By Denise Schnabel, Principal at Evergreen Park Elementary STEM School of Innovation in Brooklyn Center, MN and president-elect of the North Suburban Division
In the past three years, we as leaders have had to guide constant, complex change at an unimaginable pace. Where I used to have a three year plan, I have shifted to month by month, week by week, or even day by day. All of this has been compounded by a lack of staffing and mental health concerns for students, staff, and at times, myself, resulting in neglected relationships with family and friends because even when I’m present, I’m not present. Sound familiar? No? Just me?
In a recent conversation with a colleague, we were discussing the madness we have dipped into in which we are overthinking every decision and interaction looking for any little win we can grasp in the moment. Although there is sanity confirmation in that I’m not the only one living this craziness, it was also an awakening that I had allowed myself to shift from being proactive to reactive. I was spending so much time worrying about what I couldn’t control and not focusing enough on what I could. I no longer looked forward to going to work. Frankly, I didn’t think I was cut out for this. I needed a serious reset.
It wasn’t that we didn’t have building goals, we did. We had a school improvement plan. We had offered PD around our focus strategies. We ran our PLCs. Yet one of our major areas of work, new SEL curriculum implementation, was average at best.
Don’t get me wrong. Some things went well. We could celebrate that we had 100% of staff using our new Character Strong Curriculum at least 3 times a week. There were building-wide student recognitions tied to our monthly character trait. We were starting to align our tier II groups to the monthly work we were doing. By the end of the year we had some heavy implementers, who had moved from the science to the art of interweaving skills into the entire day. Then we have those who were still simply completing an activity and checking it off the list. In short, I had missed the mark. If you looked at the Knoster model for complex change, I was clearly lacking in the action plan. Some may also argue that the true vision and skills were also not where I had predicted. I could excuse this as a district issue as most of our building professional development time was taken away after the first trimester and completely halted altogether in December and January. Or that teachers were stressed and hadn’t rebuilt their stamina to take on new things this year on top of being all back. In truth, those were just cop-outs. The real reason I had missed the mark was that even in my planning and prepping, I hadn’t exhausted all the components needed to truly ensure the fidelity to the original vision. I hadn’t sold the incentives, and I hadn’t built in the year-long supports. Dang. That stinks to say out loud.
Now it is summer. Fast forward through my sleeping for two days straight just to start to recover. I finally have the time to reflect on why we ended where we did. I also had time to dig into professional development for myself. During a recent training with my colleagues we began work with Clay Cook and Megan Gruis. You may recognize Clay Cook’s name from his work with the University of MN as a psychologist and researcher focusing his work on implementation of MTSS. His most recent work has been with the Character Strong group as a contributor and now focuses on implementation science along with Megan.
Here was my lightbulb moment. Picture this; me sitting in this training, the clouds open to blue sky above me, the rays of sun pour through like a spotlight, and is that a choir singing I hear in the background? Snap back to reality, this wasn’t a movie. There wasn’t even a window in the room. But it was the good kick in the backside that I needed to start my “do over.”
As Megan described it, this was a journey. Each stage had specific and strategic components that needed to be thoughtfully and thoroughly planned. All of it began with “Packing our bags.” As we began stepping through the stages, I kept a checklist in my mind of what we had done this past year.
Gathered a team at the beginning to help us lead. Check.
Learned more about the SEL program, and compared that to where we were as a staff, so we had our multiple entry points. High five to us!
Set up structures for staff to do the work including time to plan, implement, and share. We even tried to anticipate possible roadblocks or problems and develop solutions on the front end. Woohoo! Maybe I didn’t fail as badly as I had thought.
I spoke too soon. We had arrived at a spot towards the end of stage zero-one that described systems for fidelity of implementation. More specifically focusing on not only how we were going to create, share, and conduct fidelity checks regularly, but also what specific support would be in place for those who needed more after those checks were done. This was so much deeper than we had gone. This was also something that when planned well, was the responsibility of the team. Not just me.
Whoa! There it was. Plain as day. I had my new target and knew where I needed to start the work this summer. I even had the players at my table to help me get started. Wait, what is this I was feeling? Was it excitement? Energy for the work? It has been so long, I am not even sure I can trust that it will stay! Here is where my pandemic training has served me well: I don’t need to have all the answers. I just need an idea, my team, some energy, and excitement about the possibilities, and a plan would unfold!
These last three years have been tough. They were exhausting, and at times defeating. They taught me a lot, and also kicked my butt. This is the end of my fourth year as a principal. I don’t really know any difference, and maybe that is a blessing, or maybe it is a curse. The jury is still out. What I do know is that it is summer. A time where I can focus on rest, family, and friends to fill the bank for when I will need to make withdrawals next year. It is also a ti me where I can plan. All. The. Things. My do-over next year will be great. As we continue our initial implementation and move to full implementation with a plan for sustaining the work. A shared effort. On top of that, a little spark is back. I hope you find your spark this summer too.