It’s the start of a new school year and another round of resolutions for better leadership, teaching, and learning. Then we confront the reality that the vast majority of factors that influence education will be the same. Some we can’t control, like how our students spent the summer, how fatigued and under-nourished they are when they come to school, and whether their latest social media encounters are driving them to new levels of anxiety. But many factors we can control, and that’s what this article is about. Here are five ways to make this year different.
1. Assess and Intervene on Day 1
Don’t let the first week of school end without knowing the reading level of every student in your school. If you have a 9th grader reading on a 5th grade level, you don’t need to wait until that student has half a dozen course failures to intervene. If they need a double or triple literacy block, then that’s what they need. And in many schools where I work, this is not about literature - it’s about learning to read and write. Saying that “they should have had it earlier” is an unproductive waste of air. If you knew that the child was sick, you’d intervene, and there is plentiful evidence that concludes that literacy is a health and safety issue. These “Day 1 Assessments” should also include math. Before I worked on this article, I looked at a data set that revealed that more than 80% of middle and high school students received D’s or F’s in math at the end of the last school year. I doubt those were a surprise to teachers or administrators. With Day 1 Assessment and Intervention, many of those failures could have been prevented.
2. Incorporate Nonfiction Writing into Every Class, Every Grade
The evidence on the power of writing - and particularly writing to describe, compare, and persuade - is compelling. It helps students in every subject - math, science, social studies and most importantly in reading comprehension. The time allocated to writing in the typical English Language Arts block is not enough. Students should be writing in every subject - at least once per month in every grade. When this happens, achievement soars not only in writing, but in every other subject. Writing, King said, is “thinking through the end of a pen,” and we are all teachers of thinking.
3. Radically Change Meetings
The only purposes for meetings, from cabinet to grade-level, are inquiry and deliberation. Making oral announcements in staff meetings is primitive. These are valuable hours that can be used to energize and enlighten our colleagues, but too often meetings are boring, demoralizing, and disengaging. Think of your next meeting this way: How would an observer evaluate it if they thought it was a classroom? That observer would expect engagement, lots of dialog and small group discussion, and clear evidence that learning was taking place. How would your staff meeting stack up to that standard of evaluation?
4. Walk a Marathon in the Shoes of Teachers
I know a superintendent who puts himself on the substitute teacher list 20 times a year so that he really understands classrooms from the teacher’s perspective. Some of the best professional learning experiences are when teachers have the opportunity to observe deeply their colleagues in action. When administrators take over the class for a full period so that the regular teacher can observe a colleague, it shows how much the administrator values professional learning and also that leaders empathize completely with their teaching colleagues.
5. Connect With Families Now
Too often family connections occur only in contrived environments, like parent-teacher conferences, or after there is a problem, like behavior or attendance. At the very least, we should reach out to the families of every single student who had a suspension, behavior problem, or failure last year, and make that first connection a positive one. These students can improve, but they need a plan, such as daily check-ins with a caring adult and a life-line of support before behavior problems, truancy, or failures occur.
We can’t continue to do the same things in curriculum, meetings, and behavioral interventions and expect different results. If you want this year to be really different, then let’s change our actions, starting on Day 1.