Coaching Tip of the Month, September 2019
Welcome to the new school year… so many ideas… so many new books to read. Where do you start??
You may have heard the adage, “less is more” when talking about instructional design and paring down a curriculum, e.g., moving from a traditional schedule to a block schedule or helping teachers shape their scope of work so that attention to fewer things can produce a more positive impact. How many times have we reminded ourselves that if we have multiple things to do, our attention is spread too thin and something is shortchanged?
This expression was first mentioned in an 1855 Robert Browning poem and is often used in reference to an architect whose simplicity of style says volumes. His belief is that simplicity and clarity are the very things that help us make the right decisions and achieve our goals. A clear, unambiguous picture is needed to ensure an understanding of the goals and to plan our actions to achieve those goals.
You’ve also probably heard of “The Minimalists,” Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, who contend that “…owning less stuff, focusing on fewer tasks, and having less in the way has given us more time, more freedom, and more meaning in our lives” (Essential: Essays by The Minimalists). I’m often reminded of this when I open a closet door! I wonder if this concept can apply to educators with respect to leadership.
Mike Schmoker thinks so…“When leaders narrow their focus to one or two powerful initiatives, they can get amazing results—and love their jobs” (March 2019 EL journal). I think it must be more effective to focus on a limited number of initiatives, determine strategies for implementation, and then reflect to see if the goals were met. Too many goals can result in an amorphous endeavor. It’s too difficult to concentrate when so many things need our attention.
Because we all want to provide our students with the most effective tools to build their capacity and we want to share the most promising instructional strategies with our teachers, the toolbox gets quite crowded and we try to do too many things hoping that something, or many things, “stick.” That kind of “spray and pray” does not work. We need to focus on fewer things and get them “right.” In other words, we need to make sure we identify goals, prioritize issues, collectively problem-solve, make data driven decisions, encourage multiple voices, and all work towards achieving the same goals.
Some schools have designated committees organized by task. That kind of collaboration is invaluable until it impedes progress! When that works, it’s great. When it doesn’t, then what? Communication must be transparent, goals clear, and each committee must make plans to meet before, during, and after as they work to complete their tasks. Their action plans must align with the schoolwide plan and also with each committee’s action plan. Each committee has a finite number of tasks to complete, enabling them to focus on their set of goals. Communication is imperative so that efforts are not duplicated and the limited time that everyone has is used wisely.
Michael Fullan (2009) also says, “The skinny is about finding the smallest number of high-leverage actions that unleash stunningly powerful consequences.” This is where smaller is better and systematically strategizing around specific actions is very productive.
In every school, there is a plethora of opportunities vying for someone’s attention. Unfortunately, addressing a revolving door of ideas means that no one idea gets anyone’s full attention; no one idea gets the thought it deserves. We don’t want to dilute the importance or the value of what we are trying to do; we want to focus on ways to make changes and improvements so that each goal is SMART and viable.
Think for a moment boutique vs. big box store. In many resort areas, there are no big box stores. These communities tend to have smaller, more intimate shopping places with more personalized attention available to their clientele. Smaller is better for them… their focus is narrowed (probably fewer brands carried) and they may specialize in something specific. Now, transfer that thinking to schoolwide improvement, instructional coaching, and transforming schools.
Let’s plan to limit our focus, dedicate our time and effort, be precise in our actions, and make inroads as we change practice. Incremental steps towards achieving goals makes a difference, especially if the overall goal is to promote teaching and learning!
Coaches are in the perfect position to help set the tone for the new year:
- Gather the collective wisdom of the staff and identify needs;
- Align those needs with the schoolwide plan for improvement;
- Identify ways to address the needs for both teachers and students;
- Collaborate regularly to talk about practice, not just performance;
- Rethink, revise, and re-adjust instruction to ensure goals are achieved and learning is promoted