Harness the Power of Reflection: Continuous School Improvement from the Front Office to the Classroom

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Ron Nash

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    Preface

    In 2000, I attended the National Staff Development Conference in Dallas and took that occasion to visit the headquarters and manufacturing facility of Texas Nameplate, Inc., a 1998 Small Business Baldrige National Quality Award winner. Dale Crownover, Texas Nameplate's president and CEO, took the time to give me an extended tour of the facility—home to just under 100 employees. He and his management team took me to lunch, and we discussed the benefits that accrue to everyone in an organization that is committed to continuous improvement.

    What impressed me most about the visit is that although I came from a school district 1,400 miles away, and although what I was touring was a company that makes metal nameplates, during my three-hour visit we spoke a common language. We spoke of processes, systems, customer service, feedback, results, and many other things that every organization has in common. They enjoyed having me there, and I had much to learn from this small business that had made such a large impact in the world of identification nameplates.

    Texas Nameplate won the Baldrige Award again in 2004. As of this writing, Crownover and his company are pursuing this prestigious national award yet again, but he will be the first to say that it is not about the award; it is about the journey. It is about the quest for improvement. It is all about the commitment of everyone in the organization as they strive toward a common goal. The continuous-improvement journey is one that never ends; this is why I despair when I see schools celebrate achieving state accreditation, literally raise the inevitable flag, and then relax. In the course of a true continuous-improvement journey, the tests will take care of themselves—but they are not the goal. In the best classrooms with the most successful teachers and students, it is about the journey; it is about refusing to believe that where we are now is anywhere near good enough. It is about preparing students for their future.

    Organizations are composed of people, and it is ultimately the people of any organization who will be responsible for its success or failure. Show me a fractious school staff and I will show you a fractious student body. Show me a school with dynamic leadership and a commitment to service and improvement, and I will show you a student body that not only thrives but—for the most part—also loves coming to school every day. Show me a school with an administration unwilling or unable to support staff, and I will show you low morale and a high absentee rate.

    What impresses me about Dale Crownover and Texas Nameplate is that they never let up; they are in a constant state of “How can we make who and what we are better” and “How can we improve processes in a way that will benefit not only our customers but also those with whom we work.” For Texas Nameplate, it is a matter of commitment, action, and persistence in the face of difficulties.

    What can be said of this great company can be said of equally great schools and districts committed to continuous improvement and results. This book is intended to help schools in their own pursuit of purposeful progress and concrete results. In eight chapters, we'll lay the groundwork for those willing to take an honest look at where they are, and then put in place a set of processes that will get them where they want to go. We'll see how a true commitment to improvement can positively affect morale, performance, and the way parents and students view what is going on in the schoolhouse.

    Beyond what can be done at the district or building level, individual teachers, or teachers working in small groups or grade-level teams, can accomplish much. There is no need for individual teachers to wait until “the powers that be” decree that improvement is now job one. Individual teachers concerned about improvement for its own sake are the powers that be in their own classrooms. Teachers who want to begin their own continuous-improvement journey need not wait for a signal or a starter pistol in order to hit the ground running. An elementary teacher need only look into the faces of her 30 fifth graders to know that putting in place a system for continuous improvement can't wait for direction from above, if none is forthcoming. She and her students have a vested interest in starting down the continuous-improvement highway beginning now. Her progress is their progress, and their progress depends to a large extent on her determination to get better at what she does every single day.

    Opportunities for continuous improvement spill out from the classrooms and into the buildings and grounds that make up the campus. There are schoolwide systems in need of processes, and processes in need of improvement. If the hallways are noisy and chaotic places, it does not have to be that way. If visitors are met with indifference at the front door, that can and should be changed. If the bus loop is a constant source of confusion and frustration, that, too, can be dealt with by identifying and improving the processes that make up the system for the loading and unloading of buses. A cafeteria that is not an inviting place can become a warm, welcoming destination for everyone in the building. What is needed in all these circumstances is the collective will to do something about it. What is needed is a team committed to finding root causes and empowered to make the necessary process improvements. The status quo can be sent packing; it is necessary that someone show it the door.

    Chapter 1: Going Viral with Improvement

    Before starting any continuous-improvement journey, we need to take a look at where we are at this moment in time. What constitutes success? How is it measured, and how do we measure up in our classrooms, and in our school as a whole? Who are the key players in this drive for improvement, and do they understand their roles in the journey? What do administrators, faculty, staff, and students think about the school and the direction in which it is headed? The idea here is that leadership teams need to take the time to determine what excellence should look like, and then determine where the school is now, relative to where they want to go. This commitment to continuous improvement can—and should—spread to every corner of every building on campus, and to every facet of school life.

    Chapter 2: Change and the Status Quo

    Once we know where we are, along with where we want to go, how will we get there? What are the processes that will allow us to initiate and sustain forward movement? What are the forces and barriers holding us back, and how can they be overcome? What are the communication aspects of all this; who communicates what to whom along the way, and in such a way that it does not add to the perceived problems associated with change and the disruption of the status quo? How can administrators and other building leaders model process improvement? How do we make certain everyone is part of the effort, from students to administrators? In this chapter, we'll deal with these questions and many others that are related to the changes that are critical components of the continuous-improvement process.

    Chapter 3: School Environment as Accelerant

    Administrators and leadership teams within the building can accelerate forward movement on the continuous-improvement highway by actively supporting efforts at systemic improvement. While creating and sustaining a true professional learning community (PLC) offers the best hope for progress in the schoolhouse, teacher leaders or administrators not in a position to create a fully functioning school-wide PLC can nevertheless support and encourage the development of individual or grade-level efforts at improving the organization. In this chapter, we'll also look at what can be done to enlist support staff in a schoolwide improvement effort.

    Chapter 4: Classroom Environment as Accelerant

    Building-level attempts at improvement aside, nothing changes in the classroom unless something changes in the classroom. Individual teachers can accelerate change or inhibit it. Students—the reason we're all here in the first place—depend on classroom leadership to make progress; teachers need to figure out what kind of classroom environment will accelerate forward progress for all students. This progress should be relentless, and classrooms need to be places where teachers and students feel comfortable in taking the risks and making the mistakes that make improvement possible.

    Chapter 5: Systematizing Process Improvement in the Classroom

    We get so caught up in content and testing that we sometimes fail to look at the processes that make learning and improvement possible. In this chapter, we'll look at building- and classroom-level processes that are critical components of systemic improvement. At the building level, leadership teams might ask, “How do we communicate with staff?” and, “Is that communication effective, and how do we know that?” At the classroom level, teachers might ask, “How do I deliver content?” and, “How do I know if those delivery systems are effective?” Effective processes are at the heart of continuous improvement, and we'll look at ways to harness their power in the name of progress and results by creating classroom systems that work.

    Chapter 6: Facilitating the Long Haul

    How do administrators, teachers, and staff know if they are being successful in an ongoing pursuit of academic and organizational excellence? What signposts along the way speak to our relative progress? In the classroom, what role does formative assessment play in ramping up improvement? What role does feedback from students, teachers, parents, and support staff play in all this? In this chapter, we'll explore ways to facilitate forward movement and to gauge progress along the continuous-improvement highway. To borrow from the sports realm, continuous improvement is not a sprint; it is a marathon, and one that really has no finish line.

    Chapter 7: Not Waiting for the “Go!”

    While it would be wonderful if every school district examined the status quo and then made the changes in processes and systems that would guarantee substantive and continuous forward progress, this is not always the case. It is not necessary, however, to wait for the starter pistol or the grand parade that begins the great push forward; leadership teams, grade-level teams, process-improvement teams, and individual supervisors and classroom teachers can all take stock of where they are now, where they want to go, and what it will take to get there. Continuous improvement is possible at every level in the organization, and such improvement can be generated and sustained by committed people working together or individually.

    Chapter 8: Asking Questions and Getting Started

    In this final chapter, we will discover ways to get started on the road to developing a continuous-improvement system. Out of the gate, perhaps the best way to approach improvement is to begin to ask questions. Teachers, for example, should continually question the efficacy of content-delivery methods. They might ask themselves, “Am I giving students enough quality feedback?” A process-improvement team focusing on customer service might ask, “What, exactly, is good customer service?” We'll also take a look at what the continuous-improvement cycle (Plan–Do–Study–Act) might look like in the classroom.

    In classrooms at all levels, I am struck by teachers who consistently believe they can get better at what they do. The really great teachers working today instill in Eddie that same desire to want to do today what he could not do yesterday. Eddie needs to see that his teachers are willing to take risks on his behalf; he needs to see that his teachers treat mistakes—his and theirs—as feedback on the road to progress; he needs to see teachers who are relentlessly and transparently trying to improve what they do in an effort to improve what he does, no matter the obstacles and difficulties. Covington (1992) says that “the greatest legacy of education is to encourage a will to learn and to continue learning as personal circumstances change—in short, to promote a capacity for resiliency and self-renewal” (p. 4). A teacher who consistently demonstrates a will to learn and a capacity for self-renewal is modeling for her students that which will serve them well in adulthood.

    Finally, I have seen educators who seem to sleepwalk through their own careers, and for whom “whatever” is a battle cry. I have observed administrators whose idea of the perfect status quo is a quiet building, polished floors, and an orderly lunchroom. I have nothing against polished floors or orderly lunchrooms, but organizational improvement involves vibrant discussions among teachers, staff, and students who are dedicated to disassembling the status quo in favor of relentless forward progress. Active classrooms with engaged students require those students to talk, share, and collaborate along the continuous-improvement highway.

    Let's take to the road ourselves, therefore, as we look closely at the art and science of continuous improvement.

    Acknowledgments

    In the summer of 1996, I moved from my position as the middle school social studies coordinator for the Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) to a new job as a trainer and coordinator in what would become the Office of Organizational Development. I thank Dr. Tim Jenney, superintendent at that time, and his assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, Mike O'Hara, for making that move possible.

    The years between 1996 and my retirement from Virginia Beach in 2007 were simply wonderful from a growth standpoint, and I was able to meet and communicate with dozens of business and educational leaders involved with the search for quality. I was lucky enough to serve three outstanding directors during those years, leaders with limitless energy and vision: Debbie Gentry, Caryl Felty, and Olwen Herron. I thank them for providing our office with superb leadership and an understanding of what continuous improvement is about. I would also like to acknowledge Stephanie Enzmann for her help with Appendix A on building-level improvements.

    Thanks to the following teachers for their contributions to this book: Hallie Antweil, Jeff Carrus, Sarah Erschabek, Kathy Galford, Joe Gentry, Scott McKenzie, Cindy Waldman, and Joy White. I also thank Karen O'Meara for her invaluable contribution to Appendix B. As always, I gratefully thank my Corwin Editor, Hudson Perigo, for her guidance, assistance, and encouragement. Working with everyone at Corwin is a pleasure, and I thank them all.

    Finally, my wife, Candy, continues to support and encourage me in my new vocation as author, workshop facilitator, and consultant. I thank her first, last, and always.

    Publisher's Acknowledgments

    Corwin wishes to acknowledge the following peer reviewers for their editorial insight and guidance.

    Lori Bird, Director

    Center for Mentoring & Induction

    Minnesota State University, Mankato

    Mankato, MN

    Kathleen Hwang, Principal

    Sanders Corner Elem. School

    Ashburn, VA

    About the Author

    Ron Nash is the author of the Corwin (2008) bestseller The Active Classroom, a book dedicated to shifting students from passive observers to active participants in their own learning. Ron's professional career in education has included teaching social studies at the middle and high school levels. He also served as an instructional coordinator and organizational development specialist for the Virginia Beach City Public Schools for thirteen years. In that capacity, Ron trained thousands of teachers and other school-division employees in such varied topics as classroom management, instructional strategies, presentation techniques, relationship building, customer service, and process management. After Ron's retirement from the Virginia Beach City Public Schools in 2007, he founded Ron Nash and Associates, Inc., a company dedicated to working with teachers in the area of brain-compatible learning. Originally from Pennsylvania, Ron and his wife Candy, a French teacher, have lived in Virginia Beach for the past twenty-six years. Ron can be reached through his website at http://www.ronnashandassociates.com.

    Prologue

    As the last of several school buses pulled away from the parking lot and headed for neighborhoods all over town, one of Julie's students stood in the back window, smiling and slowly waving. Julie smiled, remembering how often that particular seventh grader had located and stepped on her last nerve during the school year. But it was June now, and the staff of Julie's middle school had just finished waving goodbye to all the kids in all the buses at noon on this last day of school for students. As that last bus disappeared around the corner of the building, there was a moment of silence—then a mighty cheer welcomed the arrival of summer. It was high fives all around, and the teachers headed for their cars and lunch on their own.

    Becky, another seventh-grade teacher on Julie's four-person Falcon Team, approached her and said, “Are you coming with us to lunch?”

    “You go ahead, Becky,” said Julie. “I made a small cake last night, and I'll treat the team to dessert when you return.”

    Frowning slightly, Becky said, “Are you okay?”

    Julie smiled and said, “I'm fine. Really, I just want to sit and think for a bit. I'll see you when you get back. We can have the cake in my classroom.”

    “Sounds good to me. See you later,” said Becky. “We'll be at our usual haunt for lunch if you change your mind.”

    “Thanks,” replied Julie.

    Becky went toward the teacher parking lot, leaving Julie on the sidewalk by the bus loop. There was a small wooden bench with a dedication plate to a former teacher along the walkway into the building; the weather was sunny and warm, and the truth was that Julie needed to be alone for a few minutes. She needed to think, and she went back into the building, heading for the teacher's lounge. She reached into the refrigerator and retrieved a sandwich and a seedless orange, along with a bottle of water. Then she walked back to the bench near where the buses had pulled out just a few minutes before.

    Julie had been teaching at this middle school for three years, and she had just received a continuing contract. At this point in her career, her future seemed assured—except for the minor fact that she was not sure she was succeeding for and with her students. The kids changed each year, of course, but she was keenly aware that this third year of teaching looked pretty much like the first and second years. The social studies curriculum was dictated by the district, based on state standards. This meant, of course, that the what was prescribed but the how of what she did was up to her—and this is where she was beginning to think the problem, if there was one, lay.

    What little feedback she received on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis told her she was a pretty good teacher. Her summary evaluations had been good, but the standard district evaluation was in the form of a checklist that told her little. She was observed each quarter in her first year, and twice in her second and third years. During her first year in the classroom, her teacher mentor had told her his door was always open, and if she had questions she should not hesitate to track him down to get answers. Again, all this resulted in little in the way of feedback, and to someone like Julie who honestly wanted to get better at the how of teaching, this lack of substantive feedback was the basis for more than a little frustration on her part.

    So here she was on this beautiful early-June afternoon, sitting on a bench and wondering how to go about getting better at her chosen profession. There was no question of not returning for a fourth year; she had signed a contract, and she would physically return in August. As she took a bite of her sandwich, Julie came to the conclusion that she must take the time this summer to explore ways to become a better teacher. She was aware that there was no systemic, organizational approach to improvement evident in her middle school; summary evaluations were it, and they provided Julie with little in the way of the kind of constructive feedback she might need to identify strengths and weaknesses, and make changes.

    Still, Julie could find time to reflect on those past three years and ask herself why she thought she had been less than effective. She could look at test results, along with the quality of the essays she had her students write on a consistent basis. Was she providing enough feedback for her students? A winter workshop had introduced her to the comparative value of formative and summative assessments; should she be using more formative assessment pieces? Julie realized vaguely that she was doing too much work, and her students too little. What made her think that? She munched on a segment of her orange and came to the realization that a good deal of personal reflection was in the works for her this summer.

    She also determined to bring together her Falcon Team partners in an attempt to pick their brains and do a little collective reflection as it related to the team itself. Julie was not the most experienced member of the team, but the others seemed to look up to her on occasion, and perhaps it was time for them to look at how they did what they did as a team. Each of them had strengths and weaknesses in terms of their approach to teaching and their methods of delivery, and those different perspectives might make for some powerful group reflection, assuming Julie could get them all together for an extended block of time.

    Of her three teammates on the seventh-grade Falcon Team, one was retiring. This was, in her opinion, just as well; he was one of the most negative people Julie had ever met, and it was one reason she did not want to go to lunch with them today. He would be complaining about the weather, the curriculum, the parents, the color of the paint on the walls in his classroom, the administrators, and, most annoyingly to Julie, the students. This man really did not like kids much, and the kids knew it. Hopefully, his replacement would be someone with whom everyone could work, and whose attitude would reside somewhere outside the depths of despair. The mood would lift with his departure, and Julie looked forward to meeting a new math teacher in July.

    Becky, the English teacher on the Falcon Team, would begin her second year in August, and she was extremely positive. Their fourth teammate, Yolanda, was an excellent science teacher and had taught Julie much in the three years they had been together. All in all, then, this coming year should be better, but Julie was still going to focus on how to become a better teacher. If the school's administrative leadership or the entire Falcon Team was willing to put into place a continuous-improvement model of some sort, so much the better; regardless, Julie was determined to turn her classroom into a more learning-centered environment. During the school year that had just ended, a really supportive assistant principal had arranged for Julie to visit the classroom of an outstanding seventh-grade social studies teacher at another middle school in the district. She had been amazed at how much the students had accomplished in that fifty-minute class, and she determined to begin her continuous-improvement efforts with a phone call to that teacher this afternoon. Julie would invite her to lunch, in hopes of picking her brain and getting some advice.

    Julie truly loved her students, and she enjoyed teaching social studies, but she determined that this fourth year would be different. She would try to put into place a system of some sort that would accelerate improvement for her and for her seventh graders. She was convinced that this continuous-improvement journey would also guarantee that she would continue to enjoy teaching, while better serving those students in her care. Before the status quo became a comfortable rut for Julie, as appeared to be the case for some other teachers in her building, she would make some changes in the way she approached the how of what she did.

    Dedication

    This book is dedicated to Dale Crownover and everyone at Texas Nameplate, Inc.

  • Epilogue

    Julie and her Falcon Team colleagues had some cake in Julie's classroom after lunch. Before everyone returned to his or her own room to begin the paperwork necessary to check out the next day, they all congratulated the math teacher on his retirement. While she certainly did not wish him ill, Julie was glad to see him go. His constant negativity was a drain on them all, and it was a sore spot for their hundred-plus seventh graders as well. He spoke of moving back to his boyhood home in Ohio, and they all took part in a good deal of small talk until about 2:15, when her teammates left, allowing Julie to do some more thinking about how she was going to make some improvements in her own instructional methodology.

    Late that afternoon, Julie called Lisa, the social studies teacher whom she had observed in late March and invited her to lunch the following week. Lisa agreed, and the two of them met at a local restaurant that next Tuesday at noon. They ordered, chatted for a while, and then Julie explained to Lisa that she was beginning to have doubts about her ability to connect with her seventh graders and then involve them more directly in their own learning. She told Lisa that her main mode of delivery was lecture, with a few videos and worksheets sprinkled in for good measure. Lisa listened intently, and when their food came, both were quiet for a couple of minutes.

    “How many years have you taught, Lisa?” asked Julie.

    “This was my seventh year in teaching, and the fourth in the school where you observed me in the spring,” Lisa replied. “At the end of the third year at my old school, I felt much the same way as you do now. My answer to my dilemma was simply to move to a new middle school when the opportunity arose.”

    “Did the move help?” asked Julie.

    Lisa laughed and said, “No, not really. I'm afraid I had played the blame game enough in that first school to believe that my lack of success really had little to do with me. I was in a lunch group with friends who spent a good deal of time complaining, and I complained as much as anyone. No, the move to another middle school did not automatically solve anything, but there was something in place at the new school that had not existed in the first.”

    Lisa paused, took a sip of her iced tea, and continued. “My teammates at the new middle school are great, but there was something begun by a former principal that made a big difference as far as ramping up my own improvement efforts.”

    Lisa took a bite of her hamburger, looked out the window for a few moments, and went on with her story. “Years ago, the administration in this school insisted that teachers in the same subject area meet with the other three teachers at their respective grade levels. There was not much in the way of clear direction as to what should be accomplished at these regular meetings, and as the years went by, the meetings became less frequent—except for the four seventh-grade social studies teachers.”

    In order to give Lisa some time to eat, rather than talk while her food got cold, Julie interrupted, “My own Falcon Team colleagues are good friends, and we meet twice per week, but we don't really focus on instruction. I'm afraid we spend too much time playing that blame game you spoke of. Some of those meetings are downers, to be honest. Also, none of the subject-area teachers meet at any level, to my knowledge, although I can't be sure of that. What makes your meetings with the other social studies teachers different?”

    Lisa smiled and said, “It is the most amazing group, and our meetings are not only consistently positive but highly productive as well. Over the last four years, each of us has been able to attend workshops from which we are able to bring back specific classroom strategies, many of them related to formative assessments, and that has made all the difference. There was money to go to these workshops, but no one else really wanted to go, so each year at least one of us on our team took advantage of this and went.”

    “You mentioned in March that you look at assessment data on a regular basis,” said Julie. “How does that work?”

    “Well,” replied Lisa, “we, the social studies teachers, that is, have developed common assessments based on the state standards. We schedule those exams throughout the year so that we can compare notes in terms of how well our students did. If we find that one teacher did a particularly good job of teaching the Civil War, for example, then we take a close look at that teacher's methodology in the weeks prior to the exam. Also, our administration provides covers on occasion, so that we can observe each other in action. I can honestly say, Julie, that I have learned more about teaching in these four years than I did in the previous eleven, and that includes four years of college. Each of us has strengths, and those common assessments revealed them. It was an eye opener for me, and it made me understand how much seeing other people teach can provide for someone, like you, actually, who is willing to examine how she does what she does in the classroom.”

    “I see what you mean, and it must be powerful for your social studies teammates,” replied Julie.

    Lisa nodded. “The four of us have an intense passion about our nation's history, and not a day goes by that we don't explore delivery methods that stand a chance of improving our instruction. We have a seventh-grade history website that includes a common checklist and rubric for writing. Every seventh-grade student has access to the site, and it includes samples of essays and other examples of written pieces that help them understand the rubric. The parents love it, too, and the written work in these history classes has improved steadily over the years. We find that the kids use the checklist and rubric in their other classes as well.”

    “Wow, Lisa,” said Julie. “It sounds like you have your act together.”

    “I guess we do, but keep in mind that all this has been four years in the making. We have tried to get the current administrators to help us spread the word, but the truth is that many teachers don't want to put in the hours and the planning we do. The performance of our seventh graders on the state exams is consistently high, and they do beautifully in their state writing exams as well.”

    Lisa paused, finished her iced tea, and continued, “Two points I want to make about all this. First, the support from parents is amazing. They love the website and they love the fact that their kids are doing so well. Second, those three other social studies teachers and I are in constant continuous-improvement mode. One success leads to another, and we are not afraid to try anything that we think might benefit our kids.”

    “I may look into doing that at our school,” said Julie. “I know the other two social studies teachers but only slightly. We don't meet professionally at all.”

    They finished their meals in silence and declined dessert. The check appeared, and Julie gave her credit card to the waitress. She told Lisa that it was she who had invited her, and the visit had been worth it.

    Lisa thanked her and said, “Here is the great thing about all this, Julie. The four of us no longer play the blame game. If something is not working, we fix it or discard it outright. We have gotten rid of most of our worksheets, and we follow any video segment—and they are short—with paired or group discussions on what they just saw, or with a few minutes for reflecting in their journals. We have our students communicating and processing often with various partners or trios. We actually cover less material than we all used to, but we go more deeply into what we do cover. We are not satisfied unless the students are truly engaged. We give written feedback on homework, but we give less homework. It's that whole quality over quantity thing, I guess. We are on an improvement journey that we understand will never end. We just keep taking risks on behalf of the kids, and it results in a better performance effort on both our part and theirs. It is time consuming, but it is fun and satisfying.”

    Having settled with the waitress, they stood to leave. On their way to the parking lot, Julie said, “I'm not sure where to start here, Lisa. This is all new territory for me, and our administration has not really launched any top-down improvement initiative that I can think of.”

    “Here is your first task, and I'm going to say this because I think you are where I was a few short years ago, and there is an urgency in your voice that you can turn to your advantage,” said Lisa. “Decide right now that you are going to turn the corner on this. Decide right now that regardless of the support you do or don't get from your leadership team, you will work to improve how you do what you do. I spent my first three years of teaching in neutral, not going anywhere. It was not until I got to the new school that I realized it didn't have to be like that. You don't have to change schools, Julie, to come to that conclusion or to turn that corner.”

    “It should help that we have a negative teacher on our team who is leaving,” said Julie. “He was a master at the blame game, and I'm afraid we all did more than a bit of that over the past three years.”

    They got to Lisa's car, and she shook her head, saying, “Playing the blame game absolves you of doing anything. If everything is someone else's fault, then ‘What can I do?’ becomes a way to avoid getting started on your own program of improvement.”

    Lisa got into her car and rolled down the window. “Why don't you come to one of our summer meetings? The other seventh-grade social studies teachers get together three times during the summer months at my house.” Lisa smiled, and added, “Did I tell you I have a pool? Anyway, we spend those meetings evaluating what we have done in the previous years. We read about new strategies we can incorporate into our programs, and we look at the feedback provided by the students in all four of our history classes. We get feedback from our students several times per year, and we process the feedback and make changes accordingly, if necessary.”

    Lisa suggested that Julie and her teammates visit the website she had referred to earlier and provided her with an e-mail address so they could stay in touch. Lisa was pleased that Julie had been so receptive and felt certain she would begin to make some changes, with or without other teachers at her middle school.

    Julie took the card and said, “Thanks for having lunch with me, Lisa.”

    “Thanks for buying,” said Lisa. She shook Julie's hand through the open window and started her car. “I know Terri Ann Lodge, one of the other seventh-grade social studies teachers at your school, and if you like, I'll call her and invite her to my house for that next meeting, which is two weeks from now.”

    “Let me call her first,” said Julie, “and then you can extend the invitation. I want to explain to her what I'm trying to do. I also have a feeling I'll be working with my Falcon Team teammates to work on our own improvement plan. Becky and Yolanda are good friends and might be amenable to working with me.”

    Julie took out her keys, thanked Lisa once more, and headed for her car. She felt better than she had in months. Her March observation of Lisa's outstanding lesson, along with this extremely positive lunch meeting, gave her the inspiration to continue trying to get out of the rut she realized she had gotten herself into. Well, she mused, she was the one who put herself in the rut, and she would be the one to pull herself out. Having done that, she could start moving down a road that she was certain would benefit her and a new group of seventh graders. If she could do it with the help of her Falcon Team colleagues or the other two seventh-grade social studies teachers, so much the better, but she was committed to improving over time, regardless. Reaching her car, she opened the door, slid into the seat, started the engine—and smiled. She was doing something to shake herself out of her lethargy, and it felt good.

    Appendix A: Processes into Systems: Building Level

    In organizations dedicated to continuous improvement as a way of life, there is nothing that is overlooked, from hiring processes to the process for getting feedback from those who leave the organization. There is nothing that cannot be improved, and it is necessary to identify specific areas of improvement and then to dedicate time, energy, and resources to make things run more smoothly and more efficiently. Processes that simply move along in deeply worn paths year after year will not help move the organization forward. Improving something requires an intervention of some sort; something that was not in place before must be put in place now, or the status quo will serve as a drag on forward movement.

    Everything in the building should be seen as affecting instruction, although clearly instructional processes have a far more direct and immediate impact on learning. That said, as we saw in Chapter 3, a school climate that is conducive to change can serve as an accelerant to improvement. Stephanie Enzmann, currently an assistant principal at a middle school in Virginia, has served as a Baldrige Examiner and is uniquely qualified to identify and comment on several school-level processes that process-improvement teams could hold up to the light, examine, and seek to improve over time. We worked together to come up with a list of other-than-classroom issues that working teams can tackle on behalf of any school's continuous-improvement program.

    Processes become systemic when a regular, effective program for their evaluation is implemented, with an eye toward improving virtually everything on the school campus, from the parking lot to the front office to the very floors everyone walks on every day. First on our list of processes that teams can visit and improve is the whole concept of first impressions; this includes the school's physical plant and the critical issue of customer service. First impressions are key components of well-run and inviting schools at any level.

    First Impressions: Physical Plant

    A study of twenty high-performing principals in high-performing or steadily improving schools conducted by Blase, Blase, and Phillips (2010) showed that “proper maintenance of the school plant was integral to teaching and learning.” Furthermore, the appearance of their schools “was concretely and symbolically important to the public as well as to the staff, the teachers, and the students” (p. 56). According to those principals, the maintenance of their buildings is the responsibility of everyone in the school.

    There are schools that are spotless, well lit, and beautifully maintained. This is a source of pride, I have found, and not only for the custodians; it takes a real collaborative effort to keep a building looking both inviting and safe. In other schools, I have seen paper in the hallways and I have observed marks on the walls that the simple and occasional touch-up of paint would eliminate. I recommend that a process-improvement team—with representatives of every employee group—create a working checklist that includes inspection points (locker repairs, marks on walls and floors, lights, windows, floors, desks and other furniture) that can be checked at least once per week.

    Lighting, for example, is both an instructional and a safety issue; the use of the checklist means every teacher and employee in the building knows a process is in place—and is working—to ensure that the lighting fixtures are attended to as a matter of course. Otherwise, it remains for teachers to report that the light needs replaced; if that is not high on the list of priorities for that teacher, it may not be dealt with for many days or weeks. What is on the checklist is the result of an analysis of those things that not only make a good first impression but also contribute to the overall continuous-improvement effort in the building. Great teachers use checklists in their instruction; administrators can model their efficiency and utility by harnessing the power of checklists in the everyday operation of the building.

    Also, when new custodians are hired, the building's head custodian should model for that new employee exactly what is expected. If, for example, there is a standard of cleanliness for floors, furniture, and walls in classrooms, the head custodian can work alongside the new employee, modeling exactly how meeting those standards should be achieved. The head custodian should also model the kinds of interaction with adults and students that help establish and maintain a high level of customer service.

    First Impressions: Service

    When I leave my car to approach any school, I immediately begin looking around for signs of systemic improvements related to customer service. For example, are the visitor parking spaces close to the building or relatively far away? Are they clearly marked? Do there appear to be enough of them? Approaching the front door of the building, and faced with a row of many possible doors, is the one unlocked door clearly marked? (If not, I invariably try that one last.) If there is someone at a small table in the front hallway, am I greeted right away? Does the greeter do so with a smile? Does the “visitor process” seem to be clear, and does it appear at first glance to be efficient? Once I enter the front office, am I greeted once again in a timely manner? Does the person doing the greeting stand and approach the counter? Any process-improvement team spotlighting customer service needs to think like a visitor and consider what the front-hallway and front office staff does and needs to do when it comes to creating a first impression. Those who are on the front lines in terms of first contact need to be well represented on any improvement team formed to deal with this issue. These questions need to be asked and answered: What constitutes great customer service? How can our customer service processes result in the creation of raving fans on the part of those who have business in our building? If there are barriers to providing first-rate customer service, how can they be removed? How do we at the front door or office deal with our internal customers (teachers, students, support staff)? Would a short, anonymous survey of our internal customers tell us something about what constitutes great customer service for them?

    The office manager, in collaboration with the office staff, needs to establish an efficient process to answer phones and provide positive customer service to the public that call or enter the building. The process should include how many times a phone is allowed to ring prior to a voice answering the phone and the number of seconds it should take a staff member to address an individual at the counter. Again, it helps for process-improvement teams to think like the phone caller. Positive customer service is important to building a happy school community, and administrators should make certain that these customer-service issues are evaluated on a regular basis, not just when something goes wrong.

    Bus Arrival and Departure

    These processes are critical, particularly in middle school, because the longer the students sit on a bus that is not moving, the more likely they are to get into mischief. The key is to be able to quickly track which buses have arrived in order to determine if a bus is late or missed a stop. The departure is equally as important. The transportation coordinator needs to know which buses have arrived for dismissal and which are held up in traffic. Buses also have to be organized so that those with routes farthest from the school are grouped together and can be the first set dismissed. The most important thing is to get students home quickly and safely. In Appendix B, we'll take a look at how one elementary school tackled the issue of safety and efficiency with the loading and unloading of buses.

    Cafeteria: Lines

    Many cafeterias have à la cart and regular, full-lunch lines. The lunch line process needs to be thought out carefully in order to get all students fed in a fast and efficient manner. The best people to ask for input are those who work in the cafeteria to monitor process during lunch bells. They have a keen idea as to how many students are simply buying a drink or a snack and how many are buying a full lunch. Teams can work to improve efficiency, and efficiency is the lifeblood of a well-run school cafeteria. There is also an important customer-service element at work here. I have been in school lunch lines where it was obvious that the cafeteria employees had taken the time to learn the names of students and displayed a wonderful sense of humor; by so doing, those employees made the cafeteria a welcoming place. In one elementary cafeteria, classical music was playing softly in the background.

    Cafeteria: Cleanliness

    Over the years, I have been in school lunchrooms where there was not a bit of paper or clutter of any sort on the floor, on the tables, or in the lunch lines. On the other hand, I was once in a high school cafeteria where it was difficult to walk through the room without stepping on paper, plastic, or something that was once edible and recently discarded. The difference between these two lunchrooms, I can guarantee, is a systemic approach to improvement. The adults in one building put in place a system composed of measurable processes that ensured the cafeteria was safe and clean. In the other building, the adults simply surrendered to the kids. The contrast here is a good example of how processes need constant attention; they need to be evaluated constantly in search of interventions and innovations that will get the job done.

    Copy Room

    All staff members need copies at one time or another, and administration watches the budget to get the biggest bang for the buck. One of the easiest ways to provide staff with the paper or copies they need while keeping the copy machines in good working condition is to come up with a process for staff to get the copies they need in a timely and efficient manner. Teams might be formed to look at ways to save paper—and trees—during the course of the school year. Also, as teachers find ways to replace the ubiquitous worksheets with other, more engaging activities (that don't require reams of paper), the school and the district save money, and teachers find ways to get students involved to a greater extent in their own learning. The results amount to a more learner-centered classroom and fewer reams of paper.

    Technology

    If the school does not have enough equipment for each teacher, the check-out process needs to be quick and easy for teachers. In schools where audio-visual equipment of all kinds may be at a premium, an equitable check-out system needs to be in place to encourage teachers to use the technology as often as possible, giving them equal access to working equipment. Maintenance needs to be a priority and is fair game for a process-improvement team that can give input to those in charge of the equipment, as well as assist in the upkeep of the equipment by providing teachers with a simple checklist of items that will help extend the life and maintain the efficiency of the technology. Just as keeping the building clean should not be the sole responsibility of the custodial staff, the maintenance of critical pieces of expensive instructional technology should be the responsibility of those who use it and those who govern its usage.

    Summer School Registration

    Summer school registration is a difficult process with a very short turnaround time. It is very frustrating for parents to enroll their children in summer school, so the process needs to be as efficient and friendly as possible. Many school divisions have one or two host sites for summer school. That means that many of the parents are registering students at a school that is not the home school. The registration process needs to be thought out clearly so parents can move quickly from one line to the next and get out as quickly as possible. It may be that a process-improvement team brought together to look at summer school registration should include parents, administrators, and other stakeholders.

    Room-Cleaning Process

    Schools have a lot of square footage, and it is important to have a clean and tidy building not only for appearance but also for the safety and well-being of students and staff. As part of a continuous-improvement cycle, a team can be formed to find out how custodians and teachers can support each other toward a common goal—a beautiful, safe, and absolutely clean classroom. Teachers are often gone before the night custodians come to work. This means they rarely get to see, much less know, each other. A smart building principal can arrange for everyone to meet and socialize, and that can be followed by a series of meetings intended to streamline whatever processes are in place at night in order to meet the needs of the teachers and students who inhabit the rooms during the day.

    New teachers, who are understandably excited and anxious about the coming school year, may well enjoy arranging and decorating their classrooms early. Being able to do this before all teachers report allows them to do whatever needs to be done during that busy week without worrying about room setup. A team composed of the head custodian, an administrator, a teacher mentor, and a second-year teacher who may have a unique perspective on what it was like for her last year can work on rearranging the summer cleaning schedule in order to facilitate new teachers, and that same team (with a new teacher representative each year) can revisit the system in place to get rooms ready during the summer.

    Guidance and Student Registration

    There is nothing more frustrating to parents than to come and register their children for a new school and be sent away more than once with paperwork and medical documentation that needs to be completed. A clear and precise registration process must be established, and a qualified staff member should be present for potential new registrants to arrive. Part of customer service is to make people feel welcome and wanted in a new school; you want your guidance staff to be warm and welcoming to new students and families as they will remember the first impression they are given by anyone with whom they come into contact during that first visit. Unfortunately, one negative experience while they are in the building will cancel out several positive experiences during that same visit. This may mean that customer-service training needs to be made part of the regular order of business in that building or that district. It is also necessary to evaluate whatever processes are put in place over time, with feedback from parents and other visitors that can inform the improvement process.

    Student Early Release and Late Arrival

    A safe and secure early-dismissal and late-arrival process for students needs to be established at every school. All schools have a process in place; however, it needs to be evaluated for effectiveness and to decrease the amount of instructional time lost. Once again, a team composed of faculty, parents, front-office personnel, and administrators could be formed for the purpose of evaluating whatever process is in place. Those stakeholders each bring a different perspective to the table, and their diverse viewpoints can contribute to a strong, effective process that does not result in long waits in the office on the part of students, with the attendant lost instructional time that entails.

    Ordering Custodial and Office Supplies

    Nothing is more frustrating for teachers and support personnel than to run out of supplies at a critical time. When this happens, people are quick to play the blame game and slow to look for root causes. The fact is that running out of something may be the result of inefficient or broken processes. Blaming people is, after all, easier than taking the time to visit and evaluate whatever processes are in place at the moment. If the status quo when it comes to ordering supplies and materials is not acceptable, then the status quo needs changing. Administrators can, once again, put together a process-improvement team that can spend the time necessary to determine what is not working and fix it. Don't blame people, fix the process.

    Safety and Hall Travel

    Most schools have some type of fire drill or evacuation drill procedure as required by law. The process truly needs to be studied with decisions made to get students and staff out of the building quickly and safely, as well as to be able to account for all students and staff. In every school, administrators can bring together a team to study the flow of traffic in the halls and reduce the amount of congestion and time spent during hall travel in order to increase the amount of instructional time in all classes. Noisy hallways take away from the effectiveness of teachers and students who have created a positive and smooth-running classroom environment only to be adversely affected by what is going on in the halls. Once again, it is easy to blame people (students for being too noisy, teachers for not supervising students); it is more difficult—but more effective—to search for solutions among broken processes crying out for improvement or replacement.

    Custodial Process for Opening and Closing a Building

    In an age when safety and saving money are at the top of anyone's to-do list when it comes to building operations, schools can form teams that can serve safety and cost savings but still allow teachers access to their classrooms at certain times outside the normal school day. A process-improvement team might begin with the end in mind: What should the building consistently look like when the doors are unlocked every morning? Working back from that given, a whole series of processes can be put in place that will allow the night staff to arrive at that same destination every morning. A process also needs to be established to systematically close down the building and lock and secure all doors and hallways as well as turn off lights. This would reduce the amount of visits night security needs to make to a building because doors were left open or unlocked. An effective internal evaluation process (quality control on the production line) will reduce the need for external evaluation processes (districtwide quality control) and will result in more consistency.

    Restocking of Soap, Paper Towels, and Sanitizer in the Restrooms or Hallways

    There are times when I am presenting in a school building when it is apparent that there is no process in place to accommodate adult visitors after hours as it pertains to restrooms. A system that responds only to the needs of the moment is not efficient; repeated problems with restrooms (lack of paper towels, sinks that don't work, faucets that leak or drip constantly, cleanliness issues, graffiti, empty sanitizer dispensers, broken doors) are fixable if a continuous-improvement system is firmly in place. This may mean that once a specific process-improvement team has identified problems and come up with solutions, and the custodial and maintenance staff have followed through with the changes, there needs to be a way of soliciting feedback from anyone who uses the restrooms (students, teachers, parents, visitors—everyone) so that adjustments can be made when necessary. In the case of after-hours use of the facilities, a schedule of activities needs to be established and updated, and day and night custodians need to coordinate who does what and when, with excellent customer service as the end game.

    Graffiti

    I have been in schools where graffiti stays on the restroom walls, apparently for lack of an efficient set of processes that might result in clean restrooms all the time. I have also been in restrooms that would make any four-star restaurant proud. One had beautiful, live plants … and this was a student restroom. Teams of students were in charge of helping the custodial staff keep them clean. Teams, possibly composed of custodians, students, and faculty, can establish a process to inspect the outside building as well as bathroom stalls, hall walls, and lockers for graffiti. Graffiti needs to be removed immediately so students see a well-kept building when they enter in the morning and have no need to gossip about any graffiti because there won't be any if the custodial team identifies and removes graffiti prior to student arrival. Building interiors should also be monitored throughout the day to eliminate or deter any graffiti that may occur during the school day. Once again, it is a matter of process: Processes for dealing with graffiti can be brainstormed, arrived at, put in place, and evaluated on a regular basis. This also includes a workable and enforced process to deal with those who deface school property.

    Floors

    The custodial team spends hours cleaning floors as well as stripping and waxing floors. The team needs to study the most-traveled hallways and identify floors that need to be maintained throughout the year with wax and polish, and determine which areas can be put on a rotating system so it doesn't take the custodial staff an entire break to clean floors. If floors are maintained throughout the school year, the custodial team can maintain a certain look instead of only having it at the beginning of the school year and after holiday breaks. The idea here is to start not with how things have been done but with how the floors should look most of the time. The condition of floors throughout the building says a good deal about the quest for quality on the part of all stakeholders, not just on the part of the custodial team. I was in an elementary school where all the chairs in all the classrooms had split tennis balls forced onto the bottoms of the chair legs. This undoubtedly assisted the custodial staff in keeping the floors looking great. It is also a good lesson for the students, especially if they are involved to a large extent in keeping the classrooms clean.

    From customer service at the front door to the condition of restrooms and floors throughout the building, everything ought to be subject to the collaborative reflections of process-improvement teams dedicated to quality. This is by no means an exhaustive list of building-related processes, but everything on these pages should be part of the overall continuous-improvement efforts of stakeholders closest to those processes.

    In Appendix B, we'll look at what one elementary school did to improve safety and efficiency in the bus loop.

    Appendix B: Building-Level Improvement Example

    In a systems-oriented environment, where no process is left unattended or unexamined, improvements are legion at the building or classroom level. This includes, as we saw in Appendix A, the bus loop. When it comes to unloading students in the morning and picking them up again in the afternoon, principals are single-minded. One principal I know ends his Friday-before-the-kids-arrive-for-the-first-day-of-school meeting with, “And finally, the most important thing is that the students all arrive home safely on Monday!” Students arrive for the new school year after a long summer break, and the bus numbers and drivers may be totally different from last year; those first few days can be nerve-wracking for students, staff, and parents alike. It is to everyone's advantage that the bus-loop processes be combined into a workable system, complete with a regular evaluation of its effectiveness.

    At Pembroke Elementary, a Virginia school with a high special-education population, the administrative team was not satisfied with the way the system worked for either the morning arrival or the afternoon departure of the buses. In this large school district, buses arrive from all over the city, and their arrival times vary greatly, according to Assistant Principal Karen O'Meara. As a new assistant principal, O'Meara noticed much confusion in the bus loop, particularly at the end of the school day. Students, teachers, and teacher assistants were often confused as to where their students' buses were parked, and it became apparent to O'Meara that something had to be done; more than that, a system for unloading and loading students had to be put in place that would result in safety, efficiency, and consistency. Principal Linda Hayes empowered O'Meara and Grant Baker, the school's administrative assistant, to work with staff to identify problems and find solutions. The number of special-needs students, those who needed wheelchairs and someone to accompany them to the bus loop, underscored the need for a smooth-functioning system that would stand the test of time and the analysis of the team formed to change or adjust the various key processes involved.

    The timely loan of some bright yellow AAA safety vests helped O'Meara, Baker, and two teacher assistants bring order to the offloading of students in the morning. “The real test,” according to O'Meara, “was coming up with a plan for the afternoon dismissal” (personal correspondence, September 16, 2010). Using a diagram that divided the arriving buses into inner and outer loops, a bus monitor with a walkie-talkie stood at the outer entrance to the loops, announcing the arrival of a particular bus to a second monitor, “who would verify the slot number, bus number, and record it on the laminated poster with a dry erase marker. This allowed the teachers and teacher assistants to locate each student's bus immediately and begin loading the student,” says O'Meara. Once all buses were loaded, the signal was given for the first bus on the outer loop to proceed, with all buses in that loop following. After the last outer-loop bus pulled out, the inner-loop buses followed suit.

    Now—and this is an important part of this whole continuous-improvement effort—O'Meara and Baker timed the whole departure process, from the first bus to the last, and their baseline was fifteen minutes. As teachers, teacher assistants, bus drivers, and students became more familiar with the process, the time decreased until they were able to get everyone out of the loop in nine minutes. According to O'Meara, the bus drivers were particularly happy, because each of them had another bus route to complete following the elementary bus-route run.

    This new bus-loop system for loading and unloading students was beneficial in many ways:

    • The smooth operation that resulted from this team's continuous-improvement process led to increased safety for students and everyone else involved.
    • Buses were now inserted into the appropriate loop in an orderly fashion.
    • Intentional bus placement allowed for better access for lifting ramps for wheelchair-bound students.
    • Teachers and teacher assistants were better able to locate the right bus with the use of the laminated board showing the positioning of each bus.
    • The time needed to load and depart decreased by almost half.

    O'Meara and her team continue to evaluate their bus-loop system, and they have recently added a process whereby bus drivers, on the first day of school, place a colored dot on the clothing of students as they exit the bus in the morning. Classroom teachers have a color-coded bus chart, with the bus numbers and the corresponding color code. The teacher records the bus number, and at the end of the day, each bus has a number and a color in the window as the students approach the buses. Cut-out, colored, and numbered buses are placed on the direction chart using Velcro strips. The students check the board and walk directly to their buses. All this improves efficiency for students and teachers alike.

    The bus-loop system at Pembroke Elementary is composed of many individual processes that work together to increase efficiency and safety. Furthermore, it is crystal clear that without considerable reflection, along with a willingness to take some risks, this creation of an effective system for loading and unloading students would not have happened. Principal Linda Hayes empowered the improvement team to do what was necessary, and the results, as we have seen, benefitted everyone involved. This is a great example of what can be done when processes are put under the microscope by a team willing to question and seriously analyze the status quo—all in the name of continuous improvement.

    Appendix C: Processes into Systems: Classroom Level

    While building-level improvements support instruction, sometimes in a rather oblique fashion, classroom-level systems are composed of processes that directly affect teacher performance and academic growth. I once observed a classroom where one student after another went to the restroom in what seemed to be like a relay race. The hall pass got handed off to the next student, who in turn looked for the next taker when coming back into the classroom. The stated process for leaving the classroom to go to the restroom may have been different, but in this case the process had been hijacked by students who were, one after another, missing out on whatever learning was on offer in that room. Processes, taken together, constitute systems; in this case, the entire classroom-management system had broken down over time, as each separate process (leaving the classroom, sharpening a pencil, getting ready for the next activity) went unpracticed and ultimately untended.

    The classroom system as it relates to assessment is composed of smaller processes (the administering of quizzes and tests, the timely return of said quizzes and tests, the giving of feedback, the number of formative assessments) that contribute to the academic growth of students. Good processes that run smoothly help students become better at what they do and contribute to what they understand; an effective system of assessment is only as good as its component parts. If the process for giving feedback is weak, it weakens the overall effectiveness of the system. Teachers who do not use an item analysis (process) to find their own weak areas of instruction weaken the delivery system they have in place. Teachers who ignore the fact that classroom movement (process) positively affects learning and memory will pay a price for keeping students seated for long periods of time. Once again, the system breaks down because the individual processes that compose it go unused or untended over time.

    The following are some typical classroom-specific processes that need to be evaluated by teachers in order to determine what improvements need to be made, if any, in order to make them ever more effective. As with the building-level list, this is not meant to be definitive or complete; it will, I trust, provide a starting place for teachers who are willing to look at how they do what they do in the name of continuous improvement.

    Movement

    In Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, John Medina (2008) points out that “our evolutionary ancestors were used to walking up to 12 miles per day” (p. 23). Our brains developed during that time, and exercise was an important part of that development. Medina goes on to say, “We were not used to sitting in classrooms for 8 hours at a stretch” (p. 24). Movement sends blood to our brains, and that blood contains oxygen and glucose, both critical to the learning process. Yet I observe classrooms where students are required to sit for long periods of time because conventional wisdom tells us that students can concentrate better that way. Actually, students are better able to concentrate when they have had the benefit of physical exercise through physical education classes, through recess, and as a result of classroom processes that purposefully harness movement as a learning tool.

    Teachers should look at their lesson plans and incorporate movement (charting in groups, standing to meet with a partner, going to the side of the room to secure handouts, taking a brain break by doing some simple exercises lasting only a couple of minutes, or just plain standing and stretching every so often) into those plans every few minutes. For example, rather than have students share with a partner something while seated, have them stand and move to find a partner with whom they can discuss what they just observed in a short video, or heard in a short lecture. Add a bit of upbeat music to the process and students get the break they need, along with the conversation that helps them process information—all in a very structured and intentional way.

    Student-to-Student Conversations

    Students remember and understand more when they are given the opportunity to share information with each other in a structured way. Teachers can experiment with students talking in pairs, trios, or quartets. It is advisable that before students do this, they discuss with the teacher what it takes to be a good listener. Students at almost any age know what can derail a conversation, and by extension, they know basically what is required if two students want to have a successful and substantive conversation (eye contact, supportive body language and facial expressions, the ability to ask for summaries or ask for points of clarification). The teacher can draw this out of them, charting their input in a way that provides a baseline for good communication whether they are in pairs or larger groups.

    More than just charting and posting the chart permanently on the wall is needed, however, if the whole classroom's communication system is to work properly. The process has to be evaluated frequently by the students. I know teachers who use a listening-skills chart to conduct postconversation discussions about how successful the students were in their last paired or group discussion. The initial brainstorming and the posting of the chart is useless unless the process includes constant evaluation in the name of continuous improvement. In this case, the students do something (a paired discussion, for example), evaluate it (using the chart as a reference point), and then make adjustments as needed the next time around. The teacher's job is to facilitate all this in a way that leads to progress over time; otherwise, these student-to-student interactions will most certainly break down, at which point the teacher may simply stop using a great process simply because the evaluation tool was in place (or used) to gauge its effectiveness and then improve that process.

    Transitions and Directions

    The enemy of any classroom process is confusion. I have observed classrooms where a transition between activities that should have taken a minute or so takes much too long. I have seen teachers give several auditory directions in quick succession, only to have to walk around the room in an attempt to give bits and pieces of that same set of instructions over and over again to various students who did not listen or understand what was said the first time around. Giving clear, precise directions one at a time will save time and allow the teacher to observe that, for example, each student has a book, a pencil, a writing journal, and a handout, and that the book is opened to a certain page. If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words (of directions), teachers can project on the screen a picture of exactly what the desk should look like, removing any time-wasting ambiguity or downright chaos. Teachers who are willing to take a close, objective look at transition periods and the whole process involved in giving directions should be able to improve those processes to the point where there is no wasted time or confusion.

    Formative Assessment

    Summative assessments normally come at the end of a chapter, unit, semester, or school year; grades are given, and everyone moves on. Formative assessments are used to provide various forms of feedback along the way to a finished product. Students working on an essay, for example, receive constant feedback (from teachers, peer review, checklists and rubrics) on draft after draft, making corrections and adjustments until it is complete. Examples of formative assessments would be informal teacher questions and conversations with students as teachers check for understanding. Other examples would be student portfolios, reflective journals, and presentation rehearsals (Burke, 2010). All these serve as benchmarks and accelerants for students on the continuous-improvement highway. Each of these processes is a component of the system of overall assessment that teachers need to be experimenting with and evaluating over time, and feedback is an indispensable component of each of these processes.

    Feedback

    The quality and quantity of feedback given to students is critical, and teachers need to take a look at their feedback process. When I first started teaching, I used to put checkmarks on homework papers to indicate it was “acceptable” (whatever that meant), or I would often add a hearty “Well done!” (whatever that meant) on a few papers that I considered outstanding. Of course, neither of these comments was effective as feedback for students trying to improve their skills or increase their knowledge. As September turned into October, the amount of homework assignments I got back steadily decreased, and I blamed the students, the parents, the textbook, and the weather, while all the time I was clueless about what kinds of feedback might have actually helped my students improve on whatever it was I wanted them to be doing.

    As we saw earlier in the book, feedback must be timely, specific, and corrective in nature. It must provide students with information that informs their individual continuous-improvement journeys. Feedback as a process supports the entire assessment system that, in turn, supports student progress. Students really have to know what they can do to improve, and feedback (provided on papers that are returned, given through individual conferences) must inform them or remind them of exactly what needs to be done to improve performance.

    Teacher feedback, important as it is, can be supplemented by the feedback provided by checklists and rubrics. These devices allow students to check their own work in real time and make quantitative adjustments based on a checklist (Does the paragraph have a topic sentence?) or qualitative changes based on a rubric (Is the paper well organized, supporting the writer's position throughout?). Burke (2010) affirms that “feedback is the heart and soul of formative assessment” (p. 21). Formative assessment, as Burke defines it, is labeled such “when the purpose for using it is to provide constructive and specific feedback early in the learning process” (p. 144). Teachers who have their students work their way through several drafts of an essay over time—with plenty of corrective feedback in the form of checklists, rubrics, and teacher-provided written and oral feedback—contribute in large measure to their students' ability to write effectively.

    Processes Used at the Beginning and the End of Class

    There are two times during classes where time is, as they say, “a wastin’” in a big way: the first five minutes and the last five minutes. The most effective classrooms I have seen are those in which students know exactly what to do when they come into the room, and whatever it is that they do is accomplished while the teacher greets students as they enter. The what-to-do-when-entering-the-room process is so embedded in the overall management system in these classrooms that much is accomplished up front, and with little fuss and not much bother.

    I was once observing in an elementary classroom at the beginning of a day that had been marked by a two-hour snow delay. In spite of everything—the weather, late buses, lots of snow gear—those third graders entered the room and, to the accompaniment of an upbeat song, put their gear away, gathered their materials, and were ready to go within short order. What to do when entering the room was so ingrained that there was little confusion, and the teacher was able to greet them, unencumbered by having to remind anyone of anything. The process had become routine, and although there was a bit more delay due to late buses and dealing with all that cold-weather clothing, it was a smooth transition.

    I have also observed classrooms where the first five minutes and the last five minutes (ten minutes of valuable time) are wasted as processes that may have been established early in the school year have fallen by the wayside. Multiply that ten minutes by 180 days, and real time is being squandered, all because the teacher does not regularly evaluate critical processes that make up the classroom-management system. Effective teachers don't need a chart on the wall to tell students what the procedures are; they have practiced it so many times it has become truly routine. A welcome side effect of any deeply rooted and front-loaded management process is that a teacher does not have to continually remind Johnny, Eddie, Mary, and Maurice of anything—they know what to do and they do it. If the teacher sees signs that the process is unraveling, she will revisit it with her students in order to get whatever it is back on track and running smoothly.

    Technology as a Tool, Not an End

    During my days as an elementary and secondary student, I can remember blackboards that covered as many as three out of four walls in the classroom, and it was possible in many classes for every student to find a place at the board, where we worked our way through math problems or diagrammed sentences. Going to the board had the added benefit of giving us a chance to stand and move in the classroom. Blackboards amounted to pretty basic stuff as technology goes, but it is what we had, and many of our teachers put it to good use.

    As a Baby Boomer and digital immigrant, I am often bedazzled by what I see on smart boards and other interactive screens; I still find it amazing that someone can place a finger on a screen and manipulate or move a graphic or a piece of text. Digital natives, on the other hand, grew up with the technology and can do the same on a handheld device with which they are perfectly familiar and which holds no mysteries for them.

    There is danger here for teachers just beginning to become familiar with the wonders of this technology. I have been in classrooms where a teacher will bring a student up front in order to manipulate something on the screen. While the teacher works with one or more students up front, their classmates are verbally invited to participate in their minds, anticipating or predicting what the student coming to the screen should do in order to correctly solve the problem or complete the activity. As I watch students from the side of the room, however, I can say with virtual certainty that many of them have gone to a better place in their minds. Also, once the student who is currently at the board sits down, he can now go to that better place in his mind, safe in the knowledge that his turn at the front of the room (and in the line of fire) is over. Another danger here is that some students are embarrassed to be the only one at the board, and this may serve to inhibit performance on the part of a student who is normally able to solve the problem or complete the activity at his desk.

    If every student in the room cannot be directly involved in what is happening on the screen at the front of the room, teachers need to put in place a process that involves them in some way from their seats. It may be—and I have seen this used effectively—that seated students have small white boards and markers that allow them, in pairs or individually, to become engaged simultaneously. If a second adult is available, she can monitor the seat-based activities while the teacher works with individuals, pairs, or groups at the front of the room. It is also possible that students could stand and discuss in pairs or trios what they think ought to be done, after which they can be invited to share their conclusions. For example, a paragraph in need of serious grammatical help could be posted on the screen, and students working in standing trios or quartets could be put to work trying to find and fix the mistakes. Ways need to be found to involve every student in the room at any given time; it is not realistic to think that what is happening with two or three students at the front of the room is going to enthrall their classmates or otherwise mentally engage them in the activity.

    As cell phones find their ways into the hands of every student, many teachers are creatively using the technology in a way that allows students to text information onto the screen as part of a brainstorming session. Students who have just read an essay could “vote” with their cell phones, deciding whether what they just read was a persuasive or informational essay. As the voting continues, the results appear on the screen in bar-graph form; once the voting is done, the teacher can seek input from students as to why they voted the way they did. In both of these examples, cell phones are enlisted as convenient tools as the means to an end. As each year passes, more and more teachers are incorporating such tools into their practice, but care needs to be taken to ensure that the processes are smooth and efficient.

    Teacher Talk as a Process

    When I first started teaching, I thought talking was teaching. My subject area in those days was U.S. history, and I was a master at using the overhead projector. I uncovered those priceless transparency notes one by one and lectured for large chunks of time. My students took notes, and the idea was that they would go home, “study” the notes (whatever that meant), and perform well on my summative tests and quizzes. I would grade said tests and quizzes, record the grades, and move on to the next chapter and the next chronological period of American history.

    The irony of all this teacher talk I unleashed on my students was that I was the one who learned the most during the course of every year. Why? Because I talked the most. My lecture–take notes–study–take quizzes or tests system was composed of several processes, of course: the way I presented the material, the way my students took notes, the way we reviewed subject material, and the way they “studied” for tests at home. The system was broken, for several reasons:

    • Trying to concentrate on what I was saying and take notes at the same time, my students must have been particularly frustrated, because I provided no time at all for students to process material in the classroom. Any processing was to be done at home, long after the notes had been taken. My fantasy was always that they took a little time each evening to go over the notes and process parallel material in the textbook. I did say fantasy, right?
    • When I conducted my review sessions in class, I concentrated on terms, dates, vocabulary, events, and the names of politicians, generals, inventors—all the information that lived at the bottom level of the cognitive ladder (knowledge). In fact, I was the only one who lived at the second level of the cognitive ladder (comprehension) during the course of the school year. I explained, elucidated, illustrated, pontificated, described, and summarized, and by so doing, I was the one who developed a fairly deep understanding of U.S. history.

    During my early years of teaching, it never occurred to me to subject my processes to any sort of analysis or evaluation in an attempt to improve what I did. It was easy to blame other factors for my students' poor test performance: the textbook reading level, too many years of history to cover in one year, the parents, uncomfortable desks, bad lighting, inconsistent room temperature, and—most unfortunate of all—the fact that “kids today (early 1970s) just don't want to learn” in the way that we did when we were young.

    There is nothing wrong with lecture, provided students have an opportunity to process the material in class, with each other, and immediately after new information has been presented. The same is true of videos, which should be mercifully short and should be followed by periods of student-to-student processing and reflection. This allows students to take what they already know about a subject, work in the new information, and arrive at a new level of understanding. A teacher's delivery system is composed of many processes, and each of those processes should be open to scrutiny, held up to the light, and put under the microscope in an attempt to gauge its effectiveness as a teaching and learning tool.

    Those who do the talking do the learning, as I found out in my first several years of teaching. I rarely, if ever, had my students share information with each other. They did not turn to a partner and talk, stand and share in a trio, or learn what makes a good listener—along with why listening is such an important part of communication. I stood, while they sat. I talked, while they listened or went to a better place in their minds. I moved, while they hunkered down in their seats and thought of novel reasons to go somewhere—anywhere—to avoid sitting for long periods of time. It never once occurred to me that what I had created was a broken system, composed of dysfunctional processes, and that the lack of quality apparent to me in my reflective moments was something I could have changed had I been willing to analyze my instructional system for fundamental weaknesses and strengths, making changes in an attempt to make what I did on a daily basis better. Teachers and administrators must not be afraid to look at how they do what they do at every turn, and while this is not always comfortable, it is necessary if processes and systems are to be improved. This continuous-improvement process can be accomplished by individual teachers or by teams of teachers working in tandem in order to move down the continuous-improvement highway.

    In Appendix D, we'll look at the success stories of three teachers working respectively with students in the second, fourth, and sixth grades.

    Appendix D: Classroom-Level Improvement Examples

    While great gains can be made in the area of customer service and building-level improvements of all kinds, it is critical that teachers, buildings, and districts concentrate heavily on classroom-level process and system improvements. While face-to-face training sessions and online courses can certainly contribute to continuous improvement, this will only happen if teachers examine how they do what they do in their classrooms, followed by a commitment to make necessary and meaningful adjustments in key processes related to management and instruction. This can happen when teachers work in teams or individually. The real power of improvement lies in a willingness to look at everything with an eye toward how it can be improved.

    School districts can accelerate improvement by seriously and consistently backing improvement efforts in classrooms at all levels. The Fort Bend Independent School District, in Sugar Land, Texas, is, as of this writing, in its third straight school year of providing resources and incentives to teachers willing to conduct their own action research projects in the name of continuous improvement. Yuping Anselm, Fort Bend's coordinator of research and program evaluation, spearheaded this effort at finding teacher researchers willing to fully participate in a program dedicated to conducting action research at the classroom level.

    In many districts, credit for professional development is awarded to those who complete face-to-face training sessions or online courses. In the second year of its efforts related to continuous improvement, Fort Bend made the decision to provide the full total of fourteen required credits to teachers who successfully took part in the action research program. “Since we deem action research is an alternative form of professional development,” says Anselm, “it makes sense to award professional-development credits to [teachers] for their efforts” (personal communication, September 8, 2010). The district, realizing the time commitment made by teachers in the writing of their research papers, also provides a monetary stipend to teachers who complete the project.

    The Fort Bend program has produced some interesting and significant results, as individual teachers and teacher teams improve their own performance, and that of their students, as a direct result of the action research projects. One such successful effort at continuous improvement came when fourth-grade teacher Sarah Erschabek instituted an entirely optional book club for her students on Saturdays. There were no grades or assignments, yet thirty-six of forty-one students agreed to give up time on weekends to take part in this attempt to jump-start or accelerate a love of reading for fun on the part of Erschabek's fourth graders. The book club did not meet at school; indeed, they met one Saturday each month at the house of a different student. Erschabek reports that support among parents was high, and one parent said, “I cannot believe how much my daughter has changed over this school year. I think this book club is a wonderful idea, and my daughter is reading more than she's ever read before” (personal communication, September 6, 2010). Anecdotal evidence to be sure, but powerful nevertheless.

    In addition to data showing that the number of Erschabek's students who preferred English language arts (including reading and writing) to other subjects jumped from 29 percent in the fall to 44 percent in the spring (more than any other single subject), their reading levels also increased, as measured by DRA2 scores and other comparative data. Significantly, at the conclusion of the seven Saturdays, 78 percent of the book club members surveyed said that reading was an interesting or great way to spend time, while that figure was just 39 percent for non–club members. Book club members also improved their writing scores over the course of the year to a greater extent than nonmembers.

    One of the amazing things about the results of these Saturday book club sessions is that all this was accomplished without assigning grades. Erschabek's fourth graders willingly read the books, discussed with each other what they read, and derived pleasure from doing so—all to their immediate and long-term benefit. During the course of the year, students recommended books to Erschabek and to each other, in person and via blogs set up by Erschabek, to which she and club members had access. According to Erschabek, the blogs for this new school year will remain open to those who participated last year, giving them a constant source of intellectual stimulation as they are able to see and comment on what is being read and discussed by a new group of book club members. At this writing, Erschabek is making adjustments to the program, based on her own observations, as well as feedback received from book club participants. She will move forward with what she has found to be an enjoyable and ultimately rewarding accelerator for student and teacher growth.

    Finally, and importantly, Erschabek's growing confidence in her own ability to harness the power of action research in the cause of continuous improvement will serve her and her fourth graders well in the coming years. The whole idea of examining processes, making necessary adjustments, and regularly doing it all over again is the essence of continuous improvement.

    Moving from the fourth to the sixth grade, middle school ELA teacher Hallie Antweil has also experienced a great deal of success with taking the time to hook her students on books, getting them to read on their own and for pleasure. Antweil increased her chances of success by offering a wide choice of books for her students, choosing books that she “knew would appeal to a wide range of readers, even reluctant ones” (personal communication, September 6, 2010). Antweil chose books she had read and spent class time showing her sixth graders the books, letting them handle them, and intriguing them by talking briefly about the plot of each book. In this age of technologically savvy students, Antweil took every opportunity to tie in the books with a website's book trailer, if it existed, and she made certain that some of the books on offer were technology based. In addition, some books actually had their own websites, and students were able to visit these sites in order to discover whether or not they were interested in checking out or purchasing the book.

    As of this writing, Antweil has introduced what she calls “personal book talks” into the mix. Her sixth graders go to the library every two weeks, and, knowing which students may not be disposed to check out a book on their own, she will “make a bee-line for these students, and I interview them individually to find out what types of books they might be interested in” (personal communication, September 6, 2010). Based on what she already knows about the student, along with what she has gleaned from the interview, Antweil will take him to the shelf and to a book she thinks he is most likely to read. She then tells him a bit about the plot, explaining why she really enjoyed the book. At this point, says Antweil, the student “is pretty psyched to check out the book” (personal communication, September 6, 2010).

    Each student keeps a reading log that is turned in every two weeks: this gives Antweil an opportunity to have another personal conversation with each student about what he read and what he liked or did not like about the book; it also gives her a chance to recommend books in the same genre or about the same subject. During one of those conversations, Antweil discovered that one student who said she did not really consider herself a reader said she liked fictional books with World War II as the subject. Antweil recommended a particular book and was thrilled when the student came back from the library with two books by the same author. That student has returned to Antweil for more recommendations and appears to be on the road to reading for pleasure.

    Antweil has evaluated her book-talk program and has made some adjustments. Students now make book talks to the entire class, describing their experiences with a book and making recommendations to classmates. Antweil has observed students writing down those recommendations and then following that up by taking out those books from the library. She is now experimenting with having three or four students read the same book and then discuss it together during SSR (sustained silent-reading time), thus introducing the concept of a book club into the process. The next step for Antweil is to set up a wiki or blog so that the discussions and recommendations can move outside the classroom to the blogosphere.

    For these two teachers, Sarah Erschabek and Hallie Antweil, there is a constant desire to improve process. Both teachers use student surveys that give them much information about which students think of themselves as readers, which value reading, and which believe they are self-motivated readers. In both cases, reading scores have improved, and the number of those students who read for pleasure has increased—no small thing.

    Another Fort Bend teacher who understands the impact of constantly reassessing how he does what he does is Jeff Carrus, a second-grade teacher. Understanding the importance of vocabulary in speaking, writing, and reading, Carrus has, over the years, continued to assess how he deals with it in his classroom. After noticing how his students struggled with vocabulary, Carrus began to incorporate various ways to improve their facility with and comprehension of vocabulary words within the context of his reading program. Over the years, he kept what worked and discarded what did not; most importantly, he never stopped taking risks on behalf of his students, and the way he currently deals with vocabulary has resulted in a high level of success for his second graders.

    Every couple of weeks, Carrus chooses four words from the reading his students are doing, as well as two words that may not be included in the reading but for which the text provides various clues. This puts the minds of his students to work as they learn to infer from those clues what the two otherwise unfamiliar words might mean. Carrus also posts the words on a chart; students track the usage of those words as they speak and write about whatever it is they are reading during the next several days. They also practice saying the words until they become familiar with pronunciation, and then he takes all this to the next level.

    As he introduces the vocabulary words to his second graders, Carrus provides additional context by giving them examples and nonexamples of usage that would apply to the classroom and to his own personal life. Then, students use a visualization technique that makes understanding the word really personal (Figure D.1). They also work with synonyms and antonyms during that two-week period, and at the end of the unit Carrus and his students “celebrate the word that we used most frequently by acting it out as a class” (personal communication, September 2010).

    Figure D.1 One of Jeff Carrus's students created This visualization of the vocabulary word “destination.” Such visualization helps Carrus's second graders with comprehension

    Anyone interested in continuous improvement is constantly checking for results, and Carrus has results that provide ample evidence that what he is doing is working. Since he put this system in place, “student scores have soared in vocabulary, and they use these words all the time. The vocabulary test grades have been steadily above 90,” Carrus reports, and students “are using the new words anywhere from 70–100 times per unit.” Most important, perhaps, according to Carrus, “Students now look forward to vocabulary because it is fun, and they get to share their own visualizations and experiences with the words” (personal communication, September 2010). On top of this, Carrus has received the constant support of his students' parents, who are amazed at how their second graders are improving their own writing, speaking, and reading skills.

    Not only do students enjoy working with vocabulary as part of their reading units; their vocabulary scores highlight the success Carrus is having by having them personalize usage with visualization and personal examples. Figure D.2 shows the pre- and posttest vocabulary scores through four units. In addition, his students' DRA scores increased dramatically since he began using this new methodology for teaching vocabulary. As of this writing, Carrus is well into another school year with this system, and he will continue to evaluate its effectiveness over time, all to the benefit of his second graders at Barrington Place Elementary.

    Figure D.2 Mean Pre- and Posttest Scores

    These three outstanding Fort Bend teachers, Sarah Erschabek, Hallie Antweil, and Jeff Carrus, all understand that improvement is not a one-shot deal; it is an ongoing journey. One group of students replaces another, and each year brings adjustments and improvements to processes and systems that, while effective, can always be made more so by teachers who are never fully at rest, never satisfied with the status quo, and ever in search of something that works better that what they are currently using. These master teachers are lifelong learners willing to take risks on behalf of kids in a never-ending journey down the continuous-improvement highway.

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    Corwin: A SAGE Company

    The Corwin logo—a raven striding across an open book—represents the union of courage and learning. Corwin is committed to improving education for all learners by publishing books and other professional development resources for those serving the field of PreK–12 education. By providing practical, hands-on materials, Corwin continues to carry out the promise of its motto: “Helping Educators Do Their Work Better.”


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