Thriving in the Meteor Shower of Back-to-School Initiatives

Meteor Shower

One of the brighter meteor showers of the year—Perseids—occurs every year at the end of July and the beginning of August.  It is spectacular not only because of its brightness but because, on a good night, you can see up to 60 to 100 meteors in an hour if the conditions are right.  Recently, after spending the day working with school leaders in preparing for the upcoming school year, I sought refuge in the quiet night and settled in to watch this spectacle.  The sky did not disappoint.  As I watched, my mind kept thinking about the similarities between the night sky and the work I had engaged in with school leaders during the day. 

School leaders had communicated to me that they were concerned about the overwhelming number of new and updated initiatives that they were attempting to implement during the upcoming school year.  They also realized that all initiatives were new to the new teachers they had hired over the summer.  The list ranged from school-based to district or even state-based initiatives, academic initiatives such as new reading programs, updated math materials, new technology, new instructional strategies, social and emotional initiatives and the like.  Each of these blistered across the landscape of the new year like the meteors that showered the night sky.

They also shared with me how they felt as they sat through their own personal Perseids when their district held its well-intentioned annual leadership retreat full of high-speed presentations from various departments designed to inform administrators of the new and revised initiatives for the upcoming school year.  School leaders were now faced with how to communicate—and implement—these changes to and with their faculties while avoiding the same rapid overload they had just experienced.

I am sure there are many school administrators who feel as if they live in the middle of a meteor shower with initiatives and directives zooming by with every new meeting and email.  To help manage this chaotic and complex environment, here are some key points from school leaders who were trying to navigate this shower in a way that was respectful and user-friendly to teachers.

Not All Meteors are Equal:
Discern the most important initiatives

While the beauty of the meteor shower consisted of the various streaks of light across the night sky, it was not that hard to distinguish between the spectacular and the not-so-spectacular.  Similarly, great school leaders possess the ability to know the difference between what is insignificant, important, and most important.  This skill—discernment—is a critical skill necessary to survive—and thrive—in the meteor shower.   

To assist in helping school leaders discern what is most important, each school made a list of all the initiatives that were to be implemented during the school year regardless of origin.  Needless to say, there was no shortage of meteors on each school’s list!

The next step was to put the lists aside and instead of focusing on the initiatives, focus on the student achievement needs of each school.  School leaders knew that they first had to be clear on their most important student achievement goals and the gaps in their performances, and then ascertain how well the initiatives aligned with closing those gaps.  They realized that many of the new initiatives, while legitimate, did not always address their most important needs. 

It was a challenging task because the case could be made that everything on the list was important; however, the school leaders realized that if everything was deemed important, nothing was going to be important.  They also understood that to be successful they had to do a few things very well—not everything.  The key was to identify those few things.

As a result, those initiatives that aligned with the schools most urgent needs were given the highest priority in term of attention, time and implementation.  Other initiatives were delayed, or given lower priority, which meant that they would be addressed but with significantly less intensity and effort.  Other initiatives were eliminated or received “compliance treatment.”     

Encourage Brilliance
Be diligent in focusing on what is most important

While observing the Perseids meteor shower, I certainly had no impact on the length or intensity of the meteors.  However, school leaders had considerable influence over the intensity and length of time for how programs were to be implemented in their schools.  They valued their teachers and were empathetic to how challenging it is to simultaneously teach and learn new skills as teachers are asked to do.  They knew that if posed with too many initiatives, teachers wouldn’t have the opportunity to become skillful enough in those that were most important.  They also wanted to avoid the “illusion of change” whereby initiatives are presented but with no real follow-up. 

To remedy this, once school leaders identified the initiatives that aligned with their greatest student achievement needs, they calculated the amount of time and resources—or organizational capacity—that they possessed to truly implement their initiatives in a manner that resulted in both strengthening instruction and in increasing student achievement.  School leaders calculated minutes available during teacher pre-service days and throughout the year that could be used to support teachers in learning these new skills.  Each school then examined the human capital, such as instructional coaches, administrators, district personnel and external providers, who could assist in a successful implementation.

It became apparent that even with narrowing the scope of new initiatives and allocating time and resources, school administrators continued to be concerned that they did not have enough time or resources to provide the high-quality follow-up and feedback necessary to develop a high level of skill in multiple initiatives for all teachers.  Administrators were juggling multiple meteors, too.   

The key was for school leaders to clearly define what a high-quality implementation for each initiative looked like.  Furthermore, they created implementation progressions that described what implementation would look like at the early, developing, consistent, and impactful levels of development.  These tools would serve as roadmaps that would not only provide clarity about the different levels of performance but also allow teachers to self-assess their current levels, track their own progress and seek out support that was specific to their needs.  

On a regular basis, each teacher would complete a self-assessment and set short-term implementation targets for each initiative to be shared with administrators who could monitor growth, arrange support and hold teachers accountable for meeting performance expectations.  By focusing on specific areas of growth, it would help alleviate the pressure for teachers to learn all aspects of the new initiatives immediately.  Teachers who already possessed skills or who developed skills quickly could progress at their own rates, and teachers who needed more time and support would progress at a pace that aligned with their personal skill levels. 

The success of most initiatives depends on the ability of teachers and administrators to be diligent in focusing on what is most important over a long period of time.  Many well-intentioned initiatives have gone by the wayside because people got caught up in the ever-present meteor shower and lost focus on what was most important. 

To help with this, school leaders developed a system by which every two weeks, teachers—based on their self-assessments—would write their targets on an index card and post it in their rooms.  During walkthroughs, administrators would be able to write specific, targeted feedback on the back of these cards.  At the end of the two weeks, teachers would add their own reflections and submit the index card to an administrator followed by writing new target cards.  The ultimate goal was for teachers to self-assess their own learning and take charge of their own professional development on the school’s most important initiatives. 

Impact Student Achievement

Life in schools—particularly at the beginning of each school year—can be like living in the middle of a meteor shower.  New and revised initiatives fly in from all directions.  A skilled leader will

  • determine the most important needs of their students and which initiatives align with those needs.
  • provide clarity as to what the initiative should look like in the classroom.
  • allow teachers to take responsibility for deliberately developing their skills in a reasonable environment.
  • provide support so that each teacher can progress to a level of development that impacts student achievement.

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Screen Shot 2016-10-21 at 5.58.38 PMMark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 20 years. Mark has assisted with school turnaround in many districts and schools including those in Florida, New York City, Hartford, New Orleans, Memphis, Kansas City and Los Angeles. He is widely sought after by schools and school districts to speak about and assist with turnaround initiatives.