Focusing on the Whole Child: How One Educator Acted for Impact

The 26th Annual Model Schools Conference was six months ago, and for me, a lifetime ago. When I attended in June, I had just completed my 13th year of teaching. I was past the doe-eyed point of cotton-candy dreams and the lofty goals of a “new” teacher, and I was proudly embarking into the land of becoming a veteran teacher.

Did that mean that I didn’t have cotton-candy dreams? No, It didn’t. It meant that at this point in my career, I really understood that I was preparing my students for a world that didn’t exist yet. It was my job to navigate and facilitate where we were going. It was not enough that I successfully taught the standards and my students successfully learned those standards. I also needed to focus on answering the “and then what?” question.

From attending MSC 2017, I knew the 2018 conference was where I could answer that very question and develop that portion of my craft. What I didn’t know at that time was that my “veteran teacher” status pursuing the “and then what?” angle was about to change as I moved into a new leadership role. 

From Teacher to School Leader

After MSC 2018, I accepted a position as an Assistant Principal at a small district in southern California. I had learned a ton of things that I wanted to implement in my classroom, but I traded in that classroom for an office. At first I was nervous that as an administrator I would not be able to use all of the strategies I had just learned, but I found that wasn’t the case and I was able to apply them to my new role. (The best part of K-12 education is that kids are involved in every part! Nothing learned is ever wasted!)   

One of my favorite sessions was by Dr. Susan Szachowicz called “Creating a Culture of Literacy.” I loved her presentation and how easy her plan was. Again, I didn’t intend on being a principal at this time, but I did serve on a lot of committees and site teams and thought that the session titled “Principles for Principals” would apply to those endeavors. I have been using Dr. Szachowicz’s 10 principles for effective leaders, and I have checked in with myself to see how I was progressing on my post-MSC 2018 plans at 20, 60, and 90 days.

One of Dr. Szachowicz’s principles involves understanding that leadership requires a team, not just one person. This leadership team should have two goals: to improve student academic success and to personalize the education experience for every student. I decided that for my first 20-day goal, I wanted to focus on No. 1. (See, told you I still had cotton-candy dreams!)

OK, I know. Realistically, I’m probably not going to be able to achieve academic success in 20 days for every student, but I wanted to be on my path; I wanted a clear GPS to the “destination” of academic success. 

As part of implementing what I learned at MSC, I first looked at our mission statement: “Lucerne Valley Unified School District is committed to becoming a model district in the state of California. Our students will be prepared academically, socially, ethically to become lifelong learners and responsible, productive citizens.” So here it was—my mission, our site’s mission statement, and my first goal, all focused on improving student success, academically. Next step: empower that team!

Our 20-Day Plan: Inventory of Programs and Evaluation of Efficacy 

One team that we started building was a Multi-Tiered System of Support, or MTSS, team, which looks at educating the whole child. It brings together not just academics but also behavioral supports and social-emotional learning. As educators who have experience and are familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we understood that students have many areas of their lives that need to be addressed before they can focus on things like education, and if those areas are not met, behavior and psyche suffer.

In the first 20 days of implementing our plan, our team wanted to lay out and define what we were currently doing that is working for our students in academics, behavior, and social-emotional learning. For example, the AVID program supports academics, PBIS supports behavior, and restorative circles support social-emotional learning. In 20 days, we were able to evaluate where we were and implement a plan for the next level—a plan to act for impact!

Our 60-Day Plan: Think Bigger

The next step was our 60-day plan. We looked at the programs we currently had and asked ourselves whether they support the whole child and the MTSS plan our team developed. Do our programs align with our mission statement? And we started taking an inventory—a serious evaluation and meaningful alignment. 

Something that many presenters at Model Schools discussed was the idea of marrying current concepts—in other words, combining different concepts and focusing on what they have in common rather than trying to fully master multiple concepts. Once these concepts are all brought together, the work gets easier and more focused. As we embarked on our 60-day plan, we began to align to our Local Control Accountability Plan, or the LCAP, a tool for local educational agencies to set goals, plan actions, and leverage resources to meet those goals and improve student outcomes. In other words, we had to determine: How is the goal of the MTSS—educating the whole child—aligned with the goals of our LCAP and their priorities?

Serendipitous as it may be, our goals perfectly align between the LCAP, MTSS, and our mission statement. So, here I am, utilizing strategies that I learned at Model Schools that may have initially been designed for teachers to implement in the classroom. But I am able to use these strategies in an administrative and global way!

Our 90-Day Plan: Bring in Strategies to Support and Grow Whole Child Systems

In our 20-day plan, we evaluated strategies that we utilized for their efficacy and removed those that did not support our goals. For our 90-day plan, we are implementing new ways to encourage whole child learning.

For behavior, we are introducing more character development programs, enlarging our restorative justice programs, and working closer with our county counselor. For our social-emotional learning component, we are adding electives for middle school and high school students and working on developing courses that use online learning to address topics like cyber-bullying, self-harm, and communication with peers and adultsThese involve direct instruction and collaboration for students to work together on non-academic endeavors.

In the academic arena, we are focusing more heavily on Focus Note Taking across all disciplines. In one of Dr. Szachowicz’s lectures, she explored how, for the importance of literacy, she had ALL 4,250+ students complete the same assignment in all of their classes throughout the year. Basically, she had all of the teachers use the same thinking map to improve the students’ literacy, though teachers could use any article they wanted. In doing this, the students really began to make connections, and the state scores for Brockton High skyrocketed. We are attempting to re-create her results.

We are also focusing more on blended learning. We just received a grant for one-to-one technology, and we are training everyone, teachers included, on how to use the technology. However, thought leader Weston Kieschnick, author of Bold School, talks constantly about how incredible the use of digital tools and blended learning can be, but he notes that it will never replace traditionally “good” teaching, instructional strategies, pedagogy, and academic goals. In the words of Weston, “Technology is awesome; teachers are better.” So we aren't just focused on our Chromebooks and our technology but also on the growth and development of our teachers!

We are working on sending a team to MSC 2019 so that teachers can add to their toolbox. We are going to have each of them present in staff meetings to teachers who are unable to attend, and they will also present at our elementary school,. Our focus is not just to move forward on an assembly line, but also to take action and have meaningful impacts on our kids!

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Join more than 5,000 educators in 100+ sessions at the 27th Annual Model Schools Conference in Washington, D.C., from June 23-26, 2019, where you can learn what steps to take to act for impact in your school or district.

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