Almost every piece of educational research on school improvement includes some version of focus, tackling one problem at a time, making a commitment to having a few well-articulated goals and priorities and sticking with them.
The real path to greatness, it turns out, requires simplicity and diligence. It requires clarity, not instant illumination. It demands each of us to focus on what is vital – and to eliminate all of the extraneous distractions. – Jim Collins
It turns out that “focus” is sometimes a difficult thing for us. As educators, we are responsible for so much. We are expected to teach all of the content standards in all subject areas to students at all levels of learning. We teach both language and content to students learning English. We integrate character education, help students learn how to “say no to drugs”, promote anti-bullying campaigns, ensure our students develop patriotism and a sense of civic responsibility… the list goes on and many educators feel overwhelmed with the awesome responsibility of all they have to do.
As educational leaders, it is critical that we help our teams sift through all of this and get crystal clear about our focus. We have all heard the saying that if we try to do too many things, we are not doing any of them well. I have watched this play out on too many occasions throughout my career. We need to identify what matters most. Not only do we have to identify it, but we need to communicate it at every opportunity. Then we need to spend the majority of our time on it. We need to use it to plan what we say and what we do. We need to be the guardians of it. As Stephen Covey so eloquently stated, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”.
A colleague of mine once used this analogy which sticks with me to this day:
When I think about how to focus at my school, it helps me to think about how I clean my house – every room is important and at some point in time needs a little bit of attention. But my kitchen needs to be cleaned every day. After every meal, I put things away, do the dishes and wipe down the table, the counters and the sink. I can almost always put off the dusting or the vacuuming one more day, but my kitchen can never wait until tomorrow.
I have spent a little bit of time recently reflecting on our focus and what I wanted to share with principals as being our most important work for the upcoming school year, so I decided I was going to create a document that clarified it on paper. As I started on this journey, I gave myself three criteria:
- It had to be aligned to work we were already engaged in – no new initiatives
- It could not include any more than 4 areas of focus
- It had to all fit onto one page in an easily accessible and clear format.
I pulled out several documents to assist me as I started down this path: our Board’s goals and priorities, our student achievement plan, our Title III plan, our Program Improvement plan. All in all I reviewed over 100 pages… and I wanted to get it onto one!
This was NOT an easy task, but it was a critical one – it forced me to think about every aspect of our work and its impact on student learning. It forced me to have to think about the connections between different pieces of our work and to make decisions about where a piece of work “fit”. Should technology be its own focus or should it be something we use to help us achieve a different focus? It also caused me to think about what we might need to stop doing.
It took me several hours over several days, several drafts and multiple versions of a “one-page” document, but I think I finally have something. It may not be as “visual” as I would like it to be – I always admire great infographics, fancy charts and organizers – but it is done and it makes sense, and I believe it captures the voices of many people in our organization.
I cannot emphasize enough how important this exercise has been for me as an educational leader. Not only do I now have more clarity and focus, but I am able to clearly share it with others. I have something simple in my hands that I can use to make most of the decisions I make every day in my role. I know what type of data I want to collect and review, and I know what types of data and products I will be asking principals to share with me. I know what I will be looking for to highlight and celebrate, and I know what types of questions I will be asking when I visit school sites and classrooms. I know the types of books and articles I want us to read and learn from as leaders of this work, and I know how I want to support my team. I know what I want to say “yes” to and what I can easily say “no” to. I also know that I will be a better learner and a better leader because I have gained greater clarity about our most important work. I am energized about the work I will be doing with my team this year, and I am positive this was an important step in helping move our system from being good to being great!
You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically, to say “no” to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside. The enemy of the “best” is often the “good. – Stephen Covey
If you haven’t done so already, I encourage all of you in my PLN to try the same exercise… What’s on YOUR one page?