How can you use the disruption of a pandemic to leverage adaptive change at your school?

We’ve had a rough spring. There is no doubt about that. We are faced with uncertainty as we head into the fall. Teachers and administrators are tired and scared. Families are exhausted. Children miss their schools. We don’t even know if we will be at school, or with how many, on what days. So, why would this be a good time to make sweeping changes at your organization?

Now is the perfect time to do a major values assessment and determine what you do that supports those values, and what you do that undermines them. The reactionary approach to this crisis has highlighted the importance of knowing what is important and focusing on those key things. In order to “survive” the spring, many schools had to make policy on the fly, trying as they might to hope their way into a plan. In order to make things manageable for students, families, and teachers caught in a “new normal,” many of our regular structures, systems, educational opportunities, and likely dearly held values, fell by the wayside. 

Many things shifted across the state, and in very different ways. Just in my household where we have two teachers and two students, all at separate schools and within two different districts, this manifested varyingly for each of us. I saw differences in the way (and how often) students spent time with their teachers, the amount of time students were asked to work outside of that meeting time, the type of work that was assigned, what was “optional” and what was “required,” the way work was assessed and reported out, and either an overall systemic consistency, or fluctuating change. 

I don’t know anyone who wants this to be our “new normal.”

So, how do we plan (and not react) for change in the fall? I suggest that our leaders evaluate what is most important in their organization and take a deep look at these values to guide the work around the most important systems and structures at their school. Adaptive change requires a hard look at the reality of the situation, coupled with new learning and new thinking. Often adaptive change remakes, not just extends or tweaks, existing structures. 

During our Rowland Fellowship, Peter Langella and I looked closely at our school’s schedule to determine how to build regular, system-wide, interest-based learning opportunities for all students. We visited many schools and looked at a variety of models, but it was during a pivotal conversation with Chris Lehmann, co-author of Building School 2.0, that a realization dawned on us. Chris said “A school’s master schedule is a pedagogical choice based on it’s values.” This moved our thinking dramatically and set us in motion with our steering committee to do a values assessment. We then built schedules that reflected those values. Our aim then was to find time in the schedule to provide more interest-based learning opportunities for our students, but we did not want to create a schedule that undermined other values that were held dear to our community. 

Eventually, our school administration developed and implemented a compromised schedule that didn’t work well. In my best estimation, this happened because there wasn’t an overwhelming perceived need felt by the community for the change we proposed, and there was too much fear within our administration of doing too much, too soon.

Here, I’d like to remind readers of “Switch” (by brothers Dan and Chip Heath), of the Elephant and the Rider scenario. (If you haven’t read that book, I recommend it highly but I’ll summarize the concept here- the Rider represents the intellectual, logical side who has a mind for strategy and big picture thinking and would like to control our movement, whereas the Elephant is the emotional, reactionary, instinctual side that truly controls our movement.) Try as we might to move the Elephant toward a schedule that we felt as Riders would better serve our community, the Elephant wasn’t ready to move.

Your Elephants out there, now? They (teachers, parents, students) are ready to move. This “new normal” was awful. Elephants are ready to embrace change in the fall. Come up with your organization’s values, and allow those values to guide you as you re-evaluate learning experiences, schedule, equity and access, assessment, and reporting. Your organization’s values may be different now than they were in January. Do the hard work of looking into what they are, ask your teachers, ask your families. Don’t be afraid to make large changes that align with those values.  Be mindful that whatever change you make, it will need to be able to fit, without disruption and as much consistency as possible, any learning scenario in the fall: live, hybrid, or distance. 

If you find a match to the values of your organization, the hard work will feel easy. The change will feel good. You might even find that the plan for this fall is better than your plan for last fall. You may discover that making an adaptive change could be much more than a patch, but rather a springboard toward a new educational model enriched by the values of your community with long-lasting effects.

Abbie Bowker, a 2017 Rowland Fellow, teaches students Visual Art at Champlain Valley Union High School where she has been teaching since 2004. 

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