For the last three years, our grade 7-8 school has had the same School Improvement Plan. We have worked hard to learn about differentiation, student engagement, technology, student voice and choice, small group instruction, assessment for learning and inquiry. The question staff and school leaders should always have about school improvement plans is whether they are actually making a difference or whether it is just a piece of paper that is handed in to school superintendent in the fall. Last week we did an activity to decide how much we really owned our School Improvement Plan.
The premise was that if the School Improvement Plan was truly making a difference, then grade and subject teams of teachers should be able to express their practice using the terms of plan. Chart paper, sticky notes and markers were available. Pairs of teachers were given a word bank of 11 words from the School Improvement Plan. The challenge was to create a graphic or schema that demonstrated how the School Improvement Plan was reflected in their practice by using some or all of the words in the word bank. They were given 30 minutes. Initially, to be honest, there was some confusion and hesitation. like with students, I let them be confused for a bit. But teams quickly became involved in their discussions and creations. As principal, it was encouraging to see that this was not an impossible task. All the teachers could easily articulate their thinking. For the teachers is was engaging and confirming. They were able to see how their practices have changed over time.
Here is some of the learning that arose from this activity:
- It was hard. But it was engaging work. It was engaging because all staff have worked hard to own our school improvement plan. It isn’t a piece of paper but what we have committed to do to create an engaging learning environment for our students (and us).
- The teachers can articulate what they are doing, and why they are doing it, and how the pieces go together. I call the activity “connect the dots”. It is one thing to try new things. It is a totally different thing to know why you are trying new things and how all the stuff is connected. When you can articulate it all, you own it.
- We are all doing the same thing differently. I said, “It’s interesting how they are all different.” One of my teachers replied, “But all remarkably similar”. The differences are about subject, content, personality and teacher ownership. The similarities are about culture. We have created a unified culture of learning that is pervasive across all classrooms.
- The teachers aren’t afraid to try new things. They reflect about what is going on in their practice, they try something they think will work better, and then they reflect again. When asked about what had made a difference over the last few years so that they were able to do this activity, many said that it was the freedom to try new ideas. (I didn’t mention that no one had died yet.)
- They work in teams. As I observed the activity there was great conversation about how to represent their thinking but there was no dissention about what to write down, or team members that weren’t engaged. The teachers obviously talk about their work a lot.
- Everyone is in. A colleague asked, “Were there any staff members who weren’t involved?” But the true and honest answer is no. When you create a culture of learning then that is the culture. Everyone belongs. School Improvement Planning isn’t the job of a select few or those who want in. It is the way we do school. And that was apparent from the work. One staff member was absent for the staff meeting but saw the posters the next day and came to ask about it. He felt he’d missed out. Our two newest teachers worked together and did as well as our more experienced teachers. When they began at our school in September they were easily assimilated into the school culture. It just happened. As principal, I didn’t even arrange it.
We hung them in the staff room so the conversation can continue.
If your School Improvement Plan isn’t changing how you do school in your building, then it isn’t a School Improvement Plan. If your teachers can’t articulate it, then it isn’t theirs. If they aren’t incredibly proud of how they can articulate it, then it hasn’t really made a difference to them.