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September 11, 2011

Saying No to Shiny Objects

by Chris Lindholm

Several years ago a teacher I was interviewing revealed his depth of experience teaching junior high students in a statement made with a very matter-of-fact demeanor.  Paraphrased: “Junior high kids are great to teach.  Some of them are dead serious about working on real issues and some are distracted by shiny objects – and they go back and forth in minutes!”  His love for students, and the challenge of teaching them, came through loud and clear as he wove through each question with a story about a student he had worked with over the years.  “And some are distracted by shiny objects” gave me a great laugh that day, and it has stuck with me over the years as a fitting description for more than the beauty of junior high students.  Often that line describes a lack of discipline demonstrated by leaders to say no to the exciting ideas of a person or group that may distract an organization from its mission.  Historically in public education,  this line describes our approach to professional development and the temptation to chase the latest and greatest shiny initiative.  That lack of discipline must be put to rest.

Jim Collins argues in Good to Great that great organizations establish a culture of greatness built upon disciplined people doing discipline thought and disciplined action.  Part of that discipline he shares, is having the guts to establish “stop-doing lists” and refusing to invest time, energy, and resources into anything that distracts the organization from its core mission.  Similarly, DuFour argues in several of his publications that district leaders must fight against “initiative fatigue” and establish the work of a Professional Learning Community as THE initiative of the district focused on results, collaboration, and learning.  All education leaders have the moral responsibility to heed this call – backed by mountains of research – and focus intensely on creating a culture of disciplined educators practicing disciplined thought and action including routine reflection, action research, systems of collaboration and interventions, and a clear understanding of the content, concepts, and skills all students need to master. Clay, Soldwedel, and Many’s newest book, Aligning School Districts as PLCs, offers a detailed explanation of how this work plays out at three different levels: strategic (superintendents and school boards), tactical (principals and school administration), and operational (teachers and classroom staff).  The message is clear.  When leaders align the work of every staff member in a district to the PLC framework focused on results, collaboration, and learning, the magic of high levels of learning for every student can indeed take place.

The leadership of @ISD191 is committed to saying no to shiny objects and focusing our work tightly to the key components of a professional learning community: a results-orientation, a focus on learning, and purposeful collaboration.  To this effort we’ve aligned our teaching and learning team structure, our district integration plan, our district Q-comp plan, and our district PD plan.  All schools now have leadership teams implementing improvement plans focused on results and all schools are now required to establish meaningful collaborative teams.  The work ahead will not be magic or feel like a silver bullet.  We will make mistakes and embrace the learning that happens throughout the journey.  It will require being disciplined in how we use our collaborative time and the discipline to say no to aspects of our culture that pull us away from our core mission.  If we feel reservation about this committment, it is due to the significant change this may require and the difficult decisions we see ahead.  Reservation or not, the payout on the table is student learning – our core mission – and to sacrifice student learning is to be an organization confused about its mission… a sure recipe for failure.  That’s not what I signed up for.

I’m committed to saying no to shiny objects and being a district-wide Professional Learning Community.  Anyone with me?

Photo from Flickr by Rory Manning

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