By Paul Adler
As a teacher, my nightmares centered around uncontrollable circumstances that hindered my classroom performance – oh my gosh, I can’t find my classroom; my students won’t heed my words even after I repeat myself five times; I’m somehow two hours late to school and my class has already begun; I’m lost and I can’t find the school in the first place.
My leader nightmares were considerably less gripping, yet much more realistic and relevant to the successful functioning of the school. Oh my gosh, we’ll need a math/science split role if we create more small group instruction for Algebra while simultaneously running our lab; wait, our schedule can’t work if we want to pull students during electives; did I tell my ops team about the need for two-seater desks in the coming year?
These leadership nightmares routinely occurred at this time of year – mid March – with my subconscious sending a clear message: my readiness process for the upcoming school year was, well, not really a process at all. Rather, the extent of my plan was a daunting task list. The success of every item on the list relied wholly on the brute force of individual leadership. I’m certain that I drove much of my team crazy as I informed them too late of huge projects with unrealistic deadlines. In working with many new leaders, I find that their experience in these situations mirrors my own.
When done poorly, a readiness process creates undue stress on a school at the exact time that all hands should be preparing for breakthrough student achievement on end-of-year exams. When done well, a readiness process is coherent and efficient, allowing school leaders to make smart decisions for the following year without relinquishing the academic momentum of the current year. Indeed, my school’s strongest years were preceded by the years in which we were most thorough and deliberate in our approach to readiness.
In readying your team for the coming year, use these guidelines to develop a strong and sustainable process:
- Develop a singular academic priority. This is essential to your readiness process having purpose and funneling its drive toward one well-defined goal. Without this explicit priority, a leader will make decisions for the sake of making decisions. For example, if you are pursuing stronger math achievement, your school schedule should reflect this; more time must be allocated to math instruction or interventions. At my school, we developed our annual priority by A) looking at academic data from the current year, B) gathering input from our staff during a midyear retreat, and C) seeking the input of external visitors from other high-performing CMOs.
- Assess your school’s readiness needs. Create a master list of all the aspects of the school that need to be created, overhauled, etc. for the upcoming school year in order to support your academic priority. Then, rank each readiness item in order of importance to prioritize your time. See a sample readiness tracker here.
- Assign owners to each readiness topic. Create a singular owner for each readiness item. Refrain from assigning multiple owners to avoid confusion and mitigate potential for inaction. Achieving this level of clarity allowed me to hold certain members of my team accountable for specific results.
- Create a weekly meeting structure to drive the process forward. It is generally best that someone other than the school leader – ideally the Director of Operations – designs this structure so that the principal can focus more intently on content. The most effective readiness meeting structures contain these four elements:
- A submission date (usually two days before the readiness meeting) by which the owner of the readiness topic shares relevant materials and focus questions for the leadership team to consider.
- A weekly readiness meeting in which one leadership team member presents on their topic. Focus questions are discussed until they are resolved.
- A due date by which the owner of the item sends the final product to the principal for final review.
- A due date by which the finalized item is uploaded to a shared drive by the Director of Operations.
- Share updates on readiness items with your team before summer break. Do not share everything, but share the readiness updates that are most essential to achieving the academic priority for the following year. Updating your team before leaving for the summer will create additional buy-in for the following year and help people see the impact of changes in the school on student achievement.
Stop having readiness nightmares. Define your process clearly – your staff will appreciate the transparency, and your students will reap the benefits of a cohesive, focused organization.