Janel Keating

Janel Keating is deputy superintendent of the White River School District in Washington. She has been an elementary and middle school teacher, an elementary principal, and a director of student learning.

Sustaining a Sense of Urgency

“When people have a true sense of urgency, they think that action on critical issues is needed now, not eventually, not when it fits easily into a schedule. Now means real progress every single day. Critically important means challenges that are central to success or survival, winning or losing.”
—Kotter, A Sense of Urgency (2008), p. 7

Improving student learning day in and day out, year in and year out is a difficult, complex, and incremental journey. The journey is one of continuous improvement and one that never ends, and a journey with two distinct critical hazards that must be successfully navigated. And in both cases, successful navigation requires strong, dispersed leadership.

The first hurdle is successfully getting started and experiencing some initial small wins. The second, and in some ways the more difficult of the two, involves living with success, dealing with complacency, and sustaining a sense of urgency over time. How can we keep a districtwide commitment to continuous improvement alive and well over the long haul—especially after experiencing a period of initial success? The difficult challenge is not allowing the district to succumb to a culture of complacency. I offer three suggestions.

First, continue to drill deeper into the work of each team—task by task—and the learning of each student skill by skill. A key to maintaining a culture of continuous improvement is for leaders to keep pushing for greater precision and specificity. If we keep drilling deeper, becoming more precise in our work, we can incrementally keep getting better. I recently read a column written in November of 2011 by Jerry Brewer in the Seattle Times about the University of Washington volleyball coach, Jim McLaughlin. Even though the team was 15-1, Coach McLaughlin changed their system. Why? Because he was committed to getting better. You see, like Coach McLaughlin, our emphasis as school leaders should be simple—a razor-sharp focus on getting better.

And, getting better requires a persistent, focused collaborative analysis of student learning data along with the monitoring of the work of each individual team. Brewer pointed out that Coach McLaughlin didn’t change everything. He emphasized the fact that Coach McLaughlin is a data guru—constantly making focused changes as the result of exacting analysis of what was taking place during games—point by point, position by position.

Second, we must acknowledge the power of recognizing and celebrating small wins. In their recent book, Cultures Built to Last (2013), Richard DuFour and Michael Fullan remind us that “the most consistent finding of those who have examined the question of how systems and organizations sustain continuous improvement comes down to this: proactively create, identify, and celebrate small wins” (p. 74). In other words, leaders must move beyond the obvious fact that people need to feel appreciated; leaders must plan for the public recognition and celebration of students and adults, both individuals and groups, when improvement occurs and a job is done well.

Last, view continuous improvement through the lens of your own child. The effective school researcher Ron Edmonds frequently asked how many schools it would take to convince us that we can, when we choose effectively, educate all students regardless of background or socioeconomic status. His answer was that it should only take one. A corollary question might be: how many failing students would it take for a school or school district to feel a sense of urgency—the need to do something that will make a difference? Again, the answer should be one. Most of us would agree with this—especially if that one student was our own child! Even though we work to create a research-based, data-driven culture, we must continually send reminders that every one of our students is someone’s child.

As district, school, team, and classroom leaders, we should recommit each year to rekindle our intense and passionate focus on the learning of every student, and to do this in a collaborative culture, enhancing the quality of the work of our teams. Teams must continually drill deeper into clarifying what students should learn, the monitoring of student learning, and the quality of student work every step along the way. And importantly, we must continually sharpen and improve how students who struggle receive focused and effective additional time and support. We must also continually improve how we extend the learning of students who demonstrate proficiency. We must do everything we can think of to ensure that every student is safe—both physically and emotionally—every day. And, we must strive to make every student feel special—because they are! We must improve the ways in which we partner with parents and work tirelessly to enhance the support and trust of the larger community. We must continue our PLC journey and do these things because they are the right things to do!

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