Going Toward vs. Going Away

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

The New Year is a time when we typically reflect, set goals, and determine actions. It’s a time in our school year when we recommit to action plans for the current school year while looking ahead into the next school year’s planning, finance, and strategic actions. As I reflect on the first part of this COVID-impacted school year, I can see places where we have missed opportunities for growth, but also places where we have prioritized people over traditional data points.

It is often seemingly simpler to determine what we don’t want, or what we want to move away from, rather than where we are headed. A personal example is my recent weight-loss journey. For years, I have had a desire to feel better, have more energy, and reduce my weight. However, I have framed this in terms of what I needed to go away from or stop doing. Stop eating large portions, stop eating carbs, stop baking, etc. After conferring with a nutritionist, I was able to build tools, strategies, and accountability that have allowed me to be successful in reducing my weight. And, yes, I have more energy and feel healthier as well. It was a conscious shift to identify what I wanted to move toward rather than focusing on the losses of things I’ve enjoyed (to the detriment of my health!).

In education, we often see a similar pattern: we identify what we want to go away from rather than creating a detailed description of where we are heading. We want fewer behavior problems, worksheets, and student absences. We want less stress for staff, lower COVID impact, and to rid ourselves of the feeling that there are few things left within our control. Our system’s task is to develop a deep and shared understanding of what we will head toward, tools to achieve this direction, and mutual accountability for reaching our vision.

Through our partnership with The Learner First, Goldendale has access to these resources. Our District Change Team has developed a practice of reviewing a system Capability Rubric, drawing on evidence to identify where we currently are, and generating actions that allow us to level up in short cycles. The TLF rubrics’ detailed descriptions allow us to identify with honesty and evidence our current state and to clearly define a desired state. We review actions taken as a result of these plans at the following month’s meeting, providing accountability within the cyclical process.

Changing habits within a system is a long-term and challenging process. It’s easy to slide back into what’s comfortable rather than continuing to move toward the desired state we’ve identified. Our current context, shaped in no small part by the pandemic, hasn’t made the process easier for us. But consistently engaging together, celebrating successes, and acknowledging the struggle are allowing us to keep moving.

When I bring a new administrator on board in our system, I look them in the eye and say honestly, “I cannot promise easy, but I can promise support.” The support provided includes an array of tools, mutual accountability, and a clear vision of what we are heading toward.