Jonathan G. Vander Els

Jonathan G. Vander Els specializes in supporting teachers and administrators in schools and districts across the country in developing, sustaining, and enhancing structures to support all learners.

What is Your Why?

Many efforts at school improvement have been stymied despite the best intentions of those involved. Once schools are in the thick of things, and the change efforts schools are engaged in begin to inevitably face challenges and the initial excitement begins to wane, schools will be faced with a decision. Do we continue to push forward, despite the difficulties we are facing, or do we go back to what we have always done and what is, in many ways, easier?

As a school principal, I was prepared for the “implementation dip.” I remember clearly listening to Dr. Rick DuFour discuss how (and when) it would happen. Sure enough, our school faced this implementation dip around 5–6 months into a substantial change that we had collectively initiated. We were beginning to utilize professional learning community structures in our school to work collaboratively, provide students with a tiered system of interventions and extensions, and focus our efforts on issues directly related to student learning, rather than adult-centered issues.

But, as many of you know, this work is not easy. The level of communication required to collaborate effectively is difficult. And the level of trust required to do this well takes time. We had neither the experience nor the depth of trust within our working relationships necessary to do this work seamlessly, and therefore, we struggled.

I remember clearly sitting in my office prior to a meeting with all staff, understanding that we had to have open conversations about these difficulties, because if we ignored them, like so many do, our original intent in making these changes would falter, and ultimately, our efforts would fail. I began the discussion by recognizing that meeting the needs of all learners is tremendously challenging, but that it was important to talk about what specifically these challenges were. The answers varied, but revolved mostly around the time needed to do this effectively, the level of communication and collaboration needed to successfully support the needs of all students, and the difficulty in formatively assessing students, with very different needs, in a way that was manageable.

I listened, and didn’t attempt to offer “answers,” but ultimately asked our staff two questions:

  1. Why did we decide to undertake this change in the first place?
  2. Can we ever go back to doing things the way we were doing them before, knowing what we know now?

The first question spoke to the lengthy discussions we had when we started our PLC work. We asked questions like, “What is it we want for all students?” and “Do we believe all students can learn at high levels?” As a staff, we worked through these questions and came to consensus on what this meant to us as a staff. We developed a vision and mission that helped us to develop norms and create SMART goals that would support our “why.” The results of these conversations became our guiding North Star.

Staff were able to recall and revisit the vision for learning we had articulated the summer before, and it seemed to get us back on course. Additionally, the answer to the second question (Can we ever go back…) was a resounding “no”. Everyone agreed that to do so would be “educational malpractice.”

Eventually, one teacher stood up and said, “I don’t know if this is going to work, but I’m going to do everything I can to help make it work.” I responded to her that this was all any of us could ask. That same teacher stood up four months later, after we had pushed through this implementation dip (it would not be the only time we faced significant challenges), and after seeing the improvement her students had made, and said, “This is the best thing we ever could have done as a school for our students.” We were on our way.

Upon reflection, I think about the importance of clearly articulating the “why.” If we had not done that as a staff, it would have been very difficult to put the challenges we were facing in perspective. In my work with schools across the country, I stress the importance of ensuring that the “why” is clear to all, so that when the inevitable challenges we face in our schools rear themselves, we are able to remember precisely why we recognized the need to change in the first place. It begins, and ends, with meeting the learning needs of every single student that comes into our classrooms.


Jessica M

I love your insight into "implementation dip" from an administrator's perspective. I teach middle school and we have been working over the last year or so to integrate PBIS/Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports. We have a PBIS team who worked to develop a system of positive behavior expectations and rewards and rolled out the program in the spring of last year. Unfortunately, we have faced two major "implementation dips" so far and the students see it as a joke.

It's so important for us to ask ourselves questions about any initiative we begin school-wide and district-wide to be sure we're doing it for the right reasons. Usually, we are. I feel that making sure students know why we initiate a program is so important and I'm not sure that my district did that. I think that if students knew why we were working so hard to improve behavior and reward positive actions as much as, if not more than, punishing undesirable behavior, they might see the value of the PBIS initiative.

I would love to pose the question to our PLC to see what we can do to help students see that going back to the behavior system we had before (which was just punishment with no positive acknowledgement) would be counterproductive to encouraging positive behavior. I think students need to better understand that PBIS is not just turning in tickets for prizes but a way that we can improve our school community.
Thanks for your thoughts and for sparking some reflection!

Posted on

Laura Helms

Yes! Doesn't this always seem to happen? It's like when you start a new exercise routine or a diet - you're excited; you're ready! Then there's a Super Bowl party or it gets too cold to run outside and the excuses begin to flow. I know my school district is not alone that we start new program to fix [fill in generic problem here], and within a few months, it is never heard of again.

I think one of the biggest, if not the biggest, indicators of how well a change will hold up for the long haul is staff (and student) buy in. Does your faculty wholeheartedly support the change? A slump seems inevitable, but staff buy-in to your "why" is key to overcoming and persevering to best practice instruction.

Thank you for the heads up about this period of decline. Our school is getting ready to go through another large implementation, and so knowing what challenges might lie ahead can help us better prepare to make our changes last.

Posted on

Laura Williams

Three years ago, my school went one to one with Chromebooks. The initial excitement was contagious, and I was all on board for the change. In fact, I was a part of the digital committee and spent a number of hours attending webinars to get ready for the implementation and several afternoons at school creating a video and signs for the launch. Then the school year started. And it kind of went down hill from there. I believe that when we approached our "implementation dip" there was no one to pull us out of it. There was no reflection of "Why" during the initial implementation nor was it addressed when we reached the dip. Now, we are just stagnant, and a little (a lot) bitter. To be honest, I "broke up" with my Chromebook in January. It sits in my dining room on the charger, only to be used in dire circumstances.

My school is not a PLC. It has been proven that if we implement one thing, we can't be successful with it or that we let it stagnate. What advice do you have for an English teacher and department chair to impart the "Why?" for not only a PLC, but also any other change in our future?

Posted on

Jonathan Vander Els

Matt, I appreciate your feedback and questions. I think that including all voices in the planning process is critically important. I have seen many instances in which a district/building level team "creates" the vision/mission, only to spend an exorbitant amount of time down the road trying to "pull" others along, including teachers, parents, students, and other members of their community. Although this process takes a bit longer at times, in the long run it will allow a committed coalition of various stakeholders to have ownership in this vision for student learning.
Regarding data, I believe it is important to consider a mix of quantitative (assessment data) and qualitative (survey open-ended feedback opportunities, etc.) and remember that each of these data points is information for your to consider. It is about putting these pieces together to build a clearer picture of where you are, and what steps may need to be areas of focus as you move forward.

Posted on

Matt Logelin

I really enjoyed your thoughts on presenting the importance of "why." I am currently taking a course on Professional Learning Standards and Professional learning Communities. I was wondering if you would share your thoughts on what part of planning you consider the most important. I have chosen to look in to the data component. Do you see any discussion on what type of data provides the best feedback?

Posted on