Susan Huff

Susan Huff, EdD, has retired as principal of Spanish Oaks Elementary School in Utah after 34 years in public education. Previously, she was principal of Santaquin Elementary and Westside Elementary.

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.           


Kiley Koenig

This is a fantastic article!! There is so much information here for teachers to learn. It really made me think about how much time I really spend on the curriculum versus transition times. I also like the idea of minimizing school announcements and delivering messages to the classroom.

I would like for my school to apply the practices of a Professional Learning Community to transform our school. We need to revisit our mission and vision statements and focus more on what students are learning. We need to focus on our curriculum maps and ask ourselves what we want our students to learn. We then need to get rid of the "potato people" and use our students' time more wisely. We need to think about how important our students are and set learning goals. Teachers also need to set goals for their curriculum.

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Brooke Lewis

Hello Susan,

I found this blog very thought provoking as you addressed some of my concerns within my own school at the moment. I've been teaching in an Indiana school for 3 years and a concern I have, as well as my co-workers, is our school's focus. Our school, like the one you mentioned in this blog, makes every effort to minimize transition time throughout the day so that instructional time can be maximized. However, there are 2 major concerns with our focus on learning:

1. Our principal plans many convocations that are not educational and take away our teaching time.
2. Our state assessments are unreliable at the moment. They keep changing and it feels we are being encouraged to teach to the test on a specific time frame.

As teachers this can be frustrating, feeling that our student's learning time is not as important as "fun" rallies. Nor is it more important than exposing them to all of the content that will be on the state test, whether they understand it or not. We are rushed through curriculum just for exposure rather than proficiency.

What are your thoughts and advice about these issues?

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Katherine Nicholson

I truly enjoyed reading your post. I find it very intriguing to hear the thoughts of principals. I'm interested in hearing just exactly you were able to turn transformation schools into to successful schools. I feel at my school I work hard at making sure that I stick to my strict agenda so that little time is wasted. I worry constantly about my students' success and data. I try my hardest to be the best teacher that I can be, and provide instruction that is critical and meaningful to my students. Sometimes, however, instances feel unavoidable in interrupting it feels. I'm curious how your school turned things around for the positive? As a teacher, I feel I'm giving my all but it's never good enough, especially since no changes appear to be visible at this time. What do I do to make a difference, and truly turn my students around for the better?

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Lora Sweeney

Hi Susan,

I enjoyed reading your blog and was inspired by your sense of urgency to maximize every second of the school day. I teach first grade in a Title 1 school in northeast Indiana. You made me think about how becoming “lax” in one area can really snowball into missed opportunities for learning throughout the day and week. Transitions have always been something I have struggled with in my classroom. In your years of experience, what kinds of strategies have teachers in your district used to transition students from one activity to the next inside the classroom? I know that I need my transitions to go faster, and I am looking for ideas that I can try out at the get-go for next school year.
I loved how you talked about “potato people” and how you used this metaphor to encourage teachers to look closely at their teaching practices to “get rid” of their own “potato people”. You really got me asking myself, “What are my “potato people”? How can I encourage others on my grade-level team to let go of their “potato people”?” Doing what is familiar and comfortable to us is easy. However, we must be able to let go and try new things in order to grow as educators. Another question your post has me asking is, “How can I create activities that students and parents love (like the potato people) that are still centered on our learning goals and objectives?” Thank you for the important reminder that we must maximize every second we have in the classroom for learning and student growth.

Lora S.

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Nicole Mackie

This is a great article. Thank you for sharing! I love the "potato people" metaphor. Three weeks is a long time to keep up traditions! Did it originate from something in the curriculum?

In my context, I teach ESL to adults who travel here to learn English and enjoy Toronto. I am always aware of maximizing their time in class because they only have 3 hours a day with me and they have paid quite a lot of money to be here. I remind myself to think like my students. If I were to use all of my savings on a course and each day we wasted 10 minutes before or after class, in two weeks that would equal almost half of a three hour class. The time really does add up and it is important to remember the goals of the students, class, and school.

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