By Ellen Perconti, Superintendent of Goldendale School District in Washington State.

The third-grade students were busy arranging and rearranging desks. They had just received news that the whole class could learn in the classroom together, after changes to Washington State’s distancing guidelines that shortened the acceptable distance between students from six feet to three feet. One group of third graders grabbed measuring tools and started rearranging desks from the back of the room. Another group chose to start in the middle, and others began the process at the front of the classroom. Soon, the students discovered a problem. Each time one of the groups moved a desk, the other groups’ measurements were suddenly thrown off. It resulted in a lot of readjustment—and frustration. Their teacher asked how they might improve their process, and the students determined that what they were missing was a common point of reference to work from.

Having a stable point of reference is critical. It was critical in this real-life example of how a class dealt with changes in distancing guidelines, and it’s critical for educational systems as well. Taking action without knowing what you’re working toward is frustrating.

As our leadership team grapples with ever-changing COVID guidelines, we’re working toward what we’re all ultimately craving, which is finally getting back to as “normal” as possible, having all students in school, in person, every day. Our pandemic experience has confirmed that, in general, students engage more with learning when physically with us than when not. The reality is that nuanced state guidance, space, staffing, tolerance of and capacity for change, our ability to establish a shared point of reference, and so much more all impact what we are able to do. And even when we’ve worked out the logistics of how to have more students learning in person for more time, we have to work out what that learning will look like. We have to find ways to make students’ learning more engaging and relevant to their lives and their goals.

Over the years, we’ve narrowed how we measure reading to how fast and accurately a student can read a passage. We’ve narrowed math to timed computation, and science to reading about an experiment or, even more simply, vocabulary. This process of narrowing created a system of labeling, of filling holes, and of deficit thinking. Let’s face it—we got comfortable doing school this way, and that comfort outweighed, even made us overlook, whether our way of doing things was right for our learners. We’ve tried to make students succeed in our way, rather than supporting them to succeed in their own. And if we want that to change, we need to know what we’re working toward.

Our district’s overarching point of reference is now two-fold: (1) to focus every action and decision through the lens of our “least-served” learners (those least served by traditional teaching and learning styles) and (2) to redefine success in a way that encompasses well-being and contribution for all.

By changing our point of reference, our district is moving toward more positive decisions. We’re engaging in continuous cycles of inquiry to enable new, improved experiences for students and staff, and we’re shifting from planning that’s focused on curriculum to planning that’s focused on kids and their needs. Now, we’re focused on supporting our students with lesson design that develops self-understanding, connection, knowledge, and competencies, all in the context of curricular learning.

The process of learning to work together from this new point of reference can be uncomfortable at times. System growth isn’t easy. Often, we feel like the third-grade students working out how to rearrange the desks in their classroom. By keeping our point of reference in mind at all times, we’ll make better decisions through the pandemic and beyond, moving steadily forward toward what’s right for our kids.