What Should Never Change in a School

Getting a little work done in the office today.

There is so much dialogue–often so much necessary dialogue–about what should change in education that we can lose sight of the other half of the equation: what should never change. My purpose in this post is not to create the specific list for anyone, but to simply underline its centrality for anyone engaging school change processes, for I believe it is vital to know what a school should never touch in order to ensure viability for the decisions that they might make regarding change. In my experience the bigger the proposed change, the more important it is to have a crystal clear idea of what not to touch.

I believe there is a short list of things that should not change in a school (or any institution for that matter). Interestingly, school communities tend to have a different, and perhaps longer, list than an institution could or ever should try to maintain. Here is my list of some characteristics related to what should not change:

  • Traditions that advantageously differentiate the school from all other schools.
    • These traditions embody central ideals of the institution that are likely difficult to communicate without them.
    • Theses traditions bring people together.
    • They are positive cultural touchstones.
    • They live above the socio-political issues of the day.
    • They have the power to bring people of different beliefs together.
  • Things that maintain or increase the vitality of human relationships. Notice here that the answer may change regarding what produces this vitality, but the priority on it should not diminish.
  • Characteristics that extend the school’s positive growth potential. For example, a characteristic of my school is that students are at the forefront of conversations regarding change. Rather than being brought in at the end, they are included very early on. In fact, students are often the catalyst of important conversations regarding what should come next. The most recent examples of this have to do with a few fascinating ideas: a reinvention of how we approach service, as well as the possibility of creating a House System–both of these conversations started with students taking initiative.
  • I am confident that someone might make a valid suggestion for something I am missing–please leave a comment at the end of the blog.

We need to be aware that just because something is new doesn’t indicate necessarily that it is the better means to the same end. Conversely, the opposite is true as well–just because “we have always done it this way” doesn’t indicate it is necessarily better. I believe schools at times become confused between the means and the ends both in the context of pushing too quickly to change or in the context of fearing any change that might better serve the students in the school. What we might believe is indispensable is at times only the means to an indispensable end, and perhaps there is a better answer to reach that end than we have yet deployed. What this should point out to us is that we need to push ourselves to discern what is best–what might be a better means to the end. Sometimes that means preserving something and other times it means changing it. The end is what should be preserved, while the means might change.

Here are a couple of links to posts that relate to the topic of what should never change:

Ecce Homo: Caravaggio Reveals Jesus’s Humanness

For #TBT (a late one!) this one came quickly back to mind as we had an excellent chapel today for Maundy Thursday.

Ross All Over the Map

[I delivered the following chapel talk at St. George’s Independent School Chapel this morning. I projected the images on a screen behind me. The gospel was from Mark, Chapter 10: 13-16: People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.]

View from the Sacro Monte Di Orta (Photograph by J. Ross Peters) View from the Sacro Monte Di Orta (Photograph by J. Ross Peters)

     “Like a cinematographer, he goes in for the close…

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Taking PROGRESS CULTURE and TWO, FIVE, TEN into the World

I read a blog post from Tracie Mastronicola, Academic Dean at  San Francisco Friends School, over the weekend. Having worked with a small group of faculty members at SFFS over a couple of days in early February regarding creating a process by which they might redesign their daily schedule, I was particularly interested to read her piece entitled, “‘Committing to The Air’: An update on our scheduling process”. It is a lovely piece–one I hope you will read. I love the metaphor in the title. It led me to reflect on my visits to a couple of extraordinarily different, but equally fascinating, schools with whom I had the privilege to spend some time over the last months.

Perhaps once or twice a year I work with leaders and faculty members at independent schools to help them frame out a process for change. Usually these conversations have had to do with daily schedule reinvention; however, while daily schedule change may be the end, I am most interested in the means–a smarter process to hold the ambition of complex schools striving to make impactful change. [At the end of this post I will include a small sampling of links to posts addressing aspects of this topic].

In the last six months I have worked with two schools–Punahou School in Honolulu and San Francisco Friends School. Both experiences have been remarkable and invigorating, and importantly, they each have informed my reflection on my school, St. George’s Independent School where we have used the same framework, and in some cases aspects of it, to guide our key conversations.

I am left with this conclusion: if we are to be able to move our schools with enough finesse and thoughtfulness, as well as move them at a pace that will:

  • preserve the elements of a school and its culture that should never change,
  • allow us to keep up with our evolving understanding of how kids best learn, 
  • and allow us to remain steadfast in a global socio-political environment undergoing stunning progress, as well as unprecedented strains and failures,

we must be willing to change the means by which we try to accomplish change processes.

I do not make the claim that the specific process I help schools work with is the only way to do this; however, it is the way I have found to be most helpful in not only arriving at a great answer for a step forward, but ensuring that a school community is healthier at the end of the process than it was leading into the process. As opposed to the terrible habit of process corrosion that often occurs when large institutions engage a change process, the approach to which I subscribe places becoming healthier as a culture at the center. In fact, becoming healthier as an institutional culture should always be the invisible number THREE of the TWO, FIVE, TEN, meaning it should be one of the non-negotiables in any significant change process.

School Transformation: Becoming a Progress Culture

The Role of Stretching the Rubber Band in a Progress Culture 

Foreshadowing Progress in a School Culture

Differentiating Traditions from Bad Habits

Two, Five, Ten: Guidelines for Establishing the Priorities of a Change Initiative 

Approaching School Days as Architecture: An Idea Revisited 

The Heads’ Letter: Responding to a Changing World

Creating a Progress Culture One Pilot at a Time: An Idea Revisited Through a New Example

           #TBT: Several things I have written for the blog have remained timely in my work as a leader in an independent school. Perhaps none remains as useful as the what I have reposted here for #TBT this week. My thinking about pilot programs remains central to how I believe we can move a large complex institutions forward, while minimizing risk and maximizing potential benefit. The post came back to mind for me this week, as I have been in a couple of conversations with very thoughtful students about the role of service-learning in our school. Without going into the detail, I have been left feeling strongly that schools have largely attempted the impossible by placing service near the center of our claims for the value of the education we provide, while we have not committed either the time or the space to support those claims.
           In short, what is important in a school is what you can find in the actual program, not in what we simply tell students is important. While St. George’s has been doing many things right, it is time to do better. This is where piloting ideas will serve us well. Next school year we will pilot an idea in our schedule that will more fully reflect the priority on service and character education we hold dear in our school. Interestingly, because of our daily schedule, put in place for the 2016-2017 school year, we now have flexibility we didn’t dream of before. The schedule itself has been a remarkable success. Among other things, it allows for a later/healthier start time and for far deeper engagement in the classroom. What we have not yet explored is how it can be a vehicle for the kind of flexibility that will allow us to pursue opportunities beyond traditional academic courses without compromising class contact time. We can do that, and it is time too pilot ideas in order to learn how best to make it happen.
          Because I have not announced the idea to the entire community yet, I will hold off in describing the details, but I will point out that without the focus on the role of pilot programs, we artificially limit our chance to move a school farther, more thoughtfully, and more quickly forward. While reading what I wrote way back in 2012, please use the links to navigate to a more through discussion of each of the bullets. I hope you find my reflection helpful.
FROM 2012: Creating a Pilot Progress Culture One Pilot at a Time
RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 leaving Southampton Water into the Solent. (Photograph: Jim Champion) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:QE2_leaving_southampton_water.jpg 
RMS Titanic (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/RMS_Titanic_3.jpg )

Consider the “Turning the Ocean Liner” metaphor to describe school change. I have described and have heard many people describe changing a school to be like trying to turn the QE2: “it might turn,” we say, “but it will not turn quickly.” My issue with this metaphor is that it implies that everything has to turn slowly and in perfect harmony. We should not feel confined in the same way we would be confined on a ship. Today I am making a pledge to abandon that metaphor (“Abandon Ship!”) as it seems to give us a ready-made excuse for slowing down, or giving up on, priorities we have named as being mission-driven and strategic. The metaphor slows us down because it traps our thinking—it becomes an accurate metaphor because we have chosen to believe it. From now on schools are not big ships. Schools are challenging enough without having them have to be ships as well.

I am not of a mind to mint another metaphor to replace the one I just buried (or better “sank”); instead I am interested in describing an approach to making progress happen in a non-ship metaphor loving school. The accumulation of such steps together will lead to creating sustainable progress cultures, and it will not take long to see larger impact on the school. I want to support a budding culture of piloting ideas, and in a couple of conversations recently my definition of what exactly this means has come into greater focus. Supporting pilots: