At this time of year, I hear a common refrain from school leaders I know: 1) This work is challenging, 2) We have a plan for student success, and yet 3) There is a lot more we need in order to deliver on our promise of a high-quality, equitable education for every student. These leaders launched the year with an inspiring vision for creating vibrant schools where all students are engaged in meaningful learning, feel loved, and want to come to school each day. There may have been times where this vision came close to reality.
As we head into the middle of the year, however, gaps often emerge. Student culture may become strained, faculty and staff may feel tired and frustrated, lessons aren’t as strong as they had hoped, and/or the highest needs students aren’t getting the support they need. Which raises the question: What do I do right now?
In my role as the Vice President of Innovation and Impact at Relay Graduate School of Education, the best part of my job is the opportunity to find, study, and share what is working in schools across our country. One of the moves that we see our most effective leaders do at this moment of the year is lead a strategic reset on a key area of the school that – if improved – will have a significant positive impact on student learning and experience right now.
Invariably, these leaders doubled down on one focus area: They identified a moment of the school day to improve, they clarified a vision for success, identified high leverage action steps, and created a plan to make it happen.
In doing so, these leaders carried out what we call a “Reset.” A Reset is a narrowly focused initiative, planned and executed to have a meaningful impact in a short period of time. It’s different from long-term strategic planning, which may involve multiple areas of improvement, significant structural changes, and the reallocation of resources. A Reset is an evidence-backed plan to tackle one key area, now — and see results. Through our leadership programs, we’ve coached thousands of school, district, and network leaders through the Reset process. Here are the insights and practices we’ve gleaned:
Prioritize. What equity gaps are most keeping you up at night? Many leaders find that while it may be tempting to address numerous areas for improvement, choosing to prioritize one main concern to make real progress toward their vision for equity is most impactful. An “equity gap,” is the room for improvement in a school’s efforts to provide all children what they need to develop to their full potential. Consider whether these gaps are about student or staff culture, or about instruction gaps.
Clarify the vision. What specific success would you like to see by the end of the Reset period? When plans fall, often it’s because the initial vision for success wasn’t specific enough. You’re far more likely to succeed if you spell out, in vivid detail, what your plan will look like. These details serve two functions: 1) They help you and your team to get clear on a set of shared expectations; and 2) They act as a forcing function when creating your plan for implementation.
Determine key actions. How can your Reset move the needle right now, starting as soon as tomorrow, in ways that will have a meaningful impact? Your Reset plan is unlikely to involve significant adjustments in your school’s allocation of resources; those kinds of changes fall within the realm of strategic planning. But you can think of steps you can take within your current structures that can drive noticeable improvements in teaching and learning. What’s within your grasp–and locus of control–that can make a significant difference for students and staff in the immediate future?
Create the plan. Who will do what when, and using what tools? We’ve noticed two things about school leader plans that consistently succeed in achieving their objectives for their schools: 1) Their plans are highly specific and 2) Their plans address all that needs to happen for the plan to be successful. Nothing is vague or left to chance. Team members should first brainstorm ideas together but at some point one leader needs to sit down and complete a clean draft, then share it back for additional team feedback before finalizing. Reset planning sessions emphasize four components that are essential for any initiative to succeed: capacity building; investment building; measuring impact; timing.
A key part of the Reset process is to approach it with the right orientation: acknowledging the realities of the moment while maintaining faith in our ultimate success is central to the work of school leaders. Leading schools is hard work in the best of times, and of late even more so. So long as our students are in our schools we have the power – and responsibility – to make a positive difference. The Reset process is designed to help you do so, so that you and your team may gain some clarity about what steps you will take tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, to move you closer to finishing this all-important marathon that we’re in.
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