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Perspective | Starting small and thinking wide

With the abundance of challenges facing schools today, we, as educators, recognize that maintaining the status quo isn’t an option. In a changing world, adapting, pivoting, and introducing reform is increasingly necessary. We see it every day in our classrooms.

Because the stakes are high, schools often respond by rolling out new initiatives; but for many teachers, this method rarely addresses problems effectively.

When educators see issues, we want to throw solutions and money at them. We’ll try something and hope it works. It doesn’t. And then we’re right back to where we started.

That’s where Schools That Lead comes in. STL, a nonprofit organization that applies the problem-solving model of improvement science to education, helps educators find real solutions to complex problems. Key to STL’s approach is the belief that solving problems effectively starts with identifying problems accurately — and that starting small is the name of the game.

Educators are usually fixers with great intentions, but what often happens is that we think we understand our problems more than we really do — and we start applying solutions on a large scale based on our assumptions. Partnering with STL taught us to step back, take a deep breath, and think about why we might be having a particular problem in the first place.

Responding to COVID-19

Perspectives from Ashley Twitty, teacher at Spindale Elementary in Rutherford County, North Carolina.

As an elementary school teacher who has worked with STL for three years, these tools have helped me to respond to the unique problems presented by COVID-19.

When instruction first transitioned online for my school in Rutherford County, I began to recognize that my approach was not equitable for all my students. Some, particularly ones living in rural areas, lacked strong internet access needed to access course content — and I struggled to get in contact with five of them.

I also noticed that three of the five were already on my “watch list” — a list of students showing signs of chronic absenteeism.

To connect with students in a more equitable way, I started sending letters to these five students: three letters a week, labeled Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and included a prepaid postcard so they could respond back to me.

I didn’t say anything about their work – I wasn’t concerned about that. I just wanted to check in, connect with them, and make sure they were OK. Ultimately, I wanted them to know that as their teacher, I cared about them.

In my letters, I shared about my week and explained that I wanted to hear about theirs. I also included various social-emotional activities that allowed students to color and draw how they were feeling.

After sending the first round of five packets out, I received four responses back — which reminded me just how important it is to test change ideas with a small group first.

If I had taken the time to do this for the entire class, I would have been discouraged with just a few responses — and too exhausted to examine whether it might be effective for certain students. Often, that’s what happens when we try to do something on a large scale first; we give up and deem it a failure before we really get started. Starting small saves us the energy we need to really test a change idea out, make necessary changes, and examine the results.

With the space they need to fine-tune change ideas and document the data, teachers are able to present real research to other educators who face similar problems – and make the broader implementation more effective.

For STL, this is what starting small is all about. It’s not damage control, but rather making ideas work effectively in various contexts. And though it’s counterintuitive, it typically gives change ideas more reach in the long run and allows teachers to impact students they will never meet.

Seeing results from my change idea — the letter — encouraged me to make a video sharing the data with other teachers in my network, and encouraging them to test the change idea with students on their watch lists, too.

The practice of starting small also encourages us, as educators, to consider the unique and varied needs of individual students.

When we get excited about an idea, we often want to apply it everywhere. What we need to do instead is consider which students are most likely to benefit from the change idea. While sending letters is a great idea, it was important for us to realize that only some students really needed it.

In fact, we have seen that applying solutions broadly actually takes away from other students in the classroom.

If we have a student reading above grade level, they don’t need a new phonics program – no matter how awesome it is. What they need is enrichment. But if we roll out a new phonics program that doesn’t apply to them, we waste time that could be spent meeting their needs.

Addressing the root

Perspectives from Jessica Prayer, instructional coach for Elizabeth City Middle School in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

As an instructional coach for Elizabeth City Middle School in Elizabeth City, and a student in East Carolina University’s Pirate Leadership Academy, I have seen firsthand how STL’s approach sets it apart from other change methods.

Unlike some other organizations, STL is focused on supporting individual students and teachers and doesn’t believe in a one-size-fits-all perspective. They empower educators with the tools they need to find solutions that fit their context. They believe that the problem solvers are in the building. They trust that we know our schools – and our students – better than anyone.

By partnering with STL, I have seen improved student outcomes in math — one of my school’s highest areas of need. But it all began with recognizing the problems that lay below the surface.

In several conversations with students struggling with math, I began to observe a lot of helplessness. I wanted to work with a small group of students to see whether tapping into the confidence piece would improve their performance.

Starting small with three students with the lowest math grades, I worked with the math teacher to provide “front-loading.” Prior to the lesson, I introduced these students to the vocabulary and problems I knew they would see in class and modeled how to verbalize their thought processes and show their work on paper.

Looking at their work, I could ask, “What exactly did you mean here?,” which allowed me to clear the misconceptions that lead to errors. By getting students to verbalize their thinking process, I could better understand the areas of support they needed.

Building this technique into their math routine and encouraging its use inside the classroom, I saw my students’ confidence soar – and watched as their performance and behavior transformed as a result.

We saw grades jump from 60 to 92 and students participate more in class. One of the students — who was previously disruptive in the classroom — became a leader who began to help his peers. By providing him with the tools he needed and building his confidence, we changed his perspective.

Seeing this strategy work with one small group, my school has now implemented it on a larger scale. I tested with a second group of math students on verbalizing their thought processes and saw similar results. Today, the entire eighth-grade team at my school incorporates front-loading into remote instruction.

I’m now thinking about other schools in my network that struggle with math. Now that I’ve seen this strategy work, I want to dig even deeper. I’m asking myself how I want to keep studying it, what I will do to improve it and what research I can share with my network. For the first time, I’m thinking about my practice through the eyes of science.

Ashley Twitty

Ashley Twitty is a teacher at Spindale Elementary in Rutherford County, North Carolina.

Jessica Prayer

Jessica Prayer is an instructional coach for Elizabeth City Middle School in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.