Keep the Focus on Learning
“Only half of the students in our school were proficient on last year’s end-of-level test, and our teachers seem satisfied with that!” This was the frustrating observation of a school principal that he shared with me in a recent conversation. My first response to him was that perhaps it’s time to revisit why you exist—to go back to your school’s mission and vision—to revisit the first big idea of a professional learning community: an unwavering focus on student learning.
I’m not entirely sure how it happens, but I have seen some schools over the years lose focus on why they exist. And when they lose focus, they seem to get caught up in the thick of thin things. Educators may still be working very hard, but not focusing on the right work. So what is the right work? It’s the work that has the biggest impact on student learning.
I was first appointed principal in our district’s number one Title I impacted school. Over the eight years I served as principal there, we applied the practices of professional learning communities and transformed student learning at that school. I was then transferred to another Title I school to lead the same transformative process. As part of the process of building shared knowledge about professional learning communities at my new school, we were focusing on curriculum mapping to clearly answer the first critical question in a PLC: What is it we want students to know? When curriculum maps were completed, I met with each grade-level team to review their work. As I met with the third-grade team, I noticed a three-week social studies unit on their map that was labeled “potato people,” so I probed the team for more information. “Tell me about this three-week unit,” I inquired.
The team leader reported that there was a tradition at the school that every year the third-grade team spent three weeks carving potato people in potato villages. Then they invited other students in the school and patrons in the community to come and view their potato villages.
“Hmmm . . . so what third-grade standards does this match?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s not anywhere in the curriculum; it’s a tradition here. The students entering third grade look forward to this activity every year. If we were to stop doing this activity there would be an uproar from the community! Parents and students look forward to this every year.”
I continued to probe. “But what about our unwavering focus on student learning? Can we justify spending three weeks on an activity that does not help students learn the curriculum? Is this the best use of our instructional time?”
The team leader remained stuck in tradition, although it was very clear to the rest of the team that the potato people project was wasted instructional time and needed to go on the “stop doing” list. I finally said to the rest of the team, “Let’s let Mary do one more year of her potato people project because she’s retiring at the end of this year and that will be the end of potato people at our school.” No one else on the team did potato people that year. And amazingly after Mary’s retirement the following year when there were no potato villages at our school, I did not receive one complaint from any parent or student!
Since that experience I have used “potato people” as a metaphor for all the time wasted in schools on meaningless activities or lost instructional time. Unless we carefully examine our instructional activities, our transition times between subjects or classes, and our school schedule--all in terms of an unwavering focus on student learning--we make it possible for potato people to creep into our school day, robbing us of time for valuable student learning opportunities. Five minutes a day lost in transition from one subject to the next, multiplied by five days per week, equals a 25-minute intervention block or an additional 25 minutes for math practice or exploration, or 25 minutes for any one of myriad learning opportunities teachers seek time for when their goal is to help all students master essential standards.
At our school we worked hard to minimize interruptions. Announcements were made at the beginning of each day—not throughout the day over the intercom. If a message needed to go to a teacher during the school day, the office aide delivered a note to the teacher so that instruction in that classroom (or across the entire school) was not interrupted. Assemblies were limited and carefully selected to support learning and strategically scheduled to minimize lost instructional time, especially for literacy and math.
Transitions were evaluated. Teachers collaborated on how best to move students throughout the school, between classes, and from one subject to another. Teachers collaborated on how to efficiently bring students to and from assemblies, to lunch, and from recess—all in an effort to maximize instructional time.
The school schedule was revised and refined to make protected Tier I instructional blocks where all students remain in the classroom, and we scheduled strategic intervention times when no new instruction takes place so that students who have not yet mastered essential standards can receive the extra time and support they need to be successful.
The potato people project from my school is an extreme example, but there are many subtle ways valuable instructional time is lost in schools everywhere. As schools embrace the first big idea of a professional learning community—an unwavering focus on student learning—they carefully examine all of their practices through the lens of learning. Complacency is replaced with a sense of urgency to make necessary changes in the service of increased student learning. When schools recognize “the fundamental purpose of the school is to ensure all students learn at high levels . . . there must be no ambiguity or hedging regarding this commitment to learning, and schools must align all practices, procedures, and policies in light of that fundamental purpose” (DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2008, p. 18). As Rick DuFour often says, this is our moral imperative!
DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R. (2008). Revisiting professional learning communities at work: New insights for improving
schools. Solution Tree: Bloomington, IN.