Learning from Our Model Schools
There’s much wisdom to be learned from educators who embark on an improvement initiative—big or small. Here’s what one teacher learned when she set out to make morale boosting an integral part of her school’s climate.
Have you ever noticed that even when a sports team is getting annihilated, the cheerleaders keep supporting and encouraging them, as if they are in the lead?
In my school we realized that in order to boost morale for our school “team” we had to create a squad. All types of players had to be involved in this process—teachers, administrators, and staff. Our initial squad started at a dinner table in Atlanta after day one of the Model Schools Conference 2015. Three teachers and one of our assistant principals started talking about what we had just learned, what we could adapt for our school, and where to start. We named ourselves the “Game Changers” and created a notebook full of ideas for the upcoming year. I won’t lie… the next school year was full of trials and lots of errors. We didn’t accomplish all of the ideas we wrote down; actually, we weren’t even close to the “Game Changer” vision. But just as we expect our students to learn through productive struggle, the same is true for us.
What We Learned: Organization, Vision, and Goal Setting Matter
We realized we were like a team full of people taking the field without a game plan or a playbook. We accomplished some things, but they weren’t widely noticed and there was no way to measure whether we were making a difference. So, back we went to Model Schools Conference 2016 with a clear goal in mind: we had to build our playbook and find our vision. One evening as we sat around debriefing we discussed what we really wanted for our school and we came up with three adjectives that became the basis for our playbook. Everything that we added to the notebook had to fit into one (or more) of these categories. Next, we came up with the plan for adding members to the Game Changers squad, but we wanted it to be genuine, so we created a 90-day Game Changers mentor plan for the new members. Each of the initial team members chose one person to add to the team… that’s it… four more members who would be truly invested.
Our first year we focused on getting our vision out to the school and making it something that everyone in the community knew about. We put our vision on every single thing the Game Changers did. By the end of the year, the staff, students, and community were using our hashtag and vision without our prompting! SUCCESS!
So, where do we go from here? How do we continue the plan? Last summer at the Model Schools Conference in Nashville, we brought our initial team and the newly added members. We hosted an incredible session on becoming a difference maker and as we sat around the dinner table and discussed what was next for us, we kept thinking about the “midpoint slump”… that time in January and February where everyone is exhausted and counting down the seconds until the next break. There was our goal: keeping the excitement going all year long while still upholding our vision. Of course, because of all we learned and discussed at MSC 2017, we were gung ho, with a million ideas on how to keep the mood and morale going, but we quickly realized a few key things:
1. Make relationships the foundation. In order for any member of your school’s team to buy in, you first have to establish trust; a trust that each and every one of you is in it for the same reason. Will there be bad days? YES. But how you react to the challenges is what will be remembered. What can you do for each other to make the tough days easier? Maybe write a note or go to a colleague personally with some encouragement. It doesn’t have to be big or come from an administrator to have an impact.
2. You can’t fix it all…so narrow your focus. We as teachers are inherently “fixers.” If we see a problem, it’s just in our nature to want to solve it. But by doing so we take on too much, grow a “to-do” list a mile long, and then become the poster child for teacher burnout. My advice is to coach your cheerleading squad to focus on two items:
- The easy win. This is where you start. Go on Pinterest, and brainstorm things you can do quickly and cheaply that will show kids and teachers how important they are. We started a birthday cupcake program as our easy win. We recognize every student and teacher on their birthday in the morning announcements and then invite students to the front of the class for a song and a birthday cupcake. A group of our student ambassadors goes to the teacher’s classroom to sing and deliver him/her a cupcake. Making a birthday spreadsheet and buying some cupcakes = easy win.
- The heavy hitter. What is the biggest complaint you hear from faculty and staff? What’s the talk around the water cooler? Meet (in person, not via email) with the squad and come up with concrete responses. Is it the stress of a pacing guide? Then lobby the administration to shift the focus from pace to mastery. You can recognize the wins, too. Did you hear about a class that has everyone talking? Go out of your way to celebrate your peers when they have a lesson that screams relevancy! What is bugging the students? Then create a day to celebrate the unique interests and awesomeness of all students at your school!
The most important thing our squad of Game Changer cheerleaders has learned is that keeping the momentum going can’t be just a goal; it needs to be built into your school’s consistent daily practices aimed at empowering and building up our teachers and students. It isn’t going to be an overnight change, it takes time and a squad of dedicated members. Keep pushing through the defeats, knowing that the people in your building are looking to you to guide them to victory. You can do this…I am cheering for you!
Want to gain wisdom from other Model Schools? Join my team from Troup County to learn more strategies for improving your school’s culture at the 26th Annual Model Schools Conference, June 24–27 in Orlando. Each year, more than 5,000 educators, along with ICLE thought leaders and inspiring keynote speakers, meet to share and learn effective education strategies and develop action plans for positive change.