School Improvement: Keep the Focus Narrow, the Work Connected

Topics: Assistant Principals, Teacher Effectiveness

“Keep the focus narrow and the work connected” is a mantra that guides much of my work as an associate principal. My approach to school improvement and strategic planning is grounded in this belief.

With leadership teams, I have used a comprehensive comparative analysis data protocol in which multiple sets of intentionally varied data are used to identify problems of performance, problems of practice, root causes, action steps, and success criteria. I approach this work through a collaborative and supportive lens, believing that if we are going to be successful, people must feel safe, connected to the process, and committed to each other.

Simplifying Data Work

Data work can be intimidating and cannot be done effectively unless participants are comfortable being vulnerable with one another. A hallmark of my process is that this work’s collaborative, focused, and sequential nature results in a very supportive structure and environment.

My role as facilitator is that of the supportive guide along the journey. Because we are using multiple pieces of quantitative and qualitative data, we develop a much deeper understanding of our school’s areas of success and opportunities for growth. Staff continue to comment on the power qualitative data brings to the process. This information often tells the student story that lives behind the quantitative assessment data.

Grounded in Strong Relationships

Employing a strengths-based approach to teacher observation grounded in strong relationships and reflective questioning has worked very well for me and the staff of Prairie View. The most effective coaching conversations happen when space is created for the staff member to make their own meaning of the data—whether the observation script or student learning data—and reflective questioning is used to guide the process. Using strengths as a foundational starting point affirms actions and attributes that are working well and sets the stage for further action steps and teacher growth.

I have found that sentence starters such as “I wonder if …” or “What might happen if …” are neutral enough and, when presented in a safe, judgment-free manner, allow the staff member to be receptive to thinking about new ideas that build on what they are already doing well.

Identifying Teachers’ “One Thing”

Creating a culture of continuous improvement, small-scale innovation, and risk-taking is essential to our work at Prairie View and my teacher observation process.

“What’s your one thing?” is a question I created to keep innovation and risk-taking at the forefront of our minds as a staff. It can be large, long-term, or a small idea to try in today’s math lesson. Regardless, we all have to have a ”one thing.”

These “one things” are always identified and refined in my coaching conversations. Once established, I then make a point to check back on the progress through quick, frequent informal class visits. When making an informal visit, I always leave a handwritten note of positive acknowledgment that names a specific action that was witnessed. This has proven to be very effective in building trust and rapport, as well as a mindset of risk-taking and innovation.

Relationships precede learning. To that end, strong, trusting relationships must be in place for coaching conversations to thrive. I built trust in the small interactions that occur over time: the small notes of acknowledgment and appreciation that are left in a classroom, the quick conversations in the hall, and by seeking out that one voice that has not been heard. These small details can be easily overlooked in our fast-paced school environments, but they also go a long way to build trust.

A Focused Approach

When I led the school-improvement process with our Prairie View Leadership team beginning in 2021, our work resulted in a very focused approach. This plan simply consisted of two interconnected focus areas: instructional equity and responsive community. Within each area, very focused actions guided all our work in a very targeted and specific manner.

The results were significant:

  • Multilingual student growth increased from 54 percent in 2021 to 79 percent in 2022;
  • Black and Hispanic student growth increased from 49 percent in 2021 to 71 percent in 2022;
  • 97 percent of our K-5 students have demonstrated modest, typical, or aggressive growth, 79 percent of which showed typical or aggressive growth; and
  • Students “at or above” benchmark demonstrating flat growth decreased from 10 percent in 2021 to 2 percent in 2022.

The act of conferring during literacy instruction was one action step we identified under instructional equity. Our data work showed that a high percentage of students (10 percent) who were at or above benchmark were demonstrating flat growth in reading. By being intentional and focused in our conferring work and supporting the staff with ongoing training and conversations, we reduced that number to 2 percent the following year.

Aligning Goals

Purposefully aligning our site goals with the district’s goals is vital to this process. It is critical that our efforts are connected, and we are not working in isolation from the district. We are all part of the larger system.

Staff members feel pulled in too many directions if the alignment is unclear. Our job as leaders is to make those connections explicit. As a mission-driven organization, we are committed in Eden Prairie to “inspiring each, every day.” Keeping the focus narrow and the work connected is essential to inspire each.

Brett Lobben is associate principal of Prairie View Elementary School in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and a 2024 National Outstanding Assistant Principal.