The pitter-patter of toes on our wooden floors, reminiscent of a spring rain pinging against a tin roof, grow louder as they approach our bedroom door. A moment of silence occupies the space as our door slowly opens. Seconds later, we hear a soft breath pressed against my wife’s ear that says, “Good morning Mom, the sun is up.” My youngest son stumbles across the bed to nestle his buttery brown cheek against mine and mutters to me, “I love you so much, dad”. He has a way to melt his parents’ hearts first thing in the morning (and avoid being told to go back to his bed). His older brother lumbers in, stiff legs resembling the Frankenstein impression he uses to terrorize his brother at Halloween. Thankfully, he “sleeps in” until 7:45 am most days before he graces us with his presence. His deliberate steps thump against the floor as he makes his way to my side of the bed with silence and morning grumpiness. His little brother is now aware his big brother is in the room and meets him with the same daily surprise as if this is the first time they have met. Unfortunately for the little guy, his exuberance is not met with the same zeal by my oldest son who can do nothing but let his lanky seven-year-old body collapse on my chest as he tries to find his way back to sleep.
The Education Elements team, like the rest of the world, has been adapting to life-during-COVID-19, striving to serve our partners and our mission with a set of unplanned-for constraints. In short, we have had to walk the walk – living by our own New School Rules and practicing our best New Team Habits as we have tried to find ways to connect as a team and with our partners through times that, on a good day, could be described as turbulent. We’ve experimented with how to best operate in a virtual world, and want to share with you five lessons that we’ve learned in adapting to life during COVID-19.
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This is a special blog post because not only am I interviewing an expert in family outreach but I am interviewing my mom, Aleida Goetchius, who is truly my first mentor and forever hero. This is a translation of a conversation she and I had about her role as a Parent Liaison in Northern Virginia. Aleida has been a Parent Liaison for 16 years supporting all families with a specialty in supporting families from international backgrounds who are navigating the American school system for the first time. Aleida was named the 2017 Region 4 Outstanding Hourly Employee and one of five finalists for this year's Outstanding Secondary Teacher Award in her district. In this conversation, we talk a lot about support for families in general and most specifically for international families whose first language is not English. I hope you enjoy reading this conversation as much as I enjoyed having it.
At Education Elements, we know that a leader is critical in navigating a school system through change. This has become abundantly clear as we’ve navigated the COVID-19 pandemic - schools and leaders have undergone and continue to experience a period of immense uncertainty and change. School and district leaders have to rise to the occasion and lead their schools through previously unconceived circumstances almost daily. We have seen leadership emerge in the creative ways you all are celebrating students, connecting with families, and adjusting to new norms and methods of instruction.
Fenestration, in architecture, is the way windows, doors, and openings are placed and arranged on a building. In medicine, fenestration refers to a new opening in the body made through surgery. There is another meaning of the word and it is used to describe openings in the leaves of plants. Where I live in South Florida, there are a number of plants with leaf fenestrations, perhaps the most common of which is the monstera deliciosa. Some of you might have it next to you, as it has become a very popular houseplant. Here in the subtropics, it is planted in many people’s landscapes including my own. Some people believe that the leaves have formed holes to help the plant survive the strong winds of tropical storms and hurricanes, a common occurrence in this part of the world. Others think the leaf fenestrations exist to let sunlight filter through to “understory” leaves so that they can grow and thrive (in its natural habitat, the jungle, monstera grows like a vine up very tall trees). Each of these is a theory to explain the adaptations, but no one knows for sure. Right now, in our reality of unknowns, students, teachers, and school communities across the country are adapting too–so that the sunlight of new ideas and concepts reach every learner and the turbulent wind of changing pandemic conditions, stress, and anxiety do not prevent learners from growing and thriving.
On January 28, 1986, the space program experienced one of its most catastrophic events to date when the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart just over a minute after launch. All seven crew members died, including Christa McAulliffe, a school teacher who would have been the first teacher in space. If you’re familiar with the event at all, you know the accident was caused by a failed O-ring seal in the solid rocket booster. What’s less widely known is that, according to the recently released Netflix documentary, Challenger: The Final Flight, NASA and the company that manufactured those O-rings had information available to them that day that could have led to a different outcome. For example: The O-rings were a known problem. In many of the successful launches using solid rocket boosters prior to the Challenger, there was evidence of damage to the O-rings during launch. The temperature the day of the launch was much colder (by at least 20 degrees) than typical launch days. More than one expert at the O-ring manufacturer voiced concern that the part had not been tested at that temperature and could fail. NASA made choices about the data they used that day. They went into their decision-making process with a bias (they were motivated to launch after a series of delays), and they failed to see how that bias motivated their choices and in turn influenced their behavior. In education, we make choices about our data, too.
This year has exacerbated the national crisis of staffing in schools. Attrition was already a looming challenge, but with all of the changes in education this year alone teachers are leaving schools and the profession en masse. That, combined with the racial reckoning taking place this year has prompted many leaders to reflect on their hiring processes and look for ways to recruit more Black teachers. If you are looking to diversify your teacher workforce or are assessing your hiring process, here are 9 things you must consider.
We’ve talked a lot about the need to improve teacher retention. During the pandemic, teachers are feeling burned out, unsupported, and dissatisfied with their jobs and lack of recognition. A survey this summer showed that nearly 30% of teachers are more likely to leave the profession now due to the pandemic. To add to the problem, there’s been a 35% decrease in the number of college students preparing to be a teacher over the past decade. So the supply of potential teachers is going down at the same time that the demand for teachers is potentially going to skyrocket. This happens for a variety of reasons that we could spend a whole week writing about. While that problem is enough to raise some eyebrows, we want to dig in beneath the surface a bit to talk about an even more pressing problem: equity, or the lack thereof, and its impact on teacher attrition.
When I was studying research methods as part of my doctoral degree, the running joke among our professors was that they would answer every question with “It depends.” My favorite professor would answer an either/or question with “Yes.” Should I use a survey to answer these research questions? Or would interviews be better? “Yes.” So when school district leaders ask me if their data should drive their strategy, or if they should define their strategy (goals, priorities, actions) and then make decisions about data based on their strategy, my favorite answer is “Yes.” Because honestly, it’s both. Here’s what I mean.
I moved a lot with my multi-cultural family as a kid. If you know me, you know this because I talk about it often. And this experience significantly impacted the way I view the world: I know what it means to be both a guest and a host, to speak the regional tongue fluently and not at all. If you’ve had a similar experience, then you know that it shapes you. I have seen my parents (and by extension, myself) be both locals and foreigners all in one day. These experiences have given me the gift of empathy.
At the core of innovation in companies leading the way in developing solutions for the future is a Research and Development team, more commonly known as R&D. This is where insight and inspiration are translated into creative and impactful solutions. In short, R&D is the process by which an organization obtains new knowledge to develop applicable solutions to present or future challenges. Companies leverage R&D for the following primary goals:
Across the country, students have returned to school, whether it’s in-person, virtually, or in a hybrid model. The work districts and teams did over the summer is now in action: you’re following new protocols for safety, implementing curriculum changes, and leveraging new systems for instruction and communication. Whether it feels like things are going smoothly or you’re barely keeping your head above water, now is the time to pause and reflect.
School boards across the country are experiencing marathon meetings as they listen to hours and hours of public comment, review guidance from local health officials, and review plans for what it will look like to bring students back to buildings and on what timeline. Some districts have already returned to in-person learning, only to transition back to distance learning when there is an unfortunate increase in COVID-19 transmission rates.
Typically in times of uncertainty, organizations tend to shift their focus to getting results fast, maintaining order, and ensuring safety. These actions make sense to avoid the complexity that’s being thrown their way, however, it prevents organizations from using the time to lean in and learn from the experience. In June 2020, a team at Education Elements outlined how they were seeing their team and district partners increase agility and heighten their ability to prioritize a culture of learning even while navigating the unknown.
“It’s all happening!” –Penny Lane, Almost Famous This month, those of us who love the movie Almost Famous got to feel really old as we were reminded that this lovely coming-of-age story came out 20 years ago. For the uninitiated, this movie is about an atypical learning experience, in which a high-school student joins a rock-band for a road trip as he attempts to learn how to be a journalist. His muse, Penny Lane, has a signature line, “It’s all happening!” to celebrate the wonder of the moment, and it has a whole new resonance as we embark on a school year like none we’ve seen before. After enduring Spring 2020, an end-to-the-school-year like none we’ve seen before, many students, parents, and teachers spent the summer in anxious anticipation of what the fall would bring. And now, it’s all happening!
Student engagement is one of the most overused terms in education. We talk about engagement in the classroom, between peers, with families, with the content, and now, virtual engagement. Engagement is certainly important if we talk about it this much, but what does it really mean?
In February, my husband and I bought our first home in Pasadena, Maryland, right on a creek that leads into the Chesapeake Bay. What we’ve learned since moving in is that a good number of our neighbors are sailing fanatics, which has led to my husband trying to convince me to buy a small sailboat (a 40-50-year-old Sunfish to be exact). My response was that we needed to build up at least a few skills and knowledge about sailing before making a purchase because the few classes I had taken in the past on a small lake were not going to cut it in the Chesapeake Bay.
"We all get caught up in the business of doing, and sometimes lose our place in the flow” (O Magazine, August 2011). Recently, we were spinning in circles trying to figure out a new process for an internal role we stepped into when Jason shared a way we might reframe our conversation. Shifting from trying to brainstorm as many solutions as possible or uncovering the perfect idea, we instead focused on the simple, yet powerful question: “What do we know for sure?”
As school returns, we know this year presents unique challenges and changes to both educators and students. With such change, it may be especially difficult to communicate with students. While your intentions may be good, sometimes the impact of what we say can have unintended consequences. Consider some of these alternatives to have the impact you wish to have to start the year on a strong note.
There is no question that our lives have been flipped around over the last few months. For many of us, we are adjusting to redefining our workspace and even our roles. Our work has changed and so has how we interact. One role that has significantly changed is the role of the parent or guardian of school-aged children. We know that active adults make a huge difference in a child’s success in school but the level to which this is needed has been redefined. While teachers navigate a new normal, the “job” they now must lean on guardians for is to assist in supporting students. This upcoming school year is going to require a level of flexibility from all parties involved and we want to support the parents and guardians as they collaboratively navigate the year with their child’s educators.
Planning Amidst Change “Aim small, shoot small,” is an old saying that many of us who occasionally enjoy a round of target practice embrace. But in our case, planning small for how to serve kids during this pandemic, simply was not going to work long-term. Our district Warren County is a rural county in Tennessee with a population of approximately 41,000 people. The entire district is considered economically disadvantaged and is served via the Community Eligibility Provision under the direction of the USDA.
In an effort to reconnect with students to truly understand their experience with virtual learning and what they will need from their teachers going forward in an educational landscape irrevocably impacted by this year’s events, we decided to embark upon a two-week long empathy interview tour with students themselves. We searched high and low - from reaching out to former students through email, connecting with former colleagues still in the classroom, to scouring Instagram and LinkedIn accounts. Not only did this allow for a mind-blowing retrospective of my twenty years in the classroom - what the students shared in an honest, open platform enlightened us to their relationship with school and opened our eyes to how kids are actually interfacing with the technology that has functioned, and will likely continue to function, as a central vehicle for instruction.
Welcome back, educators and leaders, to a school year like none we’ve encountered before! Usually, we use this space at this time of year to offer some ideas for how to get off on the right foot in the classroom or on your school teams as you prepare to bring your community back together in schools and district offices. This year, that looks a little different.
As teachers everywhere gear up to go back to school in various settings this Fall, one thing is for certain: they need to be prepared to deal with a number of issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic, chief among them being impacts to student mental health. If they’re lucky, teachers have a team of support staff in the form of school counselors and psychologists to help assist students, but even so, much of the work will fall to teachers to help keep students in a headspace where they are able to learn. As the people who spend the most time with students, teachers must incorporate support for mental health into their classrooms.
What a time to be alive. Many of us, particularly educators, are wearing hats we never even thought to try on before. I think of the everyday woman who now has multiple full-time jobs: her actual job, parenting, and remote learning management of her children. I think of the parent of a differently-abled child who now has to lead that child’s physical, occupational, or speech therapy daily. I think of BIPOC who now are called to serve as knowledge banks and on-call historians for their white friends who recently discovered (spoiler alert) that racism isn’t dead. It’s as if the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor were a wake-up call to sleeping America.
Educators across the country, and around the world, have found themselves in a whole new normal. In addition to focusing on student needs, engaging content, and individualized support, educators have been thrust into also focusing on equitable access to content, adapting content to multiple environments, and providing support that is more varied than ever before.
Regardless of where students are physically learning this school year, educators must orient their instruction towards distance learning. An orientation towards distance learning allows for continuity of meaningful learning experiences despite changing circumstances or disruptions to the school calendar, whether it be an isolated power outage or a global pandemic. It is important to note that highly-effective distance learning doesn’t just happen with the flip of a switch. It requires thoughtful, intentional design decisions fueled by a desire to empower students to drive their own learning. Ultimately, distance learning requires a student-centered approach to ensure more impactful and equitable learning outcomes for all students.
Leading While Grieving In The Wake of COVID-19 In the Fall of 2019, I lost my husband. After the dust settled from the initial crisis, I was inundated by having to make sense of what had happened, trying to figure out where I would live, and navigating what the future would look like for myself and my son. Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff to process, my therapist gave me a frame to help me reflect on the experience and move forward: What’s left? What’s lost? What’s possible?
Learning is most powerful when students feel valued, honored, and empowered. The teachers who leave the greatest lasting impact on their students are the ones who see them for who they are, often before the students even see this themselves. These teachers uplift their students by developing their interests, celebrating their uniqueness, and challenging their assumptions about the world and themselves.
Through most of the spring and summer, we at Education Elements have intensely focused on helping school districts prepare for returning to school. As we’ve gotten closer to the start of school, and school leaders return to prepare their campuses, one of the most common questions we get is how to think about instructional staff assignments when some students will be learning remotely and some will be onsite. To explore this topic further, we convened a group of school and district leaders in Texas to participate in a design sprint. Here’s what we learned:
How to Leverage Sprint Plans and SEPAD to Bring a Sense of Accomplishment to an Ambiguous Year Ahead Working in a school has a way of making late August and September feel like the official start of the new year. While coffee cheers replace the clinking of champagne glasses, one thing stays the same: the desire to set (and hopefully keep) a New Year’s Resolution.
After I wrote the first blog in this series, I received a call from a close family member wanting to talk about what I had written. Their initial reaction was offense and confusion-- why did I think all teachers were “white supremacists”? It caught me off guard because I hadn’t written that--what I did write was that the American education system is built on a foundation of white supremacy, and we as teachers should work to dismantle that system. Through this conversation, it was reinforced that there are severe misconceptions around language, especially language we use when discussing race and racism. I’m hoping we can align on language here and question the reasons we feel defensive when certain words are used in relation to us, our jobs, and the role we play in upholding systems that oppress BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color).
“To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both. It is a frailty, but in this frailty there is a strength: the conviction to live in your own mind, and not in someone else's.” -Tara Westover, Educated How do you set a vision when the only certainty is uncertainty? How can you lead a staff team or a cohort of students without knowing where you are headed? The return to school this fall presents a chasm of uncertainty for teachers, students, families, and administrators. This can be perceived as a loss of control over our schools and classrooms - and contribute to anxiety and fear. While I don’t have any answers to the and can’t assure you that this year will go fine and dandy, I can provide two exercises to help you envision and mentally prepare for the upcoming school year.
At the age of five, my shyness was taken for lack of understanding and I was tested for English as a Second Language (ESL). At eight, I was pushed into gifted math and made to feel defeated and stupid. At twelve, I was told I could not “handle” taking a foreign language, despite being in an advanced English class. At seventeen, I repeatedly heard my teachers attribute my academic success to my race rather than the countless hours I put into my school work. For eighteen years of my life, I was called by the wrong name. These are just a handful of instances in which the biases and beliefs of my teachers and the underlying systems within my school failed to serve me as a student of color.
If you are anything like me, you are at a loss for how we are suddenly in the last week of July and barreling straight towards the new school year. After a spring spent in crisis triage mode and a tumultuous summer filled with political and social unrest, there haven't been many opportunities to recharge our batteries and reflect in the ways that we may have in past years. If you are feeling tired, you are not alone. If you are feeling afraid and overwhelmed, you are in good company.
Here we are, looking down the barrel of another stretch of at-home learning. We always knew that it was likely not “if” but “when” we’d be back here, but the fact that many districts are announcing remote learning from day one has caught us all by surprise. Worn down from an already long stretch of stay-at-home learning, it’s understandable for parents to feel overwhelmed or daunted by the prospect.
There has been a lot of research done on what makes teams great. Google committed an entire research team to answering the question: What makes a team effective? Daniel Coyle explored the ins and outs of some of the world’s most successful teams in his book The Culture Code. And, leaders right here at Education Elements have compiled some of their learnings in The New Team Habits. I have found – ever since I started thinking about how teams work and what makes certain teams great – that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this question; even when I was 7,620 miles from home, 5,895 meters (or 19,341 feet) above sea level, on the trip of a lifetime.
The first time I tried to cook a meal in my own place was a disaster. Within 10 minutes, my kitchen was a disaster. Within an hour, my house smelled charred, and I had abandoned all efforts to cook myself dinner. I called my mom frustrated: what went wrong? Until that moment, I failed to realize the level of strategic thinking my mother uses every time she cooks. Her successful dishes require intentional preparation, planning, and organizing to achieve the outcome of a satisfying dish. The art of mise en place to smoothly roll out a meal was utterly lost on me. It wasn't until I had this experience, firsthand, that I realized that neglecting to read the whole recipe and then adequately preparing before I cooked results in disaster. Once that pan gets hot there isn't time to dice more onions or cut up the chicken breast. You need to know the next step and be ready ahead of time to add the ingredients quickly. It sounds silly, but no one had explicitly said this out loud to me, and I didn't make the connection on my own.
“There has to be a better way!” I remember a character on a movie or TV show I watched as a youngster constantly repeating this phrase and it’s been ingrained in my mind ever since. There’s a chance I’m making this up and such a character with this common refrain does not in fact exist, but go with me for a second. Searching for a better way to do things has fueled my work and my passion for design — not “capital D design” but design in a more general sense. I’ve always loved making things, but it’s not the final product that gets me the most excited, it’s the pursuit to get there. When I think about the word “creation,” I prefer the verb to the noun.
A bank teller, Jeff Bezos, and a Starbucks barista walk into a...school district reopening planning session. No, really. These may seem like disconnected personas, but in their book, Primed to Perform, authors Neel Doshi and Lindsey McGregor use all three real-life stories to explain how organizations should prepare their employees in planning a response to uncommon and changing situations. Each story, from the barista handling the inconvenience of running out of ice for a guest’s iced coffee order to the bank teller keeping their calm in the middle of a bank robbery to Bezos dropping everything to work with a team responding to a customer’s complaint in the early years of Amazon, illustrates a lesson that school and district leaders are facing now when it comes to reopening planning – the need for adaptability in an environment where the norm has been disrupted. There has been no greater global disruption in the 21st century than the one caused by the coronavirus. With school districts facing the long-term effects of the pandemic closures and planning for a reopening in the fall, the need to be adaptive becomes even greater.
I'll be honest here--after my college years, any chance of me being a dedicated night owl pretty much flew out the window. Late-night five-page papers in Courier New font were only temporary. Now, when I stay up late, it is usually a result of an itch I need to scratch. I have a piece of writing or a level of flat out curiosity about the work I do. Surprisingly, nights like those come way more often, and each one leaves an intriguing morsel lingering on my brain.
In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by the police, demonstrations have taken place across all 50 states and several US Territories, including Puerto Rico, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Floyd and Taylor's names are added to the painfully long and growing list of BIPOC who have paid the highest price for America's inaction on police brutality.
What makes people stay at their jobs? What makes people leave? At a time when 20% of teachers say they’re leaving next year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to hold on to as many great teachers as we can. Onboarding is an effective way to increase retention of new employees and enhance their productivity in the first year. However, Gallup found that only 12% of employees strongly agree that their organization does a great job of onboarding new employees. Not surprisingly then, 50% of employees leave in the first 18 months of a new role. This is both expensive and time consuming for employers to constantly fill vacancies.
As we look toward reimagining schools, we encourage leaders to keep in mind that communities and families have been impacted by an unprecedented time and will continue to feel the impact into the next school year, and perhaps beyond. School is a place where communities gather for connectivity and support. During these challenging times, there is an opportunity to further develop schools as a place where SEL is embedded throughout school culture.
There is something about this crisis that has brought out the baker in many. Even the two of us, people who have tried elimination protocols to reduce our gluten intake, have made a few attempts at biscuit and sourdough making. And it’s not just us! We recently learned that King Arthur Flour has seen a 600% increase in demand for their product as home cooks are rediscovering the art of making their own bread.
The abrupt shift to distance learning directly challenged the knowledge, mindsets, and skills of our teacher workforce this Spring. Formerly ‘nice-to-have’ skills in digital integration became ‘must-haves,’ traditional classroom management and instructional design methods no longer applied, and everyone was required to embrace a high level of comfort with ambiguity as guidelines and expectations shifted on a weekly basis. And as a new school year approaches and the global pandemic remains, educators are bracing for these abrupt and temporary changes to take root.
In times of uncertainty, organizations tend to shift their focus to getting results, maintaining order, and ensuring safety. While these actions make sense to counteract the challenges of complexity, it is in fact a culture of learning that allows organizations to increase agility and heighten their ability to navigate uncharted waters.
Research matters! When developing your Continuity of Learning (CoL) plans there are many things that feel logical and natural. In looking at historical data from recent studies surrounding remote/virtual learning, there are several elements that, at face value, seem both natural and logical, but in reality, may not be in your students’ best interest.
The worldwide response to COVID-19 is creating unforeseen challenges and virtual changes for every aspect of our education system. Long-standing pillars such as curriculum and instruction, operations, and accountability, among others, are all being tested under the weight of the pandemic response.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear the need to redesign school to ensure that meaningful learning can continue even if our brick and mortar school buildings close. Most schools and districts had only days to prepare to close school buildings and move learning to students’ homes. Remote learning has largely been designed as an emergency measure; a way to support some amount of learning in a situation that was unthinkable at the start of the school year. As we look to the future, educators are thinking about learning continuity. How do we design our schools to ensure that meaningful learning can happen anywhere?
One of our favorite expressions is that the only constant thing in life is change, which today’s global crisis affirms for us each day. For some of us, we don’t know beyond the next two weeks whether schools will be open or not. We don’t know what classes will look like in the fall (maybe virtual? maybe an A day/B day schedule to reduce the number of kids in the building at one time?). We may not know if all of our students are safe and accounted for, let alone if they have access to a device and broadband connection.
When I was younger, my mother and I would sit for hours playing the game Mastermind. It’s a game of logic, where one person sets a code using a pattern of six colors, and the other tries to guess the code. According to Wikipedia, there are over 1296 patterns that can be made - and the person guessing only has 12 tries to crack it.
"Resilience doesn’t just mean getting back to normal after facing a difficult situation. It means learning from the process in order to become stronger and better at tackling the next challenge.” – Quote by Donna Volpitta shared in Inside the Box by George Couros A little more than a month ago, school teams transitioned to distance learning arguably overnight. In doing so, we quickly saw the cracks in our school systems, such as equity, access, social-emotional learning, and experiences that empower students to be more self-directed. Now more than ever we need to learn from the process of shifting remotely, so we become stronger and better at addressing the cracks in the system that are being exacerbated by this pandemic. Otherwise, what was it all for?
Every summer, I look forward to seeing the Little League World Series prominently displayed on ESPN. Over the past few years, we could see more and more of the journey teams would go through as they play their way to their final destination in Williamsburg, Pennsylvania. There is something about the freshly cut grass, the metal bleachers filled with people from all over the world. Who can forget the left-field seating area as it hosts lawn chairs full of onlookers or cardboard box sleds of happily muddied kids depending on the weather? All of this creates the ultimate nostalgic moment of America's pastime. The drama, cheers, and occasional tears were always welcomed in my house as one team was eventually crowned champion, year after year with certainty.
The best way to find out if you can trust someone is to trust them. - Hemingway February 10th was my first day as Managing Partner at Education Elements. On March 11th, 30 days into my new job, I was on the phone with our CEO making critical decisions about our response to the exploding Coronavirus crisis.
Donald Rumsfeld once said that there are three things we know - the things we know, the things we know we don’t know, and the things we don’t know we don’t know - and that it’s the last category, the unknown unknowns, that tend to be the most difficult things we encounter. The vulnerability of our global economy to a novel coronavirus may go down as one of the greatest unknown unknowns in our lifetime. And while the dust is yet to settle, it is safe to say that we will never be the same knowing now what we didn’t before.
In a single month in 2020, the unthinkable happened. Students in all 50 United States were impacted by school closures. Districts pivoted to short-term responses and initial guidelines for at-home learning. Now, a month after the coronavirus pandemic effectively halted traditional education for more than 50 million students, most districts have implemented or are in the process of implementing virtual learning plans and teachers across the country are finding creative ways to continue instruction through a screen.
Last summer, I decided to hit the road for a year as a “digital nomad,” giving up my apartment in Brooklyn, consigning my clothes, and storing a few treasured items in the basement of my childhood home. I took this leap because I wanted to be more nimble to visit our district partners, attend education events and conferences, and celebrate Simchas (the hebrew word for a Joyous Occasion, and the root word for my name Simma) with friends and family all over the country. This all came to a halt mid-March.
There is a strange contrast between moments during this time. I wake up with the sun, hearing the birds chirping and families playing with their young children outside. Then, during my near-daily walk around my neighborhood, I offer a timid hello to those I pass. Our eyes meet, and I see the corner of their eyes turn up while the rest of their face is obscured by a mask. We both move in our opposite directions down the sidewalks, and life carries on - and so does the work at Education Elements.
While the author of the quote isn’t certain (many attribute it to acclaimed management consultant Peter Drucker), the saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is commonplace in organizational management circles. I don’t know about you, but breakfast has been the last thing on my mind these past few weeks and months because I feel like there’s barely enough time to grab a quick snack in between phone calls, Zoom meetings, and responding to emails. And upon further reflection, thinking intentionally culture hasn’t really been at the top of my mind either. After all, who has the capacity to think about organizational culture when we don’t even know what the next day will bring? It seems like strategy is the one bellying up to the breakfast buffet.
Schools were asked to transition everything they would normally do within their school walls to a virtual environment overnight. District and school teams are continuing to find ways to provide meals to students, adjust all meetings to virtual, expedite the distribution of devices and wifi, update as many curriculum resources as possible, and do all of this while trying to keep it together at home. We are starting to see more people get settled into working remotely and also try to navigate ways to still build team culture and keep spirits high.
Teachers have a tremendous impact on the learning and lives of their students and communities, and planning a unique and powerful teacher appreciation week is one way to celebrate their incredible contributions. School and district leaders can use the strategies below as a starting point to plan meaningful ways to recognize all that they do, every day.
To close out this series on how to get your organization primed for remote work, I’d like to explore some pitfalls of working remotely and share tips for avoiding them. It can be easy for virtual meetings to get very tactical since participants are wary of conversations that are too long and fail to stimulate them. This can lead to several other issues that can derail a meeting. To avoid this pitfall, it’s important to have a strong facilitator that can bring people together to agree on a set of protocols and norms for any given meeting. Such norms might include not having side conversations, so as to not distract others.
Distributing information in an organization can sometimes feel like playing telephone. When we need to share information with teammates, it can be easy to start small, by having side conversations with colleagues sitting nearby. If you know how telephone is played, you know that this can be a recipe for disaster, with people passing on diluted information they did not have adequate time to reflect on. However, in a remote work environment, we have an opportunity to think about how we can distribute information quickly and equally throughout an organization to avoid confusion and misalignment.
Many leaders are making decisions that impact their entire organization in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. As with many decisions with far-reaching implications, building consensus may be an obvious instinct for many. However, in a time with so much uncertainty, there can be many drawbacks to aiming for consensus – chief among them being too much input, causing the process to stagnate. Remote work provides the opportunity for leaders to try things differently and to avoid some of the traps that come along with integrating the input of many team members.
Many organizations are learning how they can push their work forward as they transition from in-person to virtual collaboration. No longer confined by the physical limitations that come with an office space, leaders must also recognize the opportunity that virtual work brings to more thoughtfully reflect on how work gets defined and how it gets delegated to team members. Defining the work before defining team roles is essential for individual growth and improving organizational decision-making.
Working with colleagues in-person may provide more many opportunities to build trust with your team, but it isn’t impossible in a virtual environment. Even though you’re unable to walk over to a colleague’s desk to ask a quick question, you have an opportunity to reflect on how you can tap into existing relationships and build new ones, even through a screen.
Not too long ago, you may have found yourself wondering if 5 minutes was enough time for you to grab lunch near your office before your next meeting. Similarly, now you may be worried about filling up your entire day with back-to-back, hour-long virtual meetings. It’s a trap that many have fallen into as organizations shift to virtual or remote work. For this reason, it’s more important than ever to plan for change and build a more flexible schedule.
Remote work is a hot topic right now, and if you are not used to working remotely, it can be very difficult to adjust, particularly in these very special circumstances where schools are closed, kids are around, etc. Anthony Kim, speaker and author of the Corwin best-seller The NEW School Rules, is using some of the practices in his book to explain how they can apply in a remote work context. This is part one of a 7-part series.
Much of the initial planning around remote learning was based on the assumption that these were emergency measures; actions that would support students and teachers for a month or so. As of April 14th, twenty-one states have closed school for the remainder of the academic year. District and school leaders are shifting their focus towards longer-term solutions that make remote learning as meaningful as possible. Often, discussions about remote learning can be captured in three trends:
As of last weekend, President Trump has extended the national shutdown in the U.S. for a month and warned that the worst of the Coronavirus pandemic is yet to come.
The past few weeks have been full of new routines for all of us as we try to plan for and navigate through uncharted territory. The shift to full-time virtual work has been yet another challenge to face on top of everything else. Even for our team at Education Elements, where virtual work has always been a consistent part of our work culture, the transition has necessitated revisiting and reimagining best practices as we support our team and others. While you might have felt you were thrown in the deep end for the past couple of weeks, here are three small things you can adjust to make your new routines and habits work for you.
The ability to navigate ambiguity is a top skill of effective leaders, and there has never been a more urgent need for this skill, while simultaneously leading others through uncertainty and change. In reflecting on what sets great leaders apart, we had the opportunity to sit down with Lisa Whitaker, an Instructional Lead Coach with Dallas ISD, who has a Ph.D. in Health and Public Service and has also served as a K-12 teacher and adjunct professor over her 12 years in education.
During this time of uncertainty and rapid change, the students, families, educators, and broader communities that we support and belong to need our strength, encouragement, and bold leadership more than ever. In order to be the calm, responsive, and joyful leaders we need to be to best support our loved ones through this challenging time, it is essential that we prioritize our own wellness so that we have the energy and resilience to bring our best selves to this work.
Schools across the country have closed their doors to protect students, employees, and communities from the spread of COVID-19. While schools may be closed, district and school leaders, teachers and students are doing their best to maintain momentum and learning. This means many people across the country are suddenly remote workers.
I’ve written several blog posts and admittedly, this has been one of the harder ones. On the one hand, it’s important to share strategies at a time like this. On the other hand, I haven’t found a ton of equity strategies to share. I struggled with this dilemma and even considered shelving the post entirely. However, that struggle led to (1) a recognition that this conversation is just as critical as ever to have and (2) some important understandings, including:
Many school districts are closing to keep their communities safe from COVID-19. While we believe safety is the priority, we know that loss of classroom time could further achievement gaps due to paused learning. Since we are an education organization of primarily remote workers, we have a few tips we think you can utilize to maximize your time for those meetings or courses that cannot afford to be paused.
As the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak spreads, more school districts have been asking us about virtual learning. This is an important topic to consider as schools have begun closing their brick and mortar doors and turned to virtual learning. This is the second in a series of articles related to virtual learning that we will publish in the upcoming weeks.
I had the opportunity to attend a webinar with Lynn Carter, Director of Talent Acquisition at Netflix. Many of you know Netflix as the first company to ship a DVD straight to your home (my mom still loyally queues up movies to be delivered to her Oregon home every week). In the past decade, Netflix has also gained recognition as a leader in organizational design and culture. Having had the chance to learn from Carter, I listen to Netflix Founder and CEO Reed Hastings on Reid Hoffman’s podcast, Masters of Scale. From these two interviews, I discerned three key lessons from how Netflix thinks about building and evolving their organizational culture that I think are relevant to any leader who wants to strengthen their own organizational culture.
As a first generation college graduate, I recognize daily the impact my investment in a quality academic experience has had on my life. This understanding drove my passion to provide a similar opportunity to as many young people as possible; leading me across the graduation stage, diploma gripped tightly in hand, right back into the classroom. Except this time, it was my classroom. Being on the other side of that teacher table was a role that I did not take lightly, and I engaged in my work each day operating under the belief that any slip ups in classroom management or poorly executed lesson plans would result in the loss of precious moments for my students to learn and grow. I singularly considered my work to be “serious”, and very quickly found this disposition to be exhausting. The vision I had upon entering the role, one that many new educators have, was fading fast, and I was fortunate to be on a team that understood this reality and had a support system in place to address it.
Dear K-12 Education Community, With just a few days left working at Education Elements, I am penning my last blog post (my 45th to be exact!) and this one is both an open letter to the education community and a love letter to my team. To be honest, I couldn’t choose between the two and decided this could serve as both.
As the coronavirus outbreak spreads, more school districts are asking us how they can prepare to continue teaching and learning in case of school closure. This is an important topic to consider as school districts around the world have begun closing their brick and mortar doors and turned to virtual learning. We believe with the right preparation and communication every school has the capacity to meet this challenge. We reached out to technology experts and educators who have been teaching and leading schools in China from the United States to learn more about how they’ve been facilitating virtual learning over the past month.
I walk in, dragging my feet a bit, set down my coffee, click on the speaker and with the first few notes of “Midnight Train to Georgia,” I get energy in my feet. I start to glide around the room as I spread out my Sharpies, hang the large Post-Its, and set out the candy. I know it’s going to be a good day.
One of the beautiful things about having a career in education is that you have something in common with everyone. No matter where you go, you will find someone who went to school or has a relative in school, and in many parts of the country, the school district is one of the largest employers in the region. Recently, I sat next to a friendly salesperson from Western New York on a flight that was thrice-delayed. We joked about not turning our phones to airplane mode until we were wheels-up, lest we tempt fate and delay the flight again, then we started chatting about our reasons for traveling.
The team was sitting together after the final workshop for the final wave of schools jovially enjoying the moment with a sense of accomplishment. We did it. Teams and plans are in place and the momentum is palpable. As we focused on the task for the next hour we had set aside for strategic planning, the question surfaced immediately…What now? The flood gates opened and the previous celebratory moment became distant somehow as we stood staring at the warp speed status…warp 8, warp 9. What did we need to maintain a steady-on course at warp 10? We are a rural, Alaskan district the size of West Virginia with an impressive amount of diversity within our realm. Our challenges are significant, but this point in our growth is not unique to us. Our Education Elements partners had seen this before. In the Kenai, we navigate our waters with practiced skill, but we are talking about changing our paradigm…We are now operating under the belief that everyone in our organization deserves their learning and growth to be personalized. Can we personalize professional development for teachers? Is it possible to build leadership opportunities for teachers who don’t want to leave the classroom? Can teacher leadership impact the culture of professional growth in schools? Yes! This IS possible!
“I found my people!” “This is like church!” “I feel so energized!” “Can we do this in our district?” These are just a few of the exclamations we heard at our National Leadership Institutes in 2019. We envisioned these events as a place to bring together leaders from across the country focused on similar problems of practice, but never imagined the depth of collaboration, learning, and friendship that would result.
There are many avenues you can take when making change in your organization. Change can be made at the structural level by redesigning the way teams are organized. Change can be made at the team level by refining the way collaboration happens. Change can be made at the individual level by evolving personal habits and practices.
Erica Williams Simon, founder of Snapchat’s Creator’s Lab and one of my favorite millennials on a mission, wrote in this tweet that the best career advice she can give is to never attach yourself to a person, place, company, or project, but rather a mission, a calling, or a purpose. I’ve been a teacher, a policy researcher, and an EdTech leader, and my purpose guiding me through each of those roles was to create equitable experiences and opportunities for all learners.
Personalized learning has captured the attention of many education reformers. Much of the conversation is around utilizing a personalized learning approach to enhance student engagement, and thereby, increase student achievement. I believe that many school districts are confusing personalized learning with offering programs that constitute personalized pathways. Pathways can be viewed as magnet programs, innovative programs, career technical education programs, debate, dual enrollment, international and global studies, dual language programs, and advanced placement. Although these programs provide school choice to students, by offering them a wide array of schools to attend where they can pursue a passion or program of interest specifically to them, this does not address the necessary changes in instructional practices inherent in personalized learning.
To create the schools children deserve, we must coach educators and leaders for equity. It isn’t an option for coaches to be neutral on issues of justice — and there are injustices occurring in almost every school, every day. It’s our moral and professional obligation to lead and coach in a way that surfaces and interrupts these inequities.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that my life is a day-to-day journey to reach my full potential. Whether it’s reaching my full potential in my health, my income, my relationships, or really anything I put effort into. The harsh truth is that a lot of us consistently fall short of that potential, despite making an effort. Sometimes it’s even us giving everything we have only to find out it wasn’t good enough. So how do we finally win? How do we stay motivated to keep giving more?
In a world hyper-focused on influencers and celebrities, it is no surprise that professional athletes are often a top feature of our news or social media feeds. The news we hear about athletes may be rooted in their record-breaking accomplishments, their broader impact on our society or culture, controversial behavior, or even experiences with an unexpected setback or tragedy. And, whether you consider yourself an avid sports fan, follow a few particular sports, teams, or individual athletes, or only engage in sports conversations when they are forced upon you via workplace metaphors, undoubtedly the presence of some leading athletic competitors have at times entered your thoughts. Regardless of your knowledge, appreciation, or perception of elite athletes, as school leaders there is much we can learn from other professionals who have been leaders amongst their peers and achieved greatness in their craft. I wanted to explore some of the mindsets, habits, and commitments of a handful of professional athletes who are widely considered the GOAT (greatest of all time) in their particular sport, and how intentionally embodying some of these ideas can strengthen our impact as school leaders. As you read, I invite you to consider the lessons you can apply to your own role as leaders striving to impact the lives and futures of students, families, communities, and educators you serve.
As we count down to this year's Education Elements Summit, we asked presenters from last year's Summit to share more of their innovative thinking with us. Kelsey Brown, a teacher in Loudoun County Public Schools, led one of the most popular Personalized Learning Simulations last year, and shares with us her thoughts on classroom structures!
There’s a school in the Oak Lawn area of Dallas, TX that brings a one-size-fits-one approach to every learner in their community, including their teachers. Personalized Learning Preparatory at Sam Houston is a PreK-5 campus where instruction is facilitated in a personalized learning model from classroom to classroom. As a school founded on the principles of personalized learning, their instructional philosophy aims to “tap into each student’s strengths, needs, and interests to customize learning and support student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn to ensure that all students achieve their greatest potential.” In the spirit of their vision, the team at PL Prep looks to align all that they do to their four pillars: compassion, reflection, intentionality, and empowerment.
Located along the Hudson River and just 60 miles north of New York City, Newburgh Enlarged City School District is no stranger to strategic planning. With the adoption of Vision 2020 a few years ago, Newburgh reflected on successes from the current strategic plan including the creation of more options for secondary students, the launch of two new high school campuses, the increased focus on technology integration, and recognition from the state for their Certified Nursing Assistant program. They also celebrated increased student proficiency across core subjects. With Vision 2020 set to end in the next academic year, however, the district aims to capitalize on these successes and continue to align on a district direction in their new strategic plan, Beyond 2020.
The foam on the edges of the waves grazed the outside of my foot and I felt the sand catch my heel with every step. I was intently focused as I walked along the beach outside of my home in Jacksonville, Florida, considering my intention for 2020. It had been a few years since I had abandoned new year's resolutions in exchange for yearly intentions, which has proven to be a great decision. Gone are the days of abandoned gym memberships, replaced by a sense of wonder for new ways to move my body and build strength. This year, my intention has been to “be gentle,” to myself and others.
Take a look at your calendars and consider the number of meetings you have each week. Can you say that you go through most of those meetings and 100% finish on time and in each of those meetings you get 80%-90% of the agenda items covered? While getting all this done, can you say that 100% of all meeting attendees get a chance to participate? I can. Just tweaking a few things about your meeting will make a significant difference in your organizational culture.
Since 2003, Discovery’s show Mythbusters has been a smash hit. Though Adam & Jamie stopped hosting in 2016, the reruns and spin-offs continue. Why? Because rumors, myths, and curiosity are a part of what it means to be human. Finding answers to questions we’ve wondered about helps us process and move on with new knowledge. Sometimes the myths they would bust were fun and quirky – like, is there truth behind the 5-second rule for food? Or can you really shoot a scuba tank and it’ll explode? Spoiler alert – NO to both. But sometimes there are myths that aren’t fun and quirky, and don’t end up on TV. Some myths have depth and need to be addressed in order for progress to be made. This is true for advancing the work of personalized learning.
After interviewing hundreds of parents, teachers, and students across the country, we’ve found almost everyone wants the same things for the kids they care about. We want “our” kids to flourish – to have productive work, meaningful relationships, creative self-expression, good health, and to participate civically in their communities.
In Forest Hills School District (FHSD) there have been pockets of innovation and personalized learning (PL) for some time. However, when the district came to Education Elements, they sought to scale PL in each and every classroom, district-wide. To accomplish this goal, the district strategically slowed down in year one. They spent the first year focusing on establishing a shared definition of PL and letting teachers generate a clear vision for PL in each school across the district. They’ve done this because they’ve seen how confusion and uncertainty can influence a program in their district. To ensure the success of their PL implementation, they’ve used a grass roots approach - creating conditions and structures for teachers to provide input and drive this work forward.
In the early month of December, Anthony Kim and I had the opportunity to visit Mason City Schools outside of the city of Cincinnati to ask the question, “How might we use responsive practices to know we are on track to exceeding our goals?” The initial relationship between Education Elements and Mason City Schools started over a casual conversation of the sharing of what books they were reading. One book being Measure What Matters by John Doerr. As a learning organization, we are always on the quest to learn from others who are impacting the educational landscape, and our hope is to help connect them to other innovators, and to share what they are learning with partners in our network. Christine McCormick, Innovative Systems Officer at Mason City Schools, is a disruptor, dreamer and visionary of what the potential of what a school district could look like.
The best conferences are generally those that expand your thinking, reframe a current problem, provide practical recommendations, and encourage networking. At Education Elements, we not only attend conferences on a regular basis to expand our thinking, but we also keynote, and host our own regional and national events as well as our Summit in May – all of which get outstanding reviews. That makes us a bit of an expert on which conferences rise to the top.
Every team meeting we have at Education Elements begins with a check-in question. Sometimes it takes me a while to come up with my answer, but on a call recently it was a no-brainer: “What trait do you most value in a leader?” To me, that’s simple – it’s courage, for two key reasons. First, because courage in leadership is rare, or at least more rare than it should be. And second, because courage is a superpower when it comes to leading innovation, building culture, and enabling transformation. My colleagues and I do a lot of work with leaders, and our framework for innovative leadership is built around a set of competencies that directly feed, strengthen, and enrich leaders’ courage, a mission-critical element of their leadership. While the list could go on and on, here are seven leadership superpowers that courage can activate.
What is the definition of innovation? It turns out that most people can’t agree. I’m not surprised! It’s one of those words we use so much, but we rarely pause to think about what it really means. Now that I’ve read over 100 different definitions of “innovation,” I’m going to lean on this one:
Just a few weeks ago I found myself in the North Pole. No, seriously, this nice Jewish girl found herself up in the North Pole because when we say Education Elements supports districts across the country, we mean it. So in the middle of November, I found myself at 101 St. Nicholas Dr., in line to meet Santa and Mrs. Santa* after spending a great day working with Fairbanks North Star Borough School District. I didn’t sit on his lap and ask for anything, but it did get me thinking a little about what I might want this holiday season and a lot about what I want to give others. Because while many of us celebrate different holidays this time of year (and not all focus on giving gifts) I always find myself looking back, looking forward, and focusing on being grateful for what I have while thinking about what more I can give to others.
A few years ago I found myself in the middle of an aisle at the home improvement store acquiring some tools I needed for a job around the house. In the moment, I didn’t make the connection to my classroom, but I later realized how I don’t usually go to the store to buy tools that I don’t need. When a home repair presents itself I am willing and motivated to go find the tools I need to solve the problem at hand. This is typically the exact opposite experience that students have in our classrooms. Our students come to school every day and are sold tools they don’t see the need for in the current moment. As I was realizing this, I was beginning to implement project-based learning experiences in my classroom. I’ll admit I was struggling to get students to put forth the effort to solve real-world problems in addition to those skills built into my curriculum.
A few years ago, Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) took a big bet on talent. Despite the city’s legacy of divesting in educators, the District’s new leaders believed that Detroit teachers have the power to chart a new future for the city’s children. As part of an ambitious five-year plan, leaders sought to forge a new legacy for the District: one where teachers received the trust, compensation, professional development, and resources to achieve their highest aspirations, and to deliver the learning opportunities students need to succeed.
In an economically disadvantaged part of Charlotte, N.C., there is a public school with the highest percentage of Title 1 students in the district. Less than a mile away is a charter school that could have become its competition, luring away students and leaving the district school with fewer funds to tackle the same set of challenges. Across the country, that’s how district and charter relationships often play out. They are competitive, rather than collaborative. But that’s not what happened in Charlotte.
After selling our D.C. area home and looking for more than a year to buy what we would call our “forever home,” my husband Mike and I finally closed on our dream piece of property. It checks off all of our boxes. More than an acre of flat, usable yard space for our kids. A pool with a diving board (my 4-year-old’s only requirement). A Harry-Potter-esque cupboard under the stairs for our dog (my 3-year-old’s only requirement). And room to grow. It’s perfect. It’s also stuck in the 1990s in terms of decor and layout. So minutes after closing, we did what any couple who watches way too much HGTV would do: we began making our list of renovation projects.
As Thanksgiving approaches and 2019 nears an end, I’m taking some time to reflect on what I’m grateful for this year. When I zoom out and think about the past 11 months, I realize that I am especially grateful for all the ways that teams have shown up in my life this year.
Education Elements and Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS) came together to design an experience for adult learners that would make a difference in their lives as innovative leaders. Both organizations wanted to create an experience that would inspire them, that would change mindsets and drive different results.
Why Pursue Personalized Learning? In October 2017, AdvancEd conducted our five-year district accreditation review. At the conclusion of the review process, we received a couple of recommendations that were spot on and aligned with our district comprehensive needs assessment’s (CNA) overarching needs. Two specific recommendations the review team provided really hit home. First, we needed to strengthen and monitor our professional learning communities in an effort to evaluate, interpret and utilize data for personalized learning and differentiated instruction to increase learning and growth. Secondly, we had to identify and implement professional development strategies that focus on the utilization of digital resources as an integral component of content delivery. With the AdvancED Review Team’s recommendations validating our district and school improvement needs and the focus on student use of technology in classrooms, we believed personalized learning would be an effective improvement strategy to pursue.
Our experience, past success, and hard won wisdom can cloud our perspective on others, especially when they seem to think like we do… Even with a good deal of experience being fortunate to work with and for smart leaders on Multiplier topics for years, I fall into the same trap: thinking those who think like I do actually do. Rather than amplify the intelligence of those around me, I shut down their thinking by assuming my similarities will provide answers for their issues. Unfortunately, I’m quite good at this both at home and at work.
During the Education Elements Personalized Learning Summit 2019, one of our keynote speakers, Principal Baruti Kafele, discussed the achievement gap, the attitude gap, and the role all educators play in addressing both. I was familiar with the achievement gap, but I was unfamiliar with the attitude gap. Principal Kafele defines it as, “the gap between those students who have the will to strive for excellence, and those who don’t.” We all know that it’s nearly impossible to change the will of our students, I had plenty of teachers try and fail when I was a student. But the notion that our students need to develop socially and emotionally in order to reach their full potential resonated with me. And not just in the context of when we have them in our buildings – ideally, we want our students to take the academic and non-academic lessons they learn while with us, and apply them to life and the outside world. As we prepare students for their futures, it’s imperative that we prioritize their social-emotional development. We can equip them with a lens to view the diversity the world has to offer as a way to build bridges to solve the problems we couldn’t. At Education Elements, we believe that Student Reflection & Ownership provides a framework for supporting the social-emotional development of students and ultimately, creates an environment that empowers them to become happy, successful, agents of change.
Have you ever caught yourself working deadline to deadline without coming up for air? I have and I’ve sworn to myself it would be the last time, only to return to that place and wonder, how did I get here again? Inertia is a property of matter by which it remains in uniform motion within its existing state. I’ve seen many versions of “working inertia” in my time in education: teachers planning lesson to lesson, coaches jumping from PD to PD, leaders thinking from meeting to meeting, schools operating from year to year. While the scale of this phenomenon varies, the pattern is consistent: over time, our repeated habits slowly mold us into ways of working that don’t leave room to step out of ourselves, reflect, and question our approach. Wondering ‘how did I get here again?’ now signals to me that my working inertia has built up a disconnect between how I want to work and how I am working. It is in those moments that I can feel trapped in a habit loop of working, where I lose sight of my purpose and my pursuit of innovation.
“What’s it like in other schools? In other districts? In other states?” After eight years in the classroom as a math teacher and another seven as a school leader, I transitioned into a role at Education Elements just over a year ago in part because I wanted answers to those questions. The field of education has that head-down, just-keep-digging quality to it, where we’re so far down in our trenches that it often feels impossible to pause, lift one’s head, and get a sense of the landscape. I wanted to see what factors were supporting successful innovation, reform, outside-the-box thinking, and school change around the country, even if doing so meant leaving a school I loved and had helped build. A year in, I’ve worked directly with teams from close to a hundred schools and visited dozens of their campuses. In just 12 months I’ve collaborated with ten districts in six states. I certainly can’t pretend to have anywhere near a complete picture or complete answer, but as I think about what drives successful future-focused education, some factors are abundantly clear. The districts and teams I’ve seen doing it well seem to have certain approaches in common.
The start of a new school year often brings with it discussions about new vision statements, improvement plans, yearlong initiatives and sweeping changes in the name of increasing student success. Yet in our work with school districts across the country, we’ve learned that it’s the smaller, individual leadership practices and team habits that lead to larger systems changes.
We all experience the world in different ways. I know that, as a white person, my experiences are different than those of a person of color – in ways both big and small – such as a feeling of belonging and safety, or the knowledge that I am implicitly trusted by others. As a woman, my experiences are different than those of a man; yes, sometimes physical doors are opened for me, but I also know my male friends have metaphorical ones often opened for them. So then when, a few months ago, a teammate shared an article about the pay inequities that often exist for both women and people of color, it gave me an opportunity to reflect, think, and discuss with others how we, at Education Elements, might need to change.
In a 2018 study conducted by TINYPulse, a company specializing in employee engagement, it was reported that the top 5 reasons employees choose to leave their jobs are: poor performance management, lack of recognition, feeling overworked, company culture isn’t a priority, and lack of growth opportunities.
Late August is a lovely time to visit Northeastern Ohio, and as educational leaders around the country are asking, “How might we transform the learning experiences for all students in our district?” a visit to Mayfield City Schools is a must-do if you find yourself in the Cleveland area. As a learning organization, we seek out innovators who are impacting the educational landscape, and our hope is to help connect them with each other, and to share what they have learned with partners in our network. Dr. Patrick Ward, Director of Curriculum & Instruction at Mayfield City Schools, is one such innovator.
Standing in line at Starbucks ready to order my Venti black coffee, I pull out my phone and tap on Twitter even though I just checked it one minute ago. It’s a bad habit that I have, mindlessly opening the app without thinking, and pulling down the page in hopes that it will refresh with new content. Every morning when I wake up, the first thing I do is drink two glasses of water with fresh lemon juice, organic apple cider vinegar, or a pinch of Himalayan salt. I’ve been doing this for several years, after reading about the benefits of drinking water in the morning to start the day. At first, it was hard. I started with half a glass. Then moved to a full glass. I eventually added apple cider vinegar. And now I’m up to two glasses. These are examples of bad habits and good habits I reinforce every day.
I was on a phone call with two principals earlier this week who shared a concern I hear often in working with school districts through large change management initiatives. Three years into their personalized learning journey, there are still at least a few teachers in their building who are resistant to the instructional shifts necessary to make learning personalized for each child. If you are a leader facing a similar situation, here are four key strategies for moving forward.
How does professional development get labeled in your school or organization? Too often, I hear: boring, unproductive, compliance-driven, not based on my needs or interests. Research on professional development shows that the “drive-by” workshop model does not meet the needs of teachers. No two people learn the same way, though many leaders do not change the way they provide instruction for professional development. Just like education should be personalized for students, professional learning should be personalized for adults. Effective professional development or learning (semantics to me) needs to improve educators’ professional knowledge, competence, skill, and effectiveness. No matter if you are a teacher, school leader or district leader, below you will find ways you can reframe professional learning in your school or district.
How do we design the schools of the future, today? Designing innovative structures and systems takes a similarly innovative approach, otherwise, we’d design the same systems we already have all over again. In a series of blog posts, we have described the steps to creating a responsive strategic plan. We’ve taught you how to assemble a superhero team and how to identify and collect data from your stakeholders. Now, what do you actually DO to design a responsive strategic plan that won’t collect dust on your office shelf? Even if you are not going through a strategic plan redesign but are working towards implementing your current plan or designing the rollout of a new initiative within your plan, we want to show you how to plan for change and not perfection.
Teaching, often considered one of the most noble professions one can pursue, has been a consistent driver of the innovation and ideas that progress society forward. Great leaders, creators, and thinkers have been fostered in some way by a teacher who engaged, mentored, and motivated them to achieve their goals. Yet though the demand for talented, caring educators has never been higher, the pool of applicants continues to dwindle. Teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers with complaints of burnout, and young people are deciding to pursue careers in fields that are perceived to be more lucrative and stable.
This summer I had the pleasure of working alongside my Education Elements colleagues to reflect on the incredible work our partner districts have accomplished in the past year. We had the opportunity to interview four districts, survey over 100 district leaders, and analyze thousands of data points. We also got to reflect on our own practices to see how we can improve.
How are you? What is bringing you to this blog post today? What is top of mind for you as you’re reading this? Would you rather have the ability to fly or read minds? Did those questions interest or engage you? Are you now mulling over your current feelings or intentions? Or did you stop reading entirely to properly dedicate your attention to choosing between superpowers? Regardless of your actions, the questions I posed required you to pause for a moment, consider your thoughts, and engage with your imagination. These abilities are vital to our roles as educators - we are consistently tasked with keeping calm through perceived chaos, being conscientious of the numerous needs of others, and maintaining a level of creativity to capture the attention of students. Yet in schools and districts across the country, very little time – our most precious resource as educators – is dedicated to the exploration and development of those skills.
At Education Elements, we believe that sparking learning through creativity, reflection, and play is key to adult learning. So, let’s start here by playing a game. The rules are simple. Read this list of things that real people have done and determine what these actions have in common. Ready? Go! Eat 65 M&Ms with chopsticks Travel 100 meters while seated and hopping on a large bouncy ball Complete 98 ‘around the world’ soccer ball juggling tricks Clap your hands together 1,103 times (apparently this is a phenomenon known as speed clapping) Run nearly half a mile (if you are Usain Bolt) So, what do all of these impressive and/or bizarre human talents have in common? Each has been completed in 60 seconds or less. Before you reach for the M&Ms and chopsticks, there are important steps that you can take as a leader right now to impact teacher retention in 60 seconds or less. That’s right – in under 1 minute today, you can impact teacher retention at your school.
I had a middle school science teacher once tell me she was surprised that I did well on a test because she assumed I was bad at science. She pointed to one of my classmates and said, “Her, I assume she’ll do well, but you’re just not very good at science.” I remember being deeply hurt by that statement but not understanding why it hurt. Years later, I would try and remember that moment when I found myself making assumptions about which students I expected would do well on my tests. Why was I expecting some students to do well but not others? Past academic performance was one part, but I realized I had biases that were also impacting those assumptions.
So, you’ve completed a round of stakeholder engagement activities. You clarified your ‘why behind engagement’ and have identified a group of stakeholders to target. Maybe you hosted forums, sent out surveys to various stakeholder groups, conducted interviews, and even shadowed students. With the rich data sources at your disposal, you may be wondering – how do I pull trends from my data? How do I elicit feedback and input from my community throughout to ensure I’m making the right data-driven decisions? How do I honor my community’s perspective and my own insider knowledge as I continue to build my strategic plan? Keep reading for a few suggestions on how to do just that.
“One bag of peanut butter M&Ms, please.” It’s the first step I take as I enter a movie theater before selecting the perfect middle-center seat – a ritual I began with my mom as a child. On this day, instead of rushing to the front of the line, I took a moment to look around. There was a buzz in the room as kids and adults of all ages lined up to see the first black superhero. There is no doubt that Black Panther was a major milestone for the United States and the world. Throngs of people viewed the film multiple times, relishing the opportunity to be represented in such an empowering way. A couple of years later I noticed a similar sense of pride at the release of Captain Marvel, a film featuring a female superhero. I knew the Avengers was a well-regarded team but it was clear that these additions were crucial. It’s difficult to imagine a complete team without the most recent additions because of the unique perspectives they bring. It is the first step in a longer commitment to inclusion and empowerment.