Mary Hendricks-Harris

Mary Hendricks-Harris is chief academic officer for the Francis Howell School District in Missouri. With more than 20 years of experience, Mary has been a special education teacher, director of special education, and director of assessment.

Getting Better at Getting Better

As I paid visits to schools at the beginning of this year, a teacher sent a question through the principal, “ask her when we are going to be good enough”. I knew the question came from a place of frustration: more new standards, another change in assessments, new technology, and other national, state, and district demands. Yet, the question itself took me by surprise. I had thought the principle of continuous improvement was ingrained in who we are; that all staff understood this was one of our district’s core beliefs. As I reflected on this disconnect, my mind shifted to other gaps in our practices. We have been proud of the fidelity to PLC practices, and as a district, we need to commit to continuous improvement in every area. I think there are a few areas, based on my visits that require further focus:

  1. We need to find a way to teach new staff about PLC fundamentals. Baptism by fire doesn’t work. Dedicated time and focused learning must be part of our district induction process. Many of our administrators and some of our newer teachers have been through comprehensive professional development, but not everyone and not consistently. Not good enough.
  2. Celebrating is part of who we are; this needs to be balanced with direct communication about opportunities for improvement paired with reminders that until all of our students are meeting standards, we have not achieved our mission.
  3. Data is important, and teams should stay focused on answering the question, “How will I know students have learned?” . I see many teams spending time discussing bad tests, ill-designed test questions, and attending to one particular item on one assessment. Ultimately, the team needs to determine if students have mastered priority standards. This decision should not be based on one single data point; so move past the bad question. Admiring data does not move students forward. Successful teams use informal formative data, protocols for data discussions and move quickly on to discussions about changes to instruction and developing interventions.

While I am sure there are many other areas on which we could focus, these seem prevalent for us. As I speak with others in other districts, these seem to be recurring themes. In the coming months, we will be asking administrators in every building to develop a plan for PLC initiation to include explicit professional learning in this area. As we begin our strategic planning process, we will revisit and recommit to our mission and all kids. Building administrators will support teachers in using data protocols and communicate the need to identify instructional improvements and interventions more quickly. Learning communities spend time reflecting and learning before changing practices. Reflecting on our current reality and identifying opportunities for improvement are vital steps in being a successful district, school, and teacher.


George Andrikokus

"How will we know students have learned?" to me is the corner-stone. You want to improve? Focusing here will allow us to develop our craft, our instructional practice and ultimately, it will lead to greater student outcomes. Providing students meaningful ways to demonstrate knowledge that they can connect to is also crucial.

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Mary Hendricks-Harris

I'm with Ray- progress is the goal. Celebration along the needs to become part of who we are, especially in challenging times. The "constant chasing" can wear us down. In highly functioning teams, all members own making celebration a priority, but it can easily fall to the wayside. I also have seen great teams help each other prioritize and streamline their work. We are doing great things, and we can do even better.

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Abbie Spitznagle

This is a common thing I hear within our buildings as well. Many of our teachers do not feel that they are good enough, and never will be good enough. I think it is part of human nature. Humans require a lot of positive reinforcement. In a negative world regarding educators, I think it is important to constantly thank and support those who do good. Our administrators are a little on the tough love side and rarely do this. I think it makes a lot of teachers feel not valued or appreciated. A sincere compliment or thank you would go a long ways with those individuals I believe.

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Raymond Singletary

Thank you Mary Hendricks-Harris for sharing your story. I appreciate the title of getting better at getting better. If we look at the people in history that are considered great (Steve Jobs, Maya Angelou, JFK, MLK, etc..), these people continued to strive to make things better not only for themselves, but for the world.

In my opinion, that idea of getting better is a foundational idea of teaching and learning, especially learning. I can acknowledge the frustration of not feeling valued. The thought of being told that we can always improve doesn't feel good, however my greatest joy in life is noticing improvement in my skills and abilities.

The most challenging aspect of teaching is that things are changing constantly, so if we are not growing we will not be relevant. Progress is the goal.

Ray Singletary


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Mary Anderson

I totally get the issue the teacher wanted to question. It is a question that many educators have and it is one that is so difficult to answer. At my school, we were just awarded an "A" for our state testing. However, nothing was ever celebrated. The teachers felt very discouraged and that their hard work did not matter. While I think all of the teachers need to be on board to learn PLC fundamentals, so do the administrators.

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sloan castator

As a teacher I understand where the frustrations may have come to the one who asked that question. I know I've spoken with many fellow teachers after staff meetings and we've asked that same question. We work so hard to get the students to meet the requirements and deadlines as needed. If a moment isn't taken where there is a celebration of those accomplishments. Then you feel as if it wasn't meaningful because you're just hounded with another requirement and it starts to feel as if you're constantly chasing yourself and never really getting anywhere.

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