Maintain Your Focus during the Holiday Run
The holiday season—Thanksgiving through the winter break—provides some unique challenges for school leaders. It is a time when school leaders are busy attending holiday concerts and plays, organizing food and gift drives for needy families, while still responsible for the normal (normal?) day-to-day operations of the school. With all the busyness of the season, both professionally and personally, the mid-year point is one of the most important times of the school year and effective leaders remain diligent about the academic achievement of their students. Here’s a “good list” to help school leaders remain focused during a chaotic time of year!
#1 Revisit Specific School Goals
During the summer months and into the beginning of the school year, school leaders spend valuable time working with stakeholders to identify specific goals for their schools. However, at this time of year, I spend a significant amount of time in schools asking administrators and random teachers what those goals are. Unfortunately, it is uncommon to find someone—administrator or teacher—to speak clearly and in great detail about those goals. Let’s face it, teaching and leading a school is challenging work. As a former turnaround principal, I know this firsthand. It is difficult to stay focused in an environment where anything can, and often does, happen. School leaders who are diligent about keeping their teams focused on their most significant goals have a distinct advantage over those who don’t. The research is pretty clear: Clarity of goals among all stakeholders, including administrators and teachers, is an essential first step to achieving them.
Mid-year is a natural time to revisit these goals and strengthen their clarity among all stakeholders. In assessing this area, I listen closely for administrators and teachers to clearly communicate their measureable goals in the key content areas at the school, department, grade level or content area as well as individual
teacher goals. I have found that when educators speak in terms of numbers of students as opposed to percentages, it makes a significant difference. When educators see percentages they think data; when they convert those percentages into numbers, they see students. Let’s listen in on a teacher leader who understands the power of knowing where her school is going:
Our goal is to receive the highest rating assigned by our state. To achieve this status, our school has to average 62% in each of the nine categories that make up our school rating and we have clear goals in each of these areas. As a math teacher, my department has three overarching goals: student proficiency (56%), student growth (68%) and student growth with our lowest quartile students (65%). In the area of proficiency, we know that 56% equates to 672 students out of a student body of 1200. Of course we are working so that all students are proficient, however, 672 represents the minimal number of students who must be proficient in math.
Now, we have specific goals at the 6th, 7th ad 8th grade levels. I am a seventh grade teacher who teaches six preps a day. Overall, I teach 150 students. 56% of 150 equals 84 students, however, we don’t pro rate our goal like that. Because I am an experienced teacher and two of my sections include advanced students, my target is 70% or a minimum of 105 students. This number allows for me to help compensate for the less experienced teachers on our team who, at this point in time, are still in the early stages of developing their skills.
When listening to this teacher, it was clear to me that she was clear about her school, department, grade level and teacher level goals. Additionally, she was aware of the concepts of individual accountability and team accountability. She clearly knew where the school was headed and understood her department, grade level and personal responsibility to make it happen. If you and your teachers can speak clearly about the direction you are
headed, you are in a prime position at the mid-point of the year. Of course, knowing where you are headed is only one part of the equation.
#2 Determine Current Status
While understanding the organizational goals answers the “Where are we going?” question, the status component answers the question “Where are we now?” By mid-year, schools have collected enough data to inform them of where they are relative to their most important goals.
While most schools administer large-scale formative assessments that provide big chunks of data, it is the schools who use multiple data points—including attendance and behavior as well as multiple sources of academic performance—and use judicious decision-making to determine specifically which students are on track to accomplish the school goals, that are more successful. Again, let’s hear from the teacher we came across before:
Based on our school-wide data we have determined that if the state calculated our school status today, we would be a little short of our goal. We have gathered data for each component that makes up our status and know which areas are on track and those needing additional attention. Overall, in math, using our data from district-wide formative assessments, our unit assessments, and teacher judgment, we are pretty much on target as it relates to proficiency with our data showing that 670 students are projected to be proficient. That puts our department two students under our minimum target of 672. In 7th grade, we are a little ahead of our target and my personal data shows that I am five students above my minimum number of 105. Those five students are helping to make up for a deficiency that we have with one of our teachers who continues to struggle with classroom management.
This teacher not only has a clear picture as to where the organization wants to go but is also clear as to where the organization is relative to those goals. Again, she demonstrates her understanding of individual and mutual accountability by recognizing that the team results are more important than her individual results. Understanding the organizational goals and knowing your current status are important steps to accomplishing your goals. However, they only serve as prerequisites to where you ultimately want to go.
#3 Celebrate Growth and Effort
In our constant drive for improvement, we often forget to celebrate the steps along the way. We are fully aware that there are some students who are struggling and we acknowledge that we are struggling to reach them. However, there are many students who we have impacted and we need to take the time to recognize the impact of our efforts and theirs. So, as we celebrate the various holidays, let’s be sure to celebrate the achievements, growth and effort put forth by our students and ourselves. We need to recognize that motivation builds when we receive feedback that reinforces what we are doing that is working, not just the feedback that is designed to redirect our efforts. Let’s see how our teacher is approaching this critical step:
I’ll be the first to tell you that while the data from my personal classes is above my minimum and our department is very near our projections, I am not satisfied with our results. I know we can and will do even better. However, I have learned to stop and reflect on the progress my students, my team and I have made. I have to think about how far some of my students have come as they continue to put forth the effort to learn the content of 7th grade math. I have to help my team understand and celebrate our collaborative efforts that focused on understanding our standards, asking students to do cognitively complex work, and strengthening our instructional skills. Without each other, we would not be where we are now. I know I am often too hard on myself and tend to focus more on deficits than strengths, but I feel like I have worked harder this year than ever before and it is paying off for my students—our students—and our school.
Celebration is often left out of the equation for success. Yet we know that a strong combination of heavy doses of reinforcing feedback mixed in with some redirecting feedback is a strong recipe for success. Mid-year is an important time to recognize our accomplishments, growth and effort.
#4 Create a Short-Term Plan
The final step in the process is to recognize that there are areas that need to be maintained and areas that need attention. I have often said that you can’t accomplish your goals at mid-year but you sure can derail them. Similar to a great basketball or football coach, school leaders help teams to make the necessary adjustments that will allow them to accomplish their goals. It is evident to me that most schools tend to make adjustments that focus on structural changes such as tutoring, Saturday school, small group interventions and the like. More effective leaders understand that structural interventions are only effective if they are combined with instructional interventions. For instance, Saturday school (structural) is only as effective as the instruction that occurs during that time.
Short-term plans should focus on small steps that can easily be monitored and provide the necessary focus and feedback needed to move toward your most important goals. Let’s hear from our teacher one final time:
We have refined each of our plans relative to the nine components that make up our final school rating. In 7th grade math, we are going to spend more of our team time gaining a deeper understanding of our standards and designing lessons that more closely match the cognitive complexity that our students need to better understand math and that they will experience when they take their exams. We are also going to continue to develop our skills in implementing cooperative learning techniques that ask students to be more engaged with their learning as opposed to us.
We will determine our effectiveness by examining our data at the end of each unit as a team and as individuals. I will also be working with my colleague who is struggling with classroom management in helping her be more consistent in her responses to students’ behaviors.
Once again, this teacher demonstrates a relentless desire to refine and implement a specific plan that is aimed at closing the gap between their goals and their current status. Her team has short-term goals that can be monitored and measured as a way to provide them with the much needed feedback that will allow them to know when they are successful and when they are not. As always, she recognizes her role as a leader in her efforts to help her colleagues.
Mid-year is a time to ensure that all stakeholders know where they stand relative to the school’s most critical goals and are making the necessary adjustments so that the goals can be met. Because school’s can be chaotic—particularly this time of year—it takes strong leadership from both administrators and teacher leaders to remain diligent in our focus.
Mark Rolewski has assisted schools and school districts in designing and implementing successful turnaround initiatives for over 19 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.