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Ways for Leaders to See What They’re Missing

By Kim Marshall

“What Am I Missing?” a chapter in Simon Rodberg’s book, What If I’m Wrong? and Other Key Questions for Decisive School Leadership (ASCD, 2020); Rodberg can be reached at [email protected].

In the first chapter of his book What If I’m Wrong?, veteran educator Simon Rodberg says a perennial challenge for school leaders is captured in the acronym WYSIATI: What You See Is All There Is. Principals know they’re not seeing everything, but because there’s never enough time, they act as if they’re omniscient: a short visit to a classroom reveals enough to be representative of a teacher’s overall performance; a student’s discipline infraction represents who they are. “The key challenge for school leaders,” says Rodberg, “is to know that our information is limited and to ask… What am I missing?” And that means slowing down and using these strategies:

            • Surveys – Polls of teachers, students, and families are the best way to get accurate data on questions like: How are teacher-student relationships? What locations in the school are hot spots for bullying? Did back-to-school night work for parents? Schools can create their own polls by using free tools like Google Forms, or use commercial surveys, which have the added benefit of giving a sense of how one’s school compares to others. A few examples: TNTP has a survey on parent attitudes, Panorama Education on student opinions, Making Caring Common on school climate. Getting enough survey responses takes work, such as placing tables with computers near the school’s front door during a parent meeting. Rodberg once took a low-tech student survey of secondary-school students: he stood in the cafeteria holding a sign asking, How well do you feel we’re preparing you for college? and had students jot their answers on sticky notes.

            • Focus groups – These are easier than surveys – just convene a small, representative group and spend 20 minutes (or two hours) asking for their opinions on a key issue. Rodberg tells how a principal used a less elaborate approach, stopping three teachers in the corridor and asking them how the staff bulletin could be improved. The process took three minutes, built three relationships, and led to three specific improvements: consistent sections in each issue of the newsletter, formatted so people could more easily read the bulletin on a phone, and always starting with shout-outs for staff members. “More importantly,” says Rodberg, “the principal shed her reputation for go-it-alone isolation; teachers noticed that she asked, listened, and changed.”

            • Stack audits – These are best for answering questions like, How challenging is the homework we assign? Are Do Nows in the school a valuable use of time? Are we communicating efficiently with all-staff e-mails? The principal collects a day’s worth of the item in question (hard copies or electronic), puts them in a stack, and a team goes through them looking for patterns and answering the key question. Having looked at a representative sample, the team addresses questions that have been raised, for example:

  • Why does all the homework consist of low-level practice?
  • Why are Do Nows not serving as a segue to the lesson about to be launched?
  • Why do so many people send a large number of e-mails that are relevant to only a few colleagues?

[See Memo 636 for an article by Doug Lemov describing stack audits.]

Instructional Rounds (a.k.a. Learning Walks) are another form of stack audit, providing a quick glimpse of instructional practices throughout a school. With these, as with audits of artifacts, says Rodberg, it’s important to jot notes throughout the process to counteract the tendency to remember the last item, rather than overall takeaways.

            • Compensating for blind spots – The ways we want to see the world are often not the ways we actually see it, says Rodberg. “Race screws up vision. It creates bias, stereotypes, and blindness… We can’t teach our students of color without accounting for racism, and we can’t prepare white students for a better world without an antiracist approach in the work we do.” School leaders who are white, he says, need “racial humility: to accept that we may not see manifestations of racism that really are there, and that different perspectives, including those that disagree with or attack us, really are important.”

            • Understanding non-teaching staff – When Rodberg became an assistant principal in the D.C. public schools, the principal assigned him to supervise the custodial team. The custodians and this wet-behind-the-ears administrator could not have been more different, and the experience was transformative – for Rodberg. Administrators, he says, need to “understand that there are different ways of looking at the world of the school, with reasons and experience behind them. This is a recognition of our own limitations.”

            • Shifting from either/or to multiple options – For a while, Rodberg was at an impasse with the custodians: he wanted them to walk around the school after lunch picking up milk cartons, food wrappers, and soda cans dropped by thoughtless students. The custodians had settled on a routine of working as a team to do a thorough job cleaning the cafeteria at the end of each lunch. After a lot of discussion, another option emerged: the chief custodian walked the building with students who had been caught littering (they picked up the trash), and the other two custodians cleaned the cafeteria. Everybody grew: the chief custodian mentoring challenging students; the kids, learning the impact of their actions; the other custodians from handling the cafeteria without their boss; and Rodberg, finally getting why the custodians had resisted his original idea.

            • Getting past magical thinking – “We’ll institute this program, announce this initiative, update this system, and the teachers will teach better, the students will learn better, the school will improve,” says Rodberg. “If we put motivational signs on the walls, students will be better motivated. (Why?) If we give interim assessments, teachers will more successfully target instruction to student strengths and weaknesses (How?).” The problem is that in each case, there’s a gap in the logic model; some crucial steps are missing. The solution: principals need to have a solid theory of action for each bright idea – an if-then statement that makes explicit the connection between actions and the desired results. A good theory of action can shift magical thinking into specific steps that actually produce results.

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