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Perspective | Eating the whole enchilada

As a principal, I often feel immense pressure to create a bunch of change within a very short period of time. Raise literacy rates, improve test scores, deal with discipline, ensure social distancing — the whole enchilada. It’s daunting.

From all sides, there’s immense pressure to prove that what we’re doing is working. Plus, as principals, we care deeply about our kids and we’re passionate about making a difference in their lives. So when we spot problems, we want to do whatever is in our power to fix them.

But for many schools, this internal zeal and external pressure result in a bunch of well-meaning but slapdash solutions – like new programs – that frustrate teachers and don’t really work. Sound familiar? I thought so.

In my school’s pursuit of effective, long-lasting change, nothing has been a greater asset than our partnership with Schools That Lead (STL), a nonprofit education organization that helps schools solve complex problems by starting small.

They never promise drastic results, but what I’ve found is that by starting small, we can actually make a far greater impact — because taking small bites makes eating that whole enchilada doable.

Small steps forward

The methodology that STL uses is quite antithetical to what schools typically do. Often, after spotting a problem, educators scramble to find solutions and school-wide initiatives to roll out. STL discourages this.

Instead, STL encourages educators to identify exactly what the problem is and what other problems lie beneath it. To get there, they help educators hone in on real data and proven research as it relates to specific groups of students.

For example, STL draws attention to some early warning indicators in students — such as discipline referrals and absences — that can be easily tracked in the classroom. While teachers may not realize that a student missing one day of school a month is a big deal, research shows this can be incredibly handicapping. Even within the first two weeks of school, teachers can start to identify trends that may become larger problems down the road if not addressed.

When teachers see these red flags with specific students, they can look back on team folders and see if there is other documented data that demonstrates a sustained pattern — and then begin to think more specifically about intervention with this set of students. In this way, starting small can prevent larger problems from surfacing — and accomplishes significant long-term change.

Likewise, STL encourages educators to start small by testing a new strategy and tracking its results, beginning with one set of students. If you don’t get the results you wanted, you haven’t wasted the effort of rolling out a new initiative on a large scale — and you may find what you thought was the issue was not the real problem to begin with. However, if the strategy works, you’re able to use your data to scale it in a more sustainable, effective way.

What you’re essentially doing is using the scientific method to see if your hypothesis is correct. It’s not some vague, pie-in-the-sky idea — instead, it’s an incredibly practical way to solve intricate problems. While it doesn’t quickly move mountains, it is a better way forward. It saves wasted time and effort and in the long run, and helps schools successfully improve student outcomes.

Building confidence and efficacy

Starting small is also more likely to get teachers on board. Let’s face it, change is uncomfortable. The strength of improvement science is that it helps teachers understand when change is necessary, how it works, and how to best implement it.

By helping teachers become more confident leaders in their own classrooms, we help them see more of the big picture, too. As teachers track data with specific kids, they often begin to wonder whether students in other classrooms are having similar experiences. This broadens their perspective, giving them the tools they need to assess whether the challenges they face are unique to their particular classrooms, or indicative of a larger, shared issue in the school. This, in turn, builds collective efficacy amongst teachers. They become convinced that they can make a difference together.

And then they do.

Partnering with Schools That Lead has taught me that starting small can start a movement. This way forward gives teachers confidence that they can make an impact inside their classrooms — and in others, as well.

Michael Crider

Michael Crider is principal of Southwestern Randolph Middle School in Randolph County Schools.