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.


Image from:

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.

Inspiration Ratio: How Do We Sustain the Love of Learning?

Going through the pictures on my phone, I ran across one photo that deserves a little blogging:


About a year ago, I entered my office area’s common space to see the words above written on a piece of chart paper.  Distinguishing the handwriting, I could tell it was a note from our superintendent.  While the statement caught my attention, any more specificity in detail escaped me at the time.  Thankfully, she was able to clarify her note to my teammates and me later that day.

What is an Inspiration Ratio?

“How many teachers does it take,” she asked, “to sustain the passion, the joy, the love of learning for a student, PK-12?”  She went on to define the concept of an “Inspiration Ratio,” a personal “valuation” of one’s educational path.  To find it, each of us must first remember our own PK-12 academic career, and put ourselves back into the role of student.  Then, by using the total number of teachers that worked with each of us as the denominator, and the “inspirational teachers” that stoked our passion for learning as a numerator, each learner can calculate his or her own Inspiration Ratio.  The “1/27” was not a date or a location, she explained, but a sample Inspiration Ratio: of her 27 teachers over her PK-12 student career, she distinctly remembered one who inspired her to see true joy in learning.  What’s interesting, she noted, is that while only one of these 27 teachers had spurred on this excitement for lifelong learning, for her, it only took one (thereby displaying the power of just one teacher).  She then challenged each of us to consider our own Inspiration Ratios, the impact that our teachers had on our current path, and the students for whom we may be that one teacher.

My own Inspiration Ratio

Since that afternoon, I have done several different back of the envelope calculations of my own Inspiration Ratio, as I am sure you are thinking about doing right now.  While I find a slightly different value each time, the level of engagement I feel while walking through the footsteps of my own learning path is the same.  In an instant, I am back in those hallways, seeing every assignment and hearing every verbal exchange anew.  I furrow my brow with the design challenge of a real-world experiment that has dozens of “right” answers.  I pour my soul onto the practice floor to earn back the spot in the basketball team’s starting five.  I panic as I stand before a room full of underclassmen I have never met, preparing to recite the first words of Phillip Larkin’s “A Study of Reading Habits.”  Back in those adolescent shoes- but through these adult eyes- I start a list of all of those teachers that have ever worked with me in school, and consider the impact that they have had on my life.  (P.S. If it strikes you to move away from your browser or RSS reader and make your own list now, please do so by all means.  This is a static text, after all – it will still be here when you return. Just promise to come back!)

In calculating my own Inspiration Ratio, I’m struck by how in minutes, I can remember the name of 71 teachers that I worked with over my PK-12 academic career.  Without too much challenge, I even recall those high school days right down to each year’s 7-period class schedule!  Within this 13-year timeframe, I count 17 distinct teachers who I remember as having a direct impact on my passion for lifelong learning, giving me an Inspiration Ratio of 17/71.  In other words, of all of the teachers that worked with me as a student, I consider 25% of them as having directly inspired me to sustain a love of learning.

Of my 71 teachers, what do I remember most about those 17?  They did not give me a voice- they allowed me to find my own.  They did not push me- they presented me with opportunities for growth that were both challenging and attainable, and just as I thought I had reached as far as I could, they encouraged me to reach farther.  They did not tell me that I did a “good job” in my learning- they instead celebrated my desire, as one teacher put it, “to learn just because the world is there, waiting to be understood.”  In short, even in the shortest of conversations, I felt that they built a relationship with me, and engaged me as a learner.  Each of those moments live on forever as I carry these teachers with me- long after they have “finished the job” of teaching my class, they continue to help me grow toward continuous improvement.

I wonder often which, if any, of my former students would have listed me as one of the teachers in their Inspiration Ratio’s numerator.  Even as I consider the question of how I might have inspired them, however, I am reminded of how they are the ones who inspire me.  My students and my teammates give me the drive to put in the necessary time and energy to keep growing, and they make it feel as natural as breathing.  Without that inspiration, I know I would have been driven from this profession long ago.  It dawns on me that this process of sustaining a love of learning is a cyclical system, a reinforcing feedback loop that Senge would label as having a snowball effect.  So long as each of us seeks to inspire the love of learning in those around us, we will continue to be inspired by the passion of those around us.

Organizational connection

In Good to Great, Jim Collins writes about the importance of identifying “what drives [our] resource engine.”  He challenges organizations to seek out those ratios have the greatest impact on economic growth.  (For example, in the business world, finding the “unit-x” that best fits a “profit-per-unit-x” ratio can help greatly to clarify their mission with pinpoint precision.)  In the social sectors, however, finding the right resources to consider within the ratio is more important then finding the right “unit x” for the denominator (since it’s a given that profit isn’t exactly something educators seek).  Since teachers have such a profound effect on student learning, and the “ultimate goal” for our profession is to inspire lifelong learning, could the Inspiration Ratio somehow fit as a step in defining our resource engine?  In other words, do we ask ourselves this question enough: “What effect will this decision have on our abilities and opportunities to inspire lifelong learning?”

Just imagine the concept using the love of learning as a guide for each of our decisions as educators, with the ultimate purpose of getting every student’s Inspiration Ratio closer to 100%…is it possible that the answer could be that simple?

Striving for the Wisdom to Know the Difference

Each week (on Tuesdays around 7pm), I look forward to tuning into #edchat on Twitter, where educators around the world get together to “put their thoughts out there” on a common topic.  Tonight’s #edchat topic: “Where should we place our efforts for educational reform? What is most/least important?”  As much as I look forward to sharing my thoughts, I feel most interested in the opportunity to learn from what I hear – my intention is usually to take these tweeters’ disparate 140-character snippets and listen for the trends that emerge so as to help me learn.

Unfortunately, I left tonight’s #edchat feeling angry and frustrated, my back and shoulders tied in knots.  I had spent 2+ hours considering a myriad of posts that all addressed a different aspect of ed reform, most often focused on blaming ‘those responsible’ for propagating such a system.  Meanwhile, I spent my time with responses that kept a pretty common theme (edited to remove names & abbreviations in cases other than re-tweets):

  • I took poetic license to make an I-statement RT @spedteacher: If students don’t pay attention, I must stop blaming them & start looking at what I’m doing
  • It’s the only place to start- the only thing I have the power to change is me. 😉
  • We are ‘them.’ We are a part of the system. If I wish the system to change, how will I change?…In other words, what will I do tomorrow as a response to what I’ve learned today?
  • RT @pvil One big change is a teacher’s change- from shepherd to browser, from area specialist to education specialist
  • It makes me think- “if not everyone spends time changing and adjusting from what they learn, and I feel as if it is a problem that they do not make this a habit, then what will I do differently tomorrow?”
  • I agree, and note that changing how we view ourselves is not just the quickest way to reform, it’s the only way…as we are all members of the ed system. All each of us can change is our own response to our surroundings…with the hope that each change we undergo evokes an opportunity for a different response by those around us.

Exasperated at the discrepancy I felt between my own philosophy and that which I was hearing, I finally put down TweetDeck and took a moment to reflect in my now infamous Moleskine (my 4th since starting this job last June), writing a short narrative that in retrospect reminds me in concept of the Serenity Prayer: 

“I cannot change others.  I can only change my response to my environment.  If I don’t see the environment I wish to see, I must ask, ‘What in my response am I willing to change, and how do I think that change might affect my environment?’ If I decide that I am not willing to make that change in my own response, how do I let go?”

The irony of my frustration hit me like a ton of bricks, and simultaneously released the tension in my shoulders and back: I had to let go of my frustration in trying to change others’ thinking, shut down the computer for the night, and decide on a new response tomorrow.  

Sometimes, maybe we should all apply our own advice to others to our own practice…I bet we would get some interesting ideas for next steps.

More Wisdom from Pop Culture – Let’s Build a Filter

In my work, I’ve often reverted to analogies between any current situation and something I have seen or heard elsewhere in pop culture, in that I feel I can learn a lot about ‘what to do’ through the comparison.  As a physics teacher, I frequently referenced one specific scene from Apollo 13 with my students as an exemplar in the problem-solving process.  Now, in a different role in school administration, I look back on this example as equally important to remember in helping to organize a system.  (I’ve edited the video in this link using Splicd to include only those 30 seconds that apply to the blog.)

“Those CO2 levels are going to be toxic.”  The team member starts out by recognizing a problem, and stating it clearly for everyone else on the team to hear.  Prior to this section, the rest of the team has laid out each of these challenges that they have recognized in developing a solution to this problem.

“Well, I suggest you gentlemen invent a way to put a square peg in a round hole…rapidly.” The organizational leader has responded to the problem at hand with a goal for the team- a goal that has all of the characteristics of a SMART goal.  It’s specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely…all in 15 words.

The team dumps all of their assets out on the table.  Team Leader: “We’ve gotta find a way to make this [square filter] fit into the hole for this [round filter] using nothing but that [stuff on the table].” One of my favorite parts of this scene, the NASA team has collected everything available to the astronauts out in space and put it out on the table.  In physics problem-solving, we called that action, “Listing our givens,” or being really clear about what we know, and what tools we have available to us. Too often, I notice groups focusing all of their time on those first two steps above (identifying challenges and articulating a goal) without acknowledging the current state of “what we’ve got available to us.”

Team member: “Let’s get it organized.”  This one ‘throw-away’ line is my FAVORITE part of the entire scene, in that I think it is the most crucial for the team’s success.  There are myriads of ways to use this ‘stuff’ that the team has laid out on the table, but those pieces won’t necessarily do the team any good until they have been able to ‘see everything that they have.’  

More importantly, each of these assets is currently on the space shuttle because it was made to serve a specific purpose.  The team is going to have to ‘think differently’ about the stuff if they will be of any use in this re-purpose.  At any organizational crossroads, most of the assets available in the ‘current state’ currently serve a completely different purpose than that which they might be used for in the future, and it might be more important to use this asset to respond to the immediate challenge.  Being clear about the implications of any given change keeps the team thinking ‘big-picture’ while building a solution.

I’m always looking to learn: What are your ‘Words of Wisdom from Pop Culture?’  When have you learned something new about the problem-solving process by seeing someone else go through it on screen?  Feel free to share through comment below.