Reflective Principal: The Process Takes Time

Don’t look to data for a quick fix when it comes to measuring growth.
By Eric Ewald
Principal, May/June 2019. Volume 98, Number 5.

“Trust the process” has become a widely used cliché. But what does it mean? My definition is that you stick to the plan, even when the short-term results aren’t showing signs of improvement. OK, but in our fast-paced, quick-fix culture, who has time for that?

Consider the typical scenario: An elementary school teacher has a student for one year before passing him or her to the next grade and the next teacher. That’s approximately 180 days that a teacher is with a student, or just shy of 1,200 hours. And while those numbers seem like a long time on paper, we know that school years come and go in the blink of an eye. There’s a lot to learn between August and May—a lot to learn. The pressure is on.

The Long Game

We are educators. And as educators, our intentions are good. We do the best we can with the resources we have and the information we know. The interpretation of data is an integral part of our work when it comes to decision-making, evaluating, and measuring student and teacher progress. It gives us a starting point, a measuring stick, and a goal to work toward.

At the same time, our infatuation with data has made everything more high-stakes. As a result, it’s easier for us to lose sight of the big picture if we can implement strategies we think will help expedite and enhance our progress or make our jobs and lives a little bit easier. There’s no blame here; such strategies are tempting when you’re up against the clock.

A mentor once told me that there is rarely an educational emergency. That’s a hard swallow; I feel guilty just typing it. At the same time, as educators striving for work-life balance, we have to accept that fact to a certain degree.

We often want to “fix” things. Instead, we should focus on making things better. And this isn’t one individual’s obligation. It’s OK to get kids on the right track before passing them on to the next teacher and the next grade level. Remember, it takes a village to raise—and educate—a child.

There are no quick fixes, and we shouldn’t necessarily look for any. We shouldn’t, and don’t need to, settle for shortcuts. We need to play the long game. We—and especially nonclassroom teachers—have time.

My school, Van Allen Elementary, is a pre-K–6th-grade building. We might have a student for eight years. That’s approximately 1,440 days and almost 10,000 hours. That’s a lot of time—more than enough to make a difference. Trust the process.

Watch Results Take Root

I recently finished reading Joshua Medcalf’s Chop Wood Carry Water. If you haven’t read it, consider doing so. The book does an exceptional job of expressing the importance of the process, despite our results-oriented culture. One of my favorite sections of the book uses the growth of bamboo to drive home a point.

“What you don’t see happening is what is taking place beneath the surface,” Medcalf writes. “Beneath the surface, a massive, dense foundation of roots is spreading out all throughout the ground to prepare for the rapid growth that the bamboo will experience. So, you keep watering it and watering it, and eventually, after five years of seeing nothing at all happen above the surface, the bamboo tree shoots up to over 90 feet tall in just six weeks!”

At the conclusion of a school year, a classroom teacher’s opportunity to make a direct impact on a child is greatly diminished. That doesn’t mean that they don’t still have an impact. It is the sum of all individual efforts to impact a child that leads to growth. Sometimes growth is sudden, and sometimes growth flatlines; sometimes growth is insignificant, and sometimes growth is monumental. Rarely is the growth linear, but over time, there’s always growth.

So, how do we shift from a data-driven, results-oriented culture and instead trust the process? I’m not entirely sure; it’s a pretty substantial pendulum swing. But we can start by sharing stories and celebrating the little things.

Are we looking at the growth we’ve made, or are we fixated on what we have yet to accomplish? Let’s commit to celebrating growth. Trust the process. Enjoy the journey.

Eric Ewald is principal of Van Allen Elementary School in North Liberty, Iowa.

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