Bitten by the School Improvement Bug

How much can we learn about school improvement by paying a little attention to something completely unrelated to school improvement?  Let’s find out…

I was sitting on my porch this evening, doing a little of the three R’s – ‘riting, reading, reflecting (sorry, math folks…no ‘rithmetic this time) when I noticed a minor annoyance.  Pesky mosquitos slowly buzzed their way onto my legs, as they are wont to do on a balmy evening in central Virginia.  At least, I assumed there were mosquitos, as I did not see or hear any of them.  All I had to show from their visit were a couple of red bumps on my calves.  Bumps that slowly started to itch.  And itch.  And itch.

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Image from: http://www.how-to-draw-funny-cartoons.com/

While I started to scratch my leg to relieve the uncomfortable sensation, I knew that I had found a problem: I needed to stop these bugs from biting me.

As I continued to write, I became more aware of the mosquitos in my surroundings.  I saw a few flying around the porch, and would periodically notice one land on my leg.  That sense of awareness was of course followed by a quick and thorough intervention: with one swift smack, the couple of bugs I caught lay dead at my feet.  While I may end up with a slight bruise at some point (as I think I was a little overzealous with my slaps), “crisis” had been averted.  

Unfortunately, I was not able to catch all of the bugs in this way: before I knew it, two more bite marks surfaced on my legs.  

It would have been easy enough to go inside for my 3R’s time, but I was a little hellbent on enjoying the evening air.  I realized I needed a new plan.  I remembered that we had some Off! spray in the house, and decided to go in and make use of it.  At the same time, I noticed one of our citronella candles next to me, and realized that lighting the candle may help.  Walking inside, I grabbed the bottle of Off! and a box of matches.  After spraying my legs and arms, I proceeded to light the candle and bring it next to my spot of intended repose.

Hopefully, I thought, this plan will work.  How will I know it worked?  Well, for starters, I’ll end up without any new welt marks as a result of these bug bites.

Sure enough, over the next twenty minutes, I was not bitten by a single additional mosquito.  As dusk approached, I celebrated in my success, blew out the candle, and headed inside.

But What Does It All Mean, Basil?

Naturally, I went to my “organizational change” place and put this situation into that context: how would this situation have been written using the language of school improvement?

  • GOAL: Stop these bugs from biting me.
  • KPI: Number of mosquito bites on my legs and arms
  • STRATEGY 1: Kill the bugs by slapping them as they reach my legs.  (This was not successful.)
  • STRATEGY 2: Repel the bugs by lighting a citronella candle and spraying Off! on my legs.  (Success!)

What can we learn by focusing on such a mundane event?

What first jumps out at me is the relationship between my goal, my indicator of success, and my strategies.  While it seems like it goes without saying, I arrived at the goal before deciding on the strategies- the strategies then arose naturally as a response to the problem needing to be addressed.  In instances of planning for school improvement, how often do we fix our eyes on an appealing strategy without considering whether or not it addresses our needs?  Doing so is just would like saying, “Hey, I have a can of Off!  Let’s spray it!”

Secondly, while my strategy did change mid-stream, my goals did not, and neither did my indicators of successful goal attainment.  In my mind, indicators are inextricably tied to the goals: they are the measure of progression toward reaching a goal, and would not change just because the strategy has shifted.  It makes me wonder, how often do we change our indicators based on a shift in strategy?

Admittedly, I did not do a very good job of isolating my strategies.  In the future, I have no idea which strategy was helpful in repeling the mosquitos: the candle or the Off! spray.  At this point, all I know is that to avoid being bitten, I should use both the candle and the Off! spray.  In that sense, how often do we combine multiple strategies in our plans for improvement to the extent that we would be unsure of how to replicate success?

Finally, part of the success of this “plan” was rethinking the implementation strategy.  My first response had been to consider ways of killing the bugs.  Had I continued down that path, I may have ended up with a flyswatter in place of the candle, or a fumigator in place of the Off!  Instead, by rethinking the strategy from “exterminate” to “repel”, I came to a solution that was helpful.  If I wanted a long-term solution in this realm, I could always screen in the porch or something (though I had neither the time, expertise, or desire to do so this evening).  There were a myriad of other options, each of which may have been just as effective in achieving my goal.  The question is, of all the responses I could have, which of these strategies best fits this moment in time, for this situation?

Hope this post is neither too simplistic nor too esoteric- just thought I would share a couple musings around school improvement from a guy who is now in desperate search of some Bactine.

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