How to Act for Impact in Your School or District: 10 Ways to Inspire Change

8 Min Read
Education Bill Of Rights 2

You can download a poster highlighting 10 ways to act for impact in your school district here.

As a teacher or education leader, you may need some guidance when taking a deep look at teaching and learning practices in your school or district to ultimately bring about change. That’s where events like the annual Model Schools Conference (MSC) comes in.

As the MSC Program Chair, it’s my honor to work with our presenters, Model Schools, and Innovative Districts as well as attendees to produce a truly unique professional learning experience. This year’s theme, Act for Impact, reflects a focus on each teacher, leader, school, and district, creating a unique rapid-improvement, future-focused plan. This should encompass not only academics but also the social and emotional needs of students.

The International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) believes in the Educator’s Bill of Rights. Acting for Impact means that you pick the one thing that you choose to do better tomorrow. Maybe today you didn’t get to it or didn’t think of it. The point is, you choose it, because each day you aspire and work to do a little better for your students than you did the day before.

Each year, my team and I interview hundreds of educators from across the country to identify the new class of Model Schools and Innovative Districts. Although each submission is unique, they share a crystal-clear focus on doing what’s best for their students. That focus and the resulting efforts pay off. The teams, who are making small changes for big impacts, will share the ups and downs of their experiences, help generate new ideas, and inspire you to plan your own path forward.

Listening to these teachers and leaders tell their stories—why they wake up in the morning determined to make an impact on students’ lives—is exhilarating. How have they made a difference? Overcome obstacles? Faced challenges? Achieved rapid improvement?

Here’s a taste of what we’ve gleaned and of what you will learn about more deeply when you attend this year’s Model Schools Conference in Washington, D.C.

1. Build strong relationships and a culture of trust.

This starts with the adults. Leaders and teachers who strive to know each other in a deeper way build relationships. They build trust by demonstrating that they’ll do the right thing for students—even when no one is looking—and that they have each other’s backs in prioritizing student achievement.

2. Implement rigorous and relevant classroom instruction.

What is the real value of learning? Being successful in life—and most importantly, in life beyond school. If real-world success is the true goal, then teachers must plan instruction that builds students’ capacity to address real-world situations. Learning must challenge students to think critically rather than memorize and recall isolated facts. Educators from the 2019 Model Schools and Innovative Districts are taking a close look at the rigor and relevance of their standards. They’re investing time into planning intentional, meaningful learning experiences that are student centered, interdisciplinary, and application based.

3. Support the whole child with heart.

While many elements of a child’s life get better as they cultivate social-emotional skills, one big win is academic performance. Teachers at rapidly improving schools cultivate the social and emotional development of their students daily. These teachers sensitize themselves at an emotional level to their students’ needs. They work to provide students with the skills and strategies that will help them develop self-awareness, empathy, perseverance, and gratitude. These and other social-emotional competencies are strengthened each day through teachable moments, intentional lessons, modeling, and family engagement. The teachers in these Model Schools will tell you that love = action + heart and to love your students so that they may succeed.

4. Create future-focused schools.

Schools focused on the future are innovating how they think about education. Rather than protecting the status quo, leaders and teachers in future-focused schools are constantly considering what’s best for children to reach their life goals. These schools use data to assess all students’ achievement, eliminate initiatives that don’t work, replace them with innovative solutions for a strong chance to work better, and use data to assess the new plan’s progress. These leaders and teachers are driven by strong passion for making a positive impact in the lives of each one of their students. Their passion gives them the courage they need to be honest critics of their own work, think creatively, and make changes.

5. Cultivate equitable classrooms.

Equity is about providing additional supports and resources for underserved populations of students. Creating a classroom focused on equity and excellence for all requires that teachers and leaders closely examine the demographics, performance, attendance, and participation in their classrooms. The 2019 Model Schools and Innovative Districts find ways to uncover unconscious biases and build common understandings. They focus on having open and courageous conversations among varied stakeholders on the well-being and success of all their children. Honest conversation with empathetic listening is a first step in creating open, inclusive learning environments that support the success of all students.

6. Personalize learning using data.

Data that is personalized to the student is very granular. Developing a system and routines for gathering, monitoring, and analyzing does take time and experimentation. However, when implemented with fidelity, the gains can be tremendous. Model Schools and Innovative Districts find that such data clarifies each student’s progress and needs and positively informs teachers’ instructional decisions. For instance, school leaders who have a pulse on each student’s grades—and whether those grades are moving up or down or remaining constant—can help teachers take actions that support each student’s progress. When data is personal, students feel known and cared about. They also recognize the goal of and the personal-to-them context for next instructional steps. Get to know your data at the individual student level.

7. Encourage empathy.

Empathy—not to be mistaken for pity or permissiveness—is the ability to sense other people's emotions coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. Encouraging empathy may be difficult to accomplish, so is it worth it? In the experience of the 2019 Model Schools and Innovative Districts, growing empathy—among members of classrooms, teams, and school communities—makes a huge difference in the lives and the academic achievement of all their students. Growing empathy takes modeling as well as intentionally building all stakeholders’ capacity for empathy and motivating them to practice and choose it. When a student is late to class, what might be an empathetic response? When a child gets sent to the principal’s office, what might empathy from adults and fellow students look like? How are these situations handled in your school? How do you model empathy for others? How can you encourage and increase empathy?

8. Foster a growth mindset.

Making the shift from “I can’t do that” to “I can’t do that yet” is step one in developing a growth mindset. Growth mindset is strongest when a person plans to make a change, sets a timetable, and takes specific actions toward accomplishing a goal. Our Model Schools and Innovative Districts all base their work on a growth mindset about student capabilities. They commit to believing in children’s ability to grow and work daily to support all of their students with whatever they need to accomplish today what they were not yet able to do yesterday. The benefit of a growth mindset is clear for all of us, by the way; ICLE bases its work on a growth mindset about teachers, educational leaders, and our own team.

9. Spread kindness.

This is simple if not always easy. Being kind isn’t only what you expect from elementary students. The 2019 Model Schools and Innovative Districts are consistently intentional about stakeholders and students at every level being kind to one another. Classrooms in one Model School began with a goal of five acts of kindness per week and then progressed to a goal of five acts of kindness per day.

10. Make a difference in the lives of ALL children.

All of the 2019 Model Schools and Innovative Districts share a top-priority focus on students, their needs, and aspirations. The work of helping children succeed in their lives is a personal, professional, and collective passion, and aiming to make a difference in the lives of all students is the most profoundly meaningful work one can do. This focus on students’ success will propel your success.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Join more than 5,000 educators in 100+ sessions at the 31st Annual Model Schools Conference in Orlando, Florida, from June 25–28, 2023, where you can learn more about school improvement plans.


Join us for the 31st Annual Model Schools Conference | June 2023 | Orlando, FL

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