When I first started as principal of Inborden Elementary S.T.E.A.M. Academy, I wanted to save the world, accomplish big things, and fix everybody’s problems.
You see, making a difference at Inborden Elementary mattered to me. It’s been part of my world my entire life. I went to elementary school there, my mom taught there for 40 years, and my daddy was a principal at a sister school in the county. It’s my community.
And as part of rural Halifax County, Inborden Elementary belongs to one of North Carolina’s most struggling school districts. We face several gaps in learning — and a lot of problems that need fixing.
But that first year as principal, I didn’t know that much about fixing problems. I was like a frozen computer. You know that wheel that spins on your screen, buffering? That was me. Buffering.
A new perspective
I’m now in my fifth year as principal at Inborden Elementary — and in my second year with Schools That Lead (STL), a nonprofit education organization that brings networks of educators together to advance problem-solving. Time, experience, and exposure to improvement science with STL have taught me one thing that has totally changed my thought process: the problem that you see isn’t usually the real problem.
That perspective shift has changed everything.
The thing about problems — especially in schools — is that they’re complex. So, if you’re going to solve the problem, you’ve got to investigate first and see if there’s anything underneath it. You need to peel the onion, peel some more and then keep peeling until you find what the real problem is. And when you find it, there’s a good chance the solution is attached.
Let me explain how this works. My first year, if there was an attendance problem, I’d look at the number of days a child was out and then send out an attendance letter to the parents. Maybe, after that, I’d also do a home visit. And that’s it.
But by the time I encountered another attendance problem in my fifth year — when kids weren’t showing up online during the pandemic — my thought process had changed. I knew I needed to ask why.
I sent out a survey to parents, asking, “Is there anything hindering you from getting your child online?” It quickly became clear that what started out as an attendance issue turned out to be, for many families in this rural area, an internet connectivity issue. We kept hearing, “You’ve given us a hot spot from the district, but it’s not working.”
We had to peel the onion. And when we did, we got to the real problem. This is how most problems in education work. So don’t waste your time testing solutions to the wrong problem — peel the onion first.
Fix the rim, not the tire
A lot of educators who haven’t participated in programs like STL don’t realize how important this is. They’re looking for tools to help them close gaps in learning, but what they really need is a perspective shift.
Here’s what I mean. The whole nation’s talking about Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) — but if you don’t understand the science behind it, you’re not going to do it well.
Think about it this way. You wake up one morning and get ready to get in your car and realize you’ve got a flat tire. You think, “I must have run over a nail.” You replace your tire. Problem solved. But soon, you get another flat tire. You replace it, thinking, “How do I keep running over nails?” But then you get another flat tire.
You were so convinced that you kept running over nails that you never actually checked your tires for them. If you had, you would have investigated and realized there was something else going on — you had a damaged rim.
Anyone can do a PDSA or attack a problem, but that doesn’t mean they’re finding an effective solution. You need to change your thought process. Otherwise, you can’t even begin to make lasting changes. So peel your onion first. Then start your PDSA. And whatever comes out, be prepared to address it in a scientific way.
You may even find that this process allows you to solve multiple problems at once. If I can solve an attendance problem, I can start closing gaps in learning along the way, too.
It might be incremental growth, but it’s real growth.
My experience with STL hasn’t just changed my thought process — it’s also changed the way I lead my staff. I ask them, “What are your thoughts?” and encourage them to think outside the box, try new things and take risks.
I’m always blown away.
They’re an excellent staff that goes above and beyond in caring for scholars — and because of their dedication, Inborden Elementary saw the highest growth composite score in Eastern North Carolina. We went from a C school to a B school, seeing the kind of growth that typically takes three years happen in one year.
And though I don’t expect for my staff to think like I think, I’ve noticed that they quickly grab hold of my thinking and run with it. My perspective shift has gotten their wheels turning as well. We’re all changing together. And that kind of change is contagious.
All moments matter
As things slowly return to normal, we have a lot of work ahead of us. Our gaps in learning have been amplified by this pandemic — and now there are new gaps that need massaging. Our kids are all at-risk now. We know that the only way forward is a commitment to work through it together.
Above all, our staff is committed to continue living out our motto: “All students count; all moments matter.” As part of that mission, we recognize that every child is different — and we’ll do whatever it takes to help them succeed. Whether they want to go to college, build on a talent or learn a trade, we’ll celebrate that — and we’ll do what it takes to get them there.
Not everyone believes that good things still come out of Halifax. But we do. And we know that if we commit ourselves to caring for each individual scholar, and if we join hands to solve complex problems in a scientific way together, we can change Halifax. And we can change the world.