I often tell principals that they can improve their schools as much over the summer as they can during the school year. You might wonder how that is possible. No students. Reduced staff. Not exactly prime time.
Yet summer is the ideal time to notch up expectations and leverage the slower pace to encourage reflection and build excitement. I often use the metaphor of the train when describing the school year – once the train leaves the station on day one of school, you can’t stop it. It keeps rolling. It picks up steam. It crushes anything that gets in the way.
Not the summer. Summer is the mythical land we always want to visit as educators, and it’s a place that helps us get perspective and refuel for the coming year. It can also be a key strategic lever in moving your school forward in the coming school year. Here’s three ways you can make that happen.
Use Visual Cues to Signal Improvement
You need good visual cues that something is going to be different this year. Of course if you have the luxury of actually renovating and improving facilities – new furniture, new equipment, and new spaces – that can be a big win for you and your community. Even a nice deep clean and decluttering can provide a visual boost to the learning environment. But those types of visual cues are often outside the budget.
You don’t need a big budget, however, to signal intended shifts. Put your vision and aspirations on the walls. You can order large font vinyl lettering on the internet at low cost to put up inspirational quotes. If you’re trying to improve your college going culture, order large college banners to hang in the hallways or from ceiling rafters. Put your school goals for the coming year on large banners and hang them up around the school. One year I took a picture of each staff member along with a quote they gave me and printed large 20×30 photos that staff could hang near their classroom door. Another year I printed large student portraits on canvas backing that we hung throughout the front office. Use your walls to reinforce your shared vision, celebrate your successes, and to tell your aspirational story.
During the school year, these types of design projects often fall by the wayside. The summer is the perfect time to see a visual design project through to completion.
Plan the Year in Shorter Cycles
We shouldn’t be surprised that as educators we think in year long cycles and chunks. School goals are often crafted and then revisited on an annual cycle. Most large state summative assessments occur once a year. Quite frankly, the summer often feels like the only time we can slow down enough to take a deep breath, reflect on the past year, and take stock of where we are and where we need to be going.
That year-long cycle is simply too long to sustain ongoing improvement.
Improvement science, cycles of inquiry, and design research all point to much shorter, iterative processes. As a high school principal, we held Key Performance Indicator (KPI) meetings on a quarterly basis. We looked at a small number of data points. These data points represented the most important elements of our improvement agenda, and represented both district and school-based priorities. These purpose-driven meetings were extremely helpful – they forced us to take a measurement on where we were at with our goals, and they encouraged a discussion of unanticipated challenges or obstacles that necessitated shifts in strategy or procedure.
In my current district, a few years back our superintendent instituted what we call “principal summits.” These hour long presentations occur on an annual basis and require principals to reflect on their school performance data and share plans for improvement. I love these presentations. While it’s certainly true that the summits can be a source of significant anxiety for some principals, they’ve also encouraged data literacy and a student learning oriented leadership practice. I’ve been just as pleased to see efforts to build in moments during the school year where principals are asked to speak to their improvement goals as data becomes available. The summer time is an excellent time to think strategically about when and how progress will be monitored and addressed as the school year is unfolding.
Put on a Learner’s Shoes
Teachers often teach from a position of expertise. Of course ‘expertise’ is a dangerous word, and we all know how learning can be constrained when we assume we already have the right answers. Yet regardless of whether our sense of expertise is justified, it is probably safe to assume that most of the content that students are learning can be considered as tacit knowledge for the teacher. In other words, you are trying to teach knowledge or skills that you’ve already mastered.
When we try to learn something completely new, we throw ourselves back into a space where we have to manage ambiguity, uncertainty, and sometimes, anxiety. It’s not always comfortable.
I often have to remind myself of this as a parent of young children. It’s hard to imagine how reading, or playing soccer, or even using a spoon can be so difficult to learn. As an expert, it can be very hard to muster the patience on a daily basis to support young people who are learning things for the first time. We make lots of assumptions about what students should already know. Often, the students we celebrate and highlight as high performers already knew what we were teaching them before they entered our classroom.
Summer is a great time to remind ourselves of both the thrill and frustration of being a novice. Keeping connected to that part of our identity, and building our empathy for our students, can go a long way in helping us navigate a long school year. We like to say as educators that we are lifelong learners, and the summer is an excellent time to embrace the opportunity to genuinely learn.