Each year, districts spend millions upon millions of dollars on this experiment that we call school. We try new things, and we learn new things. Over the last two years, however, we were given some flexibility to think differently about school, to remove some of the pressures. There were a whole bunch of new pressures, certainly, but we had an opportunity to think deeply about school changes we would move forward.
Now, when we look at the amount of constant planning it took to make it through this pandemic — and with the knowledge that there’ve been significant impacts both emotionally and academically on students — it seems clear we should be spending even more time figuring out how we’ll exit the pandemic. Anything else is a dangerous proposition because we will miss the things we truly need to support our staff as the caretakers and deliverers of learning for our students.
School changes for a new now
This is an urgent need: The number of candidates completing teacher preparation programs has fallen 35% in recent years, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 270,000 teachers will leave the profession each year through 2026. Administrators and teachers need to talk about some of these issues, but just going back to normal isn’t enough to address them. School changes will hinge on answers to key questions.
The questions district leaders should be asking themselves may seem obvious, but often aren’t in practice, including:
- What do we want to carry with us?
- What was an actual, effective practice?
- What was a glaring mismatch between what we are expecting of teachers and students and what we say our mission and values are?
Beneath those, however, are even more important and fundamental questions, such as:
- Do we really know how kids are feeling?
- Do we really know how the staff are feeling?
- Do we really have systems that are taking care of our adults?
- Is there space for our adults to interact, engage and collaborate deeply about their work?
- Are we looking outside our small environment to see who’s doing things really well in the areas that we value?
What to pinpoint
If the COVID-19 pandemic was a wake-up call for K-12 education, then innovation and school improvement are the levers we can pull to lessen the impact of any future crises. Below are some of the lessons I have learned as we have begun to shift out of the pandemic school mentality.
Creating space for innovation and iteration
During the pandemic, the many new policies, procedures, and initiatives left teachers in Ulster Boards of Cooperative Educational Services exhausted. They were just experiencing too much too fast. So, like many other districts, we pulled back on some of our innovation and improvement work. However, we found that some of our educators were more unhappy without that creative outlet to reimagine their practice and the structures of the school, so we decided to leave it up to each teacher.
If someone felt like getting back to teaching in person and returning to pre-pandemic capacity was the most they could do, that was OK. But for those teachers who wanted to design project-based units; take a critical look at standards; or sit on the diversity, equity and inclusion committee, we made it possible to launch pilot programs. Having that option was critical not just for the sanity of the teachers who wanted it, but also for helping us shorten the transition out of the pandemic mindset.
Building in change-making permission structures
I think teachers often feel like they don’t have permission to make the changes they think are needed. A system where teachers feel they need approval to shake things up a bit does not sound like a system that is really fostering adult learning and innovation.
We don’t need to give teachers free rein to do anything they want, but time and resources are the biggest statements of value a school can make. What do we communicate to teachers when we force them to spend a bunch of time getting approvals for minor changes?
Focusing on the adults
Whether something is possible in a school comes down almost entirely to the time and resources allocated to professional learning — but the ways we deploy those learning opportunities matters as well. Holding one-off events or sending teachers to conferences here and there will not lead to sustained growth for teachers or their students.
School changes that start with adults often trickle down to students. We have found that when adults are learning in deep cycles of continuous improvement, the students learn at a much higher level too. We have the systems and structures in place to make this a cohesive, cyclical improvement framework rather than a death by 1,000 initiatives — regardless of whatever we are pouring into that container, from new technologies we would like our teachers to use to new literacy strategies.
Investing time in your teachers
If you aren’t making time and space for adult learning within the school day, you are not actually valuing adult learning.
Similarly, if we say we value teachers and administrators and that we believe they need more time to do their jobs, how does that value show up in terms of time? Do we hire more teachers and administrators? Are there more breaks for adult learning? More breaks for collaboration between adults? And what is the expectation for how they will use the additional time we find for them?
One way we can devote more time to what we truly value is by making better use of the time we already have. Staff meetings are a great example. Are leaders making a connection between the content of those meetings and the overall mission and values of the school or district? Are we leveraging a research base that is tied to adult learning pedagogy?
At Ulster BOCES, we view the principal as the principal learner, so we want to make sure every meeting or professional learning opportunity reflects the style of learning we hope to see in classrooms. Learning should be relevant and connected to bigger ideas, and that connection should be explicit. Staff meetings should look like the best class that you’ve ever visited.
Back-mapping to the future
Bill Dagget of the International Center for Leadership in Education suggests that instead of designing a strategic plan about what next year should look like, district leaders should think instead about where we want to be in 10 years and back-map from there. This shift really forces us to think about whether our priorities, structures and systems are built for the challenges that our students will face in their future.
As we prepare for a new school year, let’s not look back and say, “What page were we on? Where were we in our strategic plan?”
So much has changed that it doesn’t make much sense to look back at where we were. Instead, let’s look ahead and work toward where we’d like to be.