Lessons on Continuous Improvement for a New School Year

By Heidi Reed, Director, Professional Learning, and Katie Brackenridge, Partnership Director

For many of us, last year was the hardest year we have ever had as educators. So many twists and turns, so much flexibility, creativity and perseverance, so many hard conversations with so many people! With the end of summer looming and back-to-school season starting, you may be having a wide range of feelings — from anxiety and uncertainty to hope and excitement.

With those feelings comes the opportunity to reflect on what we have learned this past year about how whole-child aligned change happens in schools. If nothing else, in the frequently shifting context of the last few school years, we have all had a crash course in PDSA (Plan-Do-Study-Act) cycles of continuous improvement. We rushed to meet unforeseen needs and pivoted to new ways of working, often instantly and without hesitation because we knew it was what our schools needed. As we worked to address each successive challenge with speed, adjusting our strategies accordingly, we also learned a lot about leading complex change — what works and what does not. All while watching for telltale signs of improvement. What can we take away from these experiences and proactively apply to how we lead in the new school year?

Turnaround for Children has been working with school and district leaders to implement whole-child design in the midst of many challenges. We have seen our various partners flex, struggle, adapt and succeed in different ways. Through it all, we have made some observations about leadership mindsets and beliefs that support effective, whole-child aligned change and some that hinder it. We hope these lessons offer a helpful starting place when launching any improvement efforts in the new school year.

Here are some leadership beliefs and mindsets we have found to be far less effective while making whole-child aligned change:

In contrast, the following leadership beliefs and mindsets are far more effective while making whole-child aligned change:

The most exciting thing about these more effective leadership mindsets and beliefs is that they are exactly the kinds of things that educators, particularly education leaders, need to be doing to create more equitable learning conditions. Consider, for example, the importance of “listening to those closest to the problem.” We have learned that gathering perspectives and input from stakeholders — students, families, teachers — isn’t just a nice thing to do. It’s actually how we avoid unintended negative consequences, respond to the real contexts people are experiencing, and gather support for co-created ideas and strategies. This level of authentic partnership is one way we create increasingly equitable learning environments for our students.

So as you think about next year, consider the opportunity to:

  1. Take frequent equity pauses

Turnaround for Children’s Toolbox is full of free tools and resources to support the change you want to see in your school or district.

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Turnaround connects the dots between science, adversity and school performance to catalyze student development and academic achievement. www.turnaroundusa.org