Musings, Work Stuff

Taking the initiative

At the start of the school year, many Heads (of School, Division or Department) start to talk about the initiatives that will be undertaken in the upcoming year.  Some are mild, some are school changing.  Some are internal, some have a more external focus.  And over the years, I’ve watched, participated and developed a kind of cynicism about the process as a whole.  Whenever I hear words along the lines of “this year, we will…” I begin to wonder, “why? where is this leading? and what’s next?

NOTE: What follows is not about my school (only), it’s about the schools I’ve worked in and those my friends have worked in and schools I’ve been part of in some way.  Perhaps you’ll recognize your school in this, but there’s a good chance what you’re seeing isn’t about your school, it’s more universal!

Internal Initiatives can be anything from we’re restructuring the school (lines of communication, reporting structure, titles) to rethinking grading to changing the program to a technological change to… you name it.

  • I’ve seen schools jump on the technology bandwagon (“we went 1:1 iPad so we’d stand out” is not a good reason to embrace technology) without thinking through the implications: there’s a myth that students, being so-called digital natives, will know how to use the technology without training, and that teachers will somehow figure it out.  Rarely is there time for teachers to properly learn to play with the new tool/LMS/program to become familiar and comfortable with it before students begin to use it, and equally rarely is there a really thorough orientation that ensures that students can use it properly.
  • Changing the calendar or exam structure may seem like an easy thing to do, but there’s a whole educational piece that gets left out.  Moving from a January midterm/June final is a great idea (seriously, who wants to take a final exam, do poorly and be told “have a nice summer” immediately after?) but how do teachers figure out how to restructure their exams to reflect that change?  What assessments are truly necessary at the end of the year to ensure that someone moves up to the next level? And if that can be done in one or two class periods, why disrupt the entire school with an Exam Week?
  • Many schools, post-AP Exam period, give their seniors the opportunity to do some sort of Senior Project.  And why not?  I’ve never worked in a school where a senior in good standing has had to take a June final, and let’s face it, once APs are over they have no need pay attention.  Some schools graduate their seniors before giving a final, another good idea.  The Senior Project idea has, in some schools, morphed into an All School idea, call it January Term (as we did in college) or MayMester or whatever – a few weeks of a deep dive into something that could be a personal interest or an all school exploration or structured by grade level or whatever.  Honestly, I love the idea and can think of several projects I’d love to work with students on.  But… if you’re an English teacher, it’s easy to drop a text.  Not so easy if you’re teaching another subject where you’re expected to cover a certain amount of material (in 20+ years, I’ve never met a history teacher teaching the US History survey class that’s gotten to really teach current history, “current” being Reagan-2000, let alone this century).  Teachers may be given time to think about their projects and the new initiative, but the time to rethink their class? to determine how best to squeeze in or excise a tense, era, experiment or function?  Rarely happens.
  • Changing the grading from A-F to 0-4.0 or including comments, going from twice a year to four times, or something like that also requires training and thought.  I’ve seen teachers who simply cannot write personal comments about their students, preferring to cut-and-paste from a list of phrases.  I’ve seen teachers who do it well, really recognizing each students’ strengths and weaknesses.  More development and time training?  Never happens.  It’s maybe one meeting as a group in the start of the year, then perhaps the first set of comments is shared with a mentor.  Then… nothing.
  • Exploring the pedagogy, diversity and inclusion work, All Faculty Reads?  Again, great ideas.  But what’s next?  Once we’ve gone from Good to Great or learned about A Whole New Mind, what’s next?  Is it a one-year thing, or will we continue to do that work, revisiting what we learned over the previous year and figuring out how to change in the upcoming?

And then there are the External Initiatives:  rebranding the school.  getting rid of AP classes.  creating a symposium.  etc..  One school changed its reunion structure to include a lecture series that was supposed to be about empowerment – it was great, for a few years.  Like any series, though, it became stretched and then thin.  Then it disappeared without a word.  Next?  A Global Imitative that drew a lot of attention and Big Names.  One year and done.  No word about why it was dropped without a word if anything had come of it.  Here’s the problem: when you go that public, you invite attention.  And questions.

This isn’t to denigrate initiatives, internal or external.  It’s just… we’ve got a few going on at work, and friends have shared some that are going on at theirs.  Maybe I’m getting old, but in all my years of doing this, of being involved with schools (remember, I grew up in an academic family, so it’s been a lonnnnng time) it’s rare that I see them carried out to anything more than a bright flashy idea, or that teachers and students are given enough time to truly prepare and do it well.  Sometimes it’s difficult to take them seriously as a result.  And I want to!  I really do.  So please, inspire me.  Give me your tricks to get through the “this is a great idea” phase into the “wow, this really made a difference long term” phase.

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