Are you doing the important work?

Screen Shot 2019-09-12 at 5.28.32 PMThis article first appeared in the PASA September Newsletter.

Open houses… football games and fall sports….brightly waxed floors…picture day…the familiar sight of the gleaming yellow school buses. It is official! Our 2019-20 school year is underway.

What opportunities lie ahead for us this year? How will we release agency to our leaders and learners? How will we impact the work in our buildings? How will we create the conditions for innovation?

First, let’s think about the work we do on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis? What are the long-term goals you hope to achieve this year? Beyond the duties in your job description, what is your important work?

For our leaders in Salisbury Township School District, the superintendent (Randy Ziegenfuss, Ed.D.) and I have identified the important work of moving forward to realize our community’s vision. We utilized a collaborative visioning process to develop a clear district-wide vision which includes our Profile of a Graduate and Learning Beliefs. Our Profile of a Graduate clearly articulates the knowledge, skills, and dispositions Salisbury’s community desires for its learners when they leave Salisbury to pursue their future aspirations. In order for learners to develop this knowledge, skills, and dispositions, we need to shift our thinking about learning. We articulated clear Learning Beliefs which are organized around the 5-pillar “north star” developed by Education Reimagined in their white paper, A Transformational Vision for Education in the US. We need to ensure our classrooms are learner-centered, and the learning experiences are aligned to our beliefs about learning. This is heavy lifting and requires significant instructional leadership, which can be difficult for our building leaders.

Our building and department leaders manage significant operational and human resource responsibilities on a daily basis. How can they (and we) continue to make time for the important work while the urgent work is forever competing for our attention? What do I mean by urgent work? Each community, building, and department has its own contextualized urgent work – testing, parent concerns, discipline issues, facility issues, employee challenges, etc. There are so many issues which need our attention on a daily basis. It would be easy for any of us to get stuck in our office all day. We could be busy and productive with phone calls, emails, etc… But, we may not be getting to the important work.

Have you read the Poke the Box? In the book, Seth Godin asks, when was the last time you did something for the first time? He encourages us to commit to make something happen. What are you curious about in your role? How can pursuing your curiosity result in the production of something that is “scarce”? Godin encourages us to take initiative and innovate at every level in every department. This is important work. This is the work which will help us move forward to realize our vision. (Learn more about the book through an interview with Seth at

One example of producing something scarce at our middle school is Project Wonder. The building principal (Ken Parliman) and Director of Teaching and Learning (Kelly Pauling) have collaborated with two highly motivated and learner-centered teachers to build a school within a school for learners in grades 6 and 7. These teachers are re-thinking everything about school – teaching and learning, assessment/grading/feedback, how to personalize content while meeting PA state standards, student-led conferences, personal learning profiles, etc. This is heavy lifting, and these teachers are doing this important work with the support of the building and district leadership. The leaders have created the conditions for this innovation and released the agency to these teachers. Not only are they carving out time, but they sit at the table alongside these teachers as they experience productive struggle. They work to keep the flame burning while celebrating the risk-taking and successes as much as they celebrate the failures. This is certainly no easy task when these busy leaders have many competing priorities.

How will you create the conditions for your staff members – teachers, leaders, etc. to innovate? What is “allowed” and “not allowed” in your organization? Godin proffers most employees can give a long list of things they are not allowed to do, but may not be able to articulate what is allowed. Are you and your leaders allowed to spend all of your time on urgent work? Do you expect more from each other? If you expect more, what structures can you put in place to encourage this practice? This year, we are developing an action research cohort. We are allocating professional learning time to a group of teachers who want to take a look at a problem of practice and implement a solution. This cohort of teachers will come together multiple times this year for a pull-out professional learning, facilitated by our Director of Teaching and Learning – Kelly Pauling – Randy, and me. Using a mentor text, The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Classroom Research, these teachers will complete an inquiry project in which they identify a problem of practice, brainstorm, implement, and iterate solutions and tell the story of what was learned. Throughout the process, we will encourage risk-taking and failure!

How will you promote risk-taking and celebrate failures with the same joy in which you celebrate successes? As a leader, how do you challenge people to step outside of their current structures? What structures or opportunities do you have in place?


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