachers have taken a serious look at the research and effective practices that link reading and writing and they are very focused on increasing every opportunity that they can to increase writing in their school. My favorite memory from being there this time was the conversation with a young man in fifth grade… he was working so hard on his writing and I asked him if I could read what he had written.  He politely replied, “No, I would rather that you didn’t read this story yet. I am still thinking very hard about how it will end and I would prefer that you wait and read it when I finish.” And, he was thinking very hard… most of the students were so focused on their work that they hardly noticed the visitors to their room.  This is what we want to have happening in our classrooms… students doing the thinking and I know that the teachers at Horace Mann are on it!!

Lastly, I want to tell you about Knollwood Elementary School and in this case, mostly I want to introduce you to Shannon Schaefers, the principal.  Every time I do leadership coaching with Shannon, I leave feeling so blessed that I know her and mostly, that the students at Knollwood have her for a principal.  Picture a big heart that cares about children and now multiply that by as many numbers as you can think of and that is Shannon. I have never had a conversation with Shannon that was not focused on her students and her concern for their needs.  She feels personally responsible for their well-being and what happens to every one of them in her school.  As she works to create more shared ownership and leadership in her school, this attitude of students-first will do her well.  She knows that leading a school is complex; it involves the adult community within the school as well as the student community and she is working hard to balance taking care of both.  She has led her teachers in creating collaborative, evidence based teams and is working on improving classroom practice. She knows that there is more to do to have collective commitments around the work needed at the school and she also understands that she will need to continue to build this foundation while at the same time making sure that they are all focused on meeting the needs of students. Shannon also knows that it is important to celebrate successes and find joy in the work of school leadership.

It is a balancing act for school leaders… schools do not close while we figure out what to do next… principals are adjusting as they fly the plane and this can feel overwhelming at times. The great thing about principals like Shannon is that they are willing to learn from each other.  Networking between principals to share ideas and figure things out together is so helpful and Shannon and I were able to do that on this visit (thanks to Kimberly and Yvette!) which I appreciate as her coach.

Lastly, the Rapid City School District is part of this improvement process. They are providing professional learning opportunities for their principals and teachers and most importantly they are creating direction and focus. All of this can only help students and so I feel that the families of Rapid City are fortunate to have this happening in their city.

Rapid City is also a very nice place to visit.  It is close to Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments, with amazing vistas and landscape all around, and the city itself is clean and friendly.  I get to stay in a beautiful, historical “haunted hotel” when I am there and eat bison and very good chocolate. There is beautiful art and jewelry from native American communities and other local artists that will take your breath away. And, did I tell you that the people in South Dakota sort of steal my heart every time I am back?  What more could you want as a road warrior?

Have a great week and I look forward to our time together next Saturday.



Holding Up the Mirror

It is that time of the year when energy levels in schools is lower than usual. We see this  around October and again in February.  Many schools are looking forward to spring breaks and teachers are relishing any well deserved rest that they can find to get ready for the final weeks of the school year. In this thirteenth blog on school improvement, I want to take you back to Jan’s school and look at what starts to happen when adults make changes instead of waiting for the students to change…

At Jan’s high school there have been many conversations about students and what they need to be successful. They have looked at the graduate list and really focused on supporting each student. The leadership team and teachers of the seniors have divided the list of graduates and they have been meeting with them over the past few months, one on one, on a regular basis to make sure that each and every graduate’s courses and marks are on target for graduation.  They have a goal of ninety-five percent graduation this year and they are working hard to get there.

The teachers in Jan’s school have also been very busy with the other students as well. This school has made me so proud as they have accepted the challenge of understanding any evidence put in front of them that really tells them what the students need.   They are collaborating and as I mentioned last week, they are holding up the mirror, more and more to really see what they can do differently.  I know that their hard work will pay off this year.  Remember, hope is not a strategy and they are not just hoping for improvement, they are working towards it every day.

I had an opportunity to talk with Willie again… my student friend at Jan’s school.  He loves to catch me up on things when I visit. He told me that students are “liking” the school more now that teachers are having more conversations with them. He was bragging that some of the teachers are even having the students write out their goals for the rest of the year and challenging them to keep track of what they are doing to meet their goals.  I was so happy to hear this as we have talked a lot about how student ownership of their learning is so important! This made my heart sing!! The school is on its way to creating great opportunities for students to be successful. Oh, and Willie also tells me all about the boyfriend/girlfriend break ups and what’s happening in the schoolyard! Even in high school, there are schoolyard stories!

Do you remember my New Year’s story about East Gresham Elementary in Portland, OR. – the school that “clapped” the students in after many snowy days and made the students feel so important to them? I shared their focus on GRIT and a motto of “No Excuses”. What I didn’t tell you was how much academic success they were also able to create for their students.  Four years ago, I started working with Kimberly and her staff and only 23% of their students were reading at grade level.  In school improvement consulting work, we should work ourselves out of a job.  It truly takes three to five years to turn a school around and in most situations, the life of a contract for a consultant depends on impact and the resources of a school. If we are doing good work together and the value is there for the school, a contract of three years typically gives us enough time to really see the gains.  My contract with Kimberly’s school had to come to an end at the end of the third year. I was able to have one visit with her in September but during her fourth year as principal, this year, I have had little contact with the school.  Recently, I received an email from Kimberly and had a follow-up phone call with her.  Both made my day, my week, my month… maybe my year!

Kimberly read my blog on collective commitments and wrote out to me to tell me that this had been so timely for her. She had just revisited all of this work with her staff.  Even though they had done the work together a couple of years ago, Kimberly recognized that it was time to revisit, revise and refocus.  I loved what she had to say about it so I want to share this with you:

Good Morning Karen,
Another enjoyable read this morning. You are still with us in many ways and your mentions of mission and vision statement is an example. We revisited ours in a leadership team meeting last month. 
The experience was something I wished I could have caught on camera, but I guess it will always be in my head. When beginning the discussion with the leadership team the conversation was honest, difficult, inspiring, raw, and powerful. I facilitated, but the dialog was theirs. We then brought it back to teachers and staff, discussed, revised, revisited, rewrote it further, and, here is what we came up with.
It was decided it wasn’t a mission statement, but more of a vision statement. Whatever it is called is not the issue, but the process it took to get us where we all agreed we are headed. 

Kimberly now understands the value of shared ownership and as she continues to empower her teachers they will empower the students.   What I really love is that they are placing their value on every child. Their work is truly about the students.  The other reason that I am writing about East Gresham  is that Kimberly talked to me on the phone and told me that they now were at 50% achievement in the school for overall reading at grade level. Now, she is the first to admit that this still means that two out of every four students are not reading at grade level but remember that just three years ago it was 23%. The staff recognizes the work to be done but they have a road map and goals and the best part is they are using their collective expertise in collaboration to create their community of learners.

So, I am feeling inspired by Jan and Kimberly and their teachers who are  courageous enough to hold up the mirror to determine what they can do, as adults, to ensure students learn.  Have a great week and I look forward to next Saturday when I take you on a road trip to South Dakota!



This is the twelfth time that I have taken pen to paper with you to blog about my school improvement work.  I have to admit, I have felt tired, these past few weeks on the road.  I have been in four different time zones, missing my family and friends, visited many schools and honestly, the work is not easy.  Knowing that I have a responsibility to the schools and districts that hire me, to have an impact, when I am on site, even if it is just for a day, weighs heavy on me.  But, this week, I had a great reminder of why I do the work. From both students and from educators.  Let me start with the students…

Rebecca Scofield, was a beautiful teenager from home, who at the young age of 18, died this week.  You may know her as Becca, who in December 2016, inspired people all over the world to be kind to one another.  She used her illness and time left on earth to inspire people all over the world with her campaign- #BeccaToldMeTo.  Stories grew as the campaign unfolded of people sending Becca messages from as far away as Japan and Spain; how they used Becca as inspiration to do something kind for someone else. Random acts of kindness everywhere and fourteen months later she is still inspiring us to be more kind. Her journey is well documented in Canada and you can see more of her story at Just type in her name and many stories and videos should be there for you to read.

In the days following the Florida high school shooting, a silver lining appeared. Despite their sadness and grief, many of the school’s students are courageously speaking out about changes that are needed. They are not leaving it to chance that adults will figure this out; they are taking it on. I love how articulate, mature and respectful that they have been. Instead of just showing their anger, they are channeling their energy to make a difference and positively influence.  They are young adults trying to impact adult decisions.

Rebecca and the Florida students have energized me. They remind me about so many of the students, in all of the schools that I work in there are amazing young adults who care about others.  You know, students are the first to tell you that they get a bad rap by adults everywhere.  They don’t always believe that we, the adults believe in them.  As I wrote about before, at Willie’s school, there was a huge disconnect between what the teachers saw in the students and what the students wanted them to see. In my world of school improvement, we have to believe in the students or the work just doesn’t get done. How are we going to meet the needs of students-student by student/skill by skill, which is the work of school improvement, if we do not believe that they can do the work?  How do we, perhaps, hold up the mirror and say that it is the adults that have to change, not necessarily the students?

This past week,  I worked at Northside High School in Lafayette, Louisiana. northside n logo I love working in this school for three reasons.  The students are polite, respectful and have big personalities. I have fun conversations with them during every visit. They love to talk and introduce themselves (now, I do know that this might be a strategy to avoid going to class on time but it is still fun!). The students would be quick to tell you that Northside is  seen as a “difficult” school in Lafayette and they don’t like the perception that others have of the school.  The first place that the positive perception and intention has to be set is within the four walls of the school. I know that some of the teachers find it difficult to work in this school and I also know that this isn’t any different from other schools where the challenge of improving student achievement is being addressed.

The second reason that I love this school is that the teachers and school leaders are working collaboratively to create change.  They know that they are not there yet but most are willing to put their heads together to work with their students. They are focusing more and more on  what students can and cannot do and they are taking steps to change what they do, as adults. They are holding up the mirror often and accepting that the students will only change when the adults change what they do with instruction in their classrooms. This week, we spent a great deal of time looking at evidence of where students are right now on their learning journey and carefully considering what the adults need to do next to support student learning.

And lastly,  I love being at Northside  and get energized when I am there because of Mrs. Julia Williams, the principal.  She understands what she has to do and is tirelessly working to lead the  changes.  I know that she is frustrated some days that it is such a slow process but she is working on the right work.   It is a pleasure to watch and listen to how she has conversations with students and adults and how she celebrates their successes. No matter what the situation or challenge, she approaches it with a smile and with an attitude of positive intent.  People first is how she works. The students and staff are lucky to have her and I am so blessed to be able to work with her at this school. And, it doesn’t take much to make her day… a parent this week told her that they notice what she is doing and appreciate her.  She was so happy to get that feedback.  As teachers and principals know, they don’t always hear from parents who are happy so it really helps when they do!

So, feeling energized is a good way to end the week.  Thanks for reading and I look forward to being with you again next Saturday when we will head back to Jan’s school for an update on her work!





Once again, this week, I was asked by my family and friends if I feel safe as I work from school to school in the United States.  I know that the tragic incident at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida causes this week’s reflection. I know it brings this awareness to all of us in schools every day; teachers, administrators support staff, students, and of course, the parents of the children who say good-bye to them every morning.  We value the law enforcement team assigned to protect schools, and the first responders, who time and time again, are being called in to the most difficult of situations. Seventeen people were killed and many more were injured in the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. As I write this, several other people are still in critical condition.  It is the deadliest shooting at a USA school since 2012. With a heavy heart and sincere grief for everyone who has been impacted by this shooting, I write this week’s blog.

IMG_9022I have called southern Florida home for the past several years. It is my happy place and my winter escape. But, this state has not been left out of the tragedies over the past couple of years. What can I say that hasn’t been said this week?  What would make sense today?  As I reflect on my feelings and the conversations that have been had with others who work in schools, I know one thing to be true.  It is not the situation that anyone wants. I remember in 1999 when we had two school tragic events, one in Taber, Alberta, Canada and the other at Columbine High in Colorado. Little did we know, that this would become a pattern of our discussions, our concerns about school safety.  Since 1999, school districts and communities have taken many steps to increase protocols, training and systems to make our schools safe for both adults and children.  Despite these efforts, the pattern continues.   And, as we know, schools are not the only target.

As a teacher, how do you get up every day and go to work without worrying about your safety?  How do you maintain your focus on ensuring high levels of learning despite the distractions? How do school leaders go to bed every night not thinking about every single incident, suspension, discipline conversation or referral to counselling, mental health services, etc. and whether the right action is being taken? As a parent and as a student, what comfort can you take in the work that is being done by your school and your community to do all that can be done to provide a safe learning environment?  What questions should be asked?  How do we balance all of this without a culture of panic?

I think what has surfaced the most this week, for me, is really about “awareness.”.  Paying attention to what has been said, knowing when things look and feel differently in conversation with others, experiences on social media or just trusting our gut feeling when things are not ok.  Asking questions, making sure others know when we see something different and understanding our surroundings.  Sitting here, right now, I do not believe that I have the power, or any of the people I work with in school, truly has the power to prevent this pattern from continuing. However,  we never know when we might be able to impact it.  I do know that we have to pay attention and at the same time, we have to keep working on the real work of schools, making learning better for students.

In every school this week, another reset button was pushed.  Administrators and teachers were revisiting safety protocols and having conversations with students about this. Parents silently were praying, as they dropped their children off at school, that today would be a safe day for their child. And our ‘new normal’ continued.

After these tragedies, we hear of the stories of the educators who put their bodies and their lives in front of others to protect.  This is not what we go to college to learn to do.  To the teachers and administrators in the schools that I am supporting this year, I am thinking about you and knowing that, by now, you are refocused and doing what you do so well… ensuring that students are learning.  Everyday, in your actions, you have the power to positively impact the lives of students. This is why you do what you do. Please do not lose this focus in the midst of the sadness and grief that has taken over our thoughts.    Have a safe and blessed week. See you next Saturday.





A couple of weeks ago, I had an opportunity to return to visit several schools in Fresno, California.  Fresno Unified School District is working hard with their school leaders to develop collaborative schools.  Many of you know that I often share their district’s  mission statement with others: “Every student can and must learn at grade level and beyond”.  In my opinion, that truly sums up what school improvement really is about; creating opportunities for each and every student to master what is considered grade level expectations and, for those who can, we want to stretch that learning to beyond. So in this tenth blog I am going to tell you about a classroom in Fresno where student learning is truly what the work is about. Meet Aida Flores and her 5th grade class at Bakman Elementary School…

IMG_8996The first thing that you notice walking in to Mrs. Flores’ room is her tree! Right now, it is full of lovely Valentine hearts.  She keeps it up to date with the current holiday theme and it just adds such a sparkle to her room.  So many teachers, like Mrs. Flores’ share their personalities and love with their students. They create warm and inviting safe spaces for children to learn.  And, that is a good thing. But, as we often talk about in conversations about improving schools, we cannot just nurture and love the students, we have to make sure that they are learning at high levels.  We want them to be successful, confident learners. And, with many students this takes a great deal of work.

One thing that I really loved about being in Mrs. Flores’ room was the way that she had the students own their learning. Now, what do I mean by that?  As she worked through her lesson, the students were the ones doing the thinking.  She asked thoughtful questions and waited for the students to answer.  For us educators, that is a hard thing to do!  So often, we ask a student a question but we don’t wait for the answer. We either move on to another anxiously waiting student who is waving his or her hand at us or we answer it ourselves.  There is so much research today around the art of questioning, our wait times and ensuring that the students are doing the thinking. Mrs. Flores’ was really great at putting the work back on the students, waiting for their answers, affirming what they knew and challenging them to continue to think and stretch their learning.

At one point in the lesson she asked the students to share out their answers to a problem that they were working on.  One student was called upon to explain her rational and Mrs. Flores asked all of the students to indicate if they agreed.  We call this checking for understanding and what I really, really loved, is she actually used the information that the students were giving her about whether or not they understood.  You see, I spend a great deal of time in classrooms and I see many teachers use different strategies to be “formative”. In other words, informed about what students know or don’t know but what I often see is the teacher asks but doesn’t really acknowledge the information that she or he received or they really don’t do anything about it.  So many times, teachers feel pressured to move on with or without the students. And, this really makes it difficult to have students reach grade level expectations.

Mrs. Flores made her way to this blog because of the very moment that she did this check for understanding.  She looked around the room and obviously used her magical teacher “memorizing skills” or maybe like so many of us before her, “she has eyes in the back of her head” (I used to love it when my students accused me of this!). The point is, she actually saw and knew what was up with her students in that moment of their learning.  After the student explained the rational and she checked to see who agreed, Mrs. Flores questioned, reflected, modeled and dug deeper with the students on the thinking behind the solution to the problem.  And here is the golden moment, she checked again with the students to see who still agreed that the solution was correct, she noticed that one student had changed his mind and she acknowledged this with “Des, I see you changed your mind”.  So, why is this so important? Why did it stick with me?  It really meant that her checking for understanding was authentic.  She was working very hard to know, in the very immediate moment of the lesson, which students were learning and which ones were not. It informed her of what to do next and who she had to spend more time with. She didn’t have to wait for a humongous unit assessment, her daily practice was giving her lots to work from and students were getting immediate feedback on their learning.

So, as I close off for another week, I am reflecting on the work of turning around low performing schools.  We have to work on cultural issues, like gathering the collective commitments, collaborating and setting goals as I have talked about in other blogs AND we have to work on classroom practice.  Effective instruction and assessment practices in the classroom are not an option, they have to be non-negotiable. So, while we are increasing shared ownership, establishing common, overall school goals and building understanding of the value of collaborative efforts, we have to help teachers be better at engaging students in owning their learning. The students have to go home tired too… not just the teachers. Thank you for being part of my Saturday morning reading group. I really appreciate all of your feedback. Happy Valentine’s Week!


Collective Commitments

My last few blogs have focused on the collaborative efforts that are important to create common purpose and understanding in a school.  This week, I want to take you to a small elementary school in St. Paul, Minnesota. During a recent visit there, I saw a great example of how collaborative efforts are changing student lives.  Let’s have a look…

At Cherokee Heights Elementary School, the staff have been working hard to honor the collective commitments that they made together in August 2016.  These commitments included being open-minded and practicing transparent communication, working as collaborative teams, focusing on equity for all students and their individual needs, asking thoughtful questions when clarification is needed, facilitating a student-centered environment and working respectfully with students, staff, families and visitors to the school. The staff will revise these as part of their ongoing work as needed. In fact, during my last visit, the staff met together to revisit their school improvement goals and collectively, shared celebrations and what they envisioned as next steps.  The highlight of this day, for me, was when one teacher, Jessica Bernard (in the photo) shared her collaborative team’s work  and what they learned together. IMG_8974Through their student data they were able to see specific needs of the students and as a team, they agreed on very detailed strategies to work with the students to meet these needs. Jessica was excited to explain this work to the staff and it was a true moment of learning together. (Trust me, her ability to “lead” with her growing expertise was so apparent to everyone in the room!). The teachers asked reflective questions of Jessica and her team and saw the benefit of strengthening their own collaborative practices. As a school, led by Principal Rivera, they are making gains in knowing and doing what is best for students.  The collective commitments have gone from notes on a piece of paper to having legs and moving a school. They know that they have lots of room to grow but it sure feels like they are now in one boat and rowing in the same direction! I am excited to be with them on their journey and I know that their students and families are benefiting from their combined efforts.

As I talked to you about before, I work with a high school principal named Jan.
When Jan first became principal of her high school, she knew that she had to start with understanding what the school could become so she started by preparing a mission statement and wrote out her vision for the school. She talked to the teachers about what she wanted and truly believed they understood what they all had to do.   So why did it not go well? What is wrong with this picture?  You got it… she did the work… she told the teachers… and they did not buy in. Oh, there were some teachers that understood this to be the right work and knew that Jan had a vision for the school.  But, over time, it really just became her vision… what she wanted to accomplish. Not what the collective team wanted to do for students. They didn’t really see beyond being a  “group” and their collaborative efforts were more out of compliance.  As I wrote about earlier, in true professional learning communities teachers work interdependently- that is key to this working (as witnessed at Cherokee Heights) and despite Jan’s efforts, this was not happening yet at her school. So we started again…

And, as Jan started over with her staff, she depended on a resource that is significant in my work, Learning by Doing (2016). learningbydoing_3rd Dr. Richard DuFour, Becky DuFour and their coauthor’s clearly define that the foundation of a professional learning community “rests on the four pillars of mission, vision, values and goals.” Jan started with a small group of teacher leaders in the school. We called this the guiding coalition.  Their role was to build common understanding first of the four pillars of the collaborative work before moving forward with the entire staff. They read, they studied, they talked and most importantly they increased their own understanding of what the current reality of the school really was. They tried really hard to be honest and to truly share their feelings and desires for the school.  As I have said before… this is a work in progress.  Deeply reflecting on and answering the following questions provided Jan’s team with a sense of common purpose and shared ownership:  Why we exist? (mission), What we want our school to accomplish? (vision), How we must behave to achieve our vision? (values) and How will we mark our progress? (goals).  But this didn’t come without its challenges.

This kind of discussion can cause teachers to feel vulnerable and it takes courage to respectfully and professionally to  have discourse with your peers when you are talking about values and beliefs.  It is necessary work, however, when you want to build shared ownership.  Like Cherokee Heights, Jan’s staff successfully created collective commitments based on these four pillars and are now working to build shared ownership of all of their students.  Remember my friend Willie and some of the other students at this school?  I wrote about them a few blogs back.  Willie articulated very clearly that he didn’t feel that the teachers believed in the students.  And we addressed this with the teachers as we worked through these conversations leading to the collective commitments.  One commitment that the staff made together was to create relationships, through one on one conversations with students. And this one commitment has truly changed the lives of the students at Willie’s school.pexels-photo-772692.jpeg
So, here are my parting thoughts for you in this ninth blog on school  improvement: If you are in a school, what are you personally doing to create authentic collaborative discussions? Are you truly sharing ownership of students? Where are you on a scale of 1-10 when you think about connections with students? Have you had these discussions as a school? It doesn’t matter what position you hold, you have a responsibility to use the four pillars as the foundation of your collective ability to move your school forward.  See you next Saturday. Thanks again for reading!