If I could go back, what would I do differently? While I am certain that there are many paths to school transformation, I have been reflective recently about what we could have done differently in order to create a smoother transition. The number one foundational idea that I think needed more attention is that relationships are at the center of school change. No matter what change you make, the number one consideration should be: is this going to create trusting relationships? I wish I had asked myself this question more often and it is at the center of all the things I would do differently.
While we instituted advisory rather early on in this process, we missed a few important aspects. Something I learned from Randolph High School in Southern Vermont is that advisory can’t be first thing in the morning and it needs to be a substantial amount of time; it’s not “homeroom”. A visit to Jefferson County Open School in Lakewood, Colorado convinced me that advisory must be the same group of students
over multiple years. They do three year stints. Finally, not everyone is good at building relationships for the sake of building relationships. One faculty member said it well in response to a survey question: “I am not used to building relationships with students without content”. Being proactive about this issue is important. No matter what changes a school is working toward, the advisory structure is one that will support that transformation.
Early on in our transformation story, our faculty read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset together as a summer read. It was easy to convince most people that intelligence wasn’t fixed but that intelligence was something that could grow and change over time. The belief that failure is a natural part of learning and growth is an important belief for all of those involved in any change process. There is a difference between intellectually understanding this idea and truly practicing this idea though. It is also important that the leadership involved model what it looks like to have a growth mindset. That means, not punishing teachers who try new things and fail. That might mean publicly owning up to your own mistakes. It’s not as easy in practice as it is in theory and it can backfire. The mistake we made was trying to convince the kids that we all had a growth mindset when we couldn’t, because of our current systems and structures, practice what we were preaching. This severely impacted the trust that students had in us.
#3: Student involvement
It is easy to involve students in a superficial way but these are our main stakeholders. They are also the most convincing sales people. One of my main regrets is that we weren’t able to involve students from the onset in an authentic way; where they had real decision making power. The main obstacle to this was time. There was no scheduled time to meet with students and no structure for them to actually have decision making power. During my visit to the Open school, they shared their structure. There is a whole school meeting every week where decisions are made. Students have control over some pretty important decisions; the biggest one is the schedule. We are still working on this but have added a class so that the time is set aside for next year.
#4: Vision & backwards planning
It is so easy to get caught up in the details. Thinking about where you want to be in 5 years and then planning backwards can help organize all the mini steps that have to happen along the way…but you have to look at that plan. This vision and all the planning needs to be front and center at all times.
#5: Marketing, social media
Related to the vision and the plan, marketing and social media should not be ignored. As educators, this isn’t necessarily a strengths for us. It is important for all stakeholders to communicate a clear, consistent message early and often. Consider using community resources or your school’s business program. Be creative with the resources around you in order to strengthen your communication plan. Many schools have developed a metaphor for the change as an easy way to market and make the change less complex.
#6: The perfect model!
Don’t look for the perfect model because it isn’t out there. Unless you are starting from scratch, there is an eco-system in your community. Your faculty and school have their own experiences, their own cultures. There is no way that one model can address the needs of a diverse variety of communities. The eco-system is an important consideration in the transformation process. There are some well researched models out there and if you have a critical mass of people interested in a model like Expeditionary Learning, then this may be a possible solution.
#7: One small thing
The Heath Brothers do a nice job of illustrating the power of doing “one small thing” as a way to create massive change in their book Switch. If you can get people to do one small thing with fidelity, there is a high probability that the change will be successful. It is easy to become overwhelmed by large scale changes and not follow this rule. This causes all the people implementing the change not to do anything well.
Again, if you can answer yes to the question, “is this going to increase trusting relationships or not?” at every decision, then you are headed in the right direction. If you have a transformtion project, I’d love to hear about it. Tweet @fearlessteachrs and tell me what you are working on.
Not sure where to start?
1. Identify a specific transformation goal
2. Start small: Identify one focus
3. Do one thing with fidelity
4. Measure the change