Not long ago, I was grabbing dinner with a principal friend who lives on the West Coast. Let’s call him Carl*.
It was a great evening, full of provocative conversation that challenged my thinking. At one point, Carl mentioned that he was frustrated with the pace of change at his building. “I’m constantly finding pockets of innovation in my building,” he said. “But nothing spreads across our entire school.”
At that point, I pulled a piece of paper out of my backpack and drew a simple T-Chart. On one side of the paper, I wrote “Our Initiatives” and on the other, I wrote “People Moving This Work Forward with Passion.” I pushed the paper across the table and told Carl to start writing. Then, I headed to the bar to order another round.
When I got back with our beers, Carl had finished writing — and what I saw in the “our initiatives” column was no surprise at all.
His school was working on 7 major change projects all at the same time. Like many schools, they were wrestling with PBIS, the 4Cs, RTI and PLCs — all while tinkering with Genius Hour and integrating both the Common Core and the Next Gen Science Standards into the work they were doing with students. Oh yeah — and their district had just gone 1:1 with Google Chromebooks.
The real eye-opener was what we found in the “people moving this work forward with passion” column: Eighty percent of the teachers in Carl’s school were listed somewhere in the table, but less than ten percent were moving more than one initiative forward.
There was also inconsistency across grade levels and departments. He had a third grade teacher who was a district leader with new math standards, a fifth grade team that was doing great things with PBIS, and an art teacher who had used her Chromebooks to reimagine the elementary art classroom. He was proud of the science instruction happening in second grade, but embarrassed by the quality of the reading instruction happening on the exact same team. His special educators were actively creating differentiated remediation activities for students struggling in core classrooms, but they seemed ambivalent about things like critical thinking and creativity.
Carl was disappointed, convinced that his faculty had grown stagnant. He even seemed a little hurt by what he saw as an apparent unwillingness on the part of his teachers to fully embrace all of the projects that he had brought to the building. I saw real reason for celebration, though — and I pushed Carl to look at his T-Chart through a different lens. “You lead an organization where eight out of every ten employees are truly passionate about driving change,” I said. “How’s THAT a bad thing?”
You see the lesson in this story, don’t you?
Sometimes “pockets of innovation” are a sign that you are trying to do too much all at once. Forced to wrestle with tons of new change efforts, your teachers are committing their professional energy and enthusiasm to the ideas that resonate the most and letting everything else fall by the wayside. That’s not because they are resistant to your leadership. That’s because change is a heck of a lot harder than people think — and most people only have the professional bandwidth to tackle one or two new projects at a time.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not questioning your authority or your passion for seeing your school improve. You can roll out as many new projects and programs as you want to — and the chances are that every project and program you embrace has the potential to change your school for the better.
But if you are pushing more than one or two change efforts at a time, don’t be surprised when your results are scattered. Asking teachers to successfully embrace too many new ideas all at the same time just isn’t realistic no matter how important those ideas may be.
(*Carl’s real. But this name isn’t!)
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