A Principal’s New Year’s Resolution: Turn School Into a Shared Adventure

A sense of fun and togetherness transform every challenge into a learning opportunity for both students and teachers.

By Tracey Smith

Recently, Brookwood Elementary had a gas line break outside our school. No one could enter and no one could leave until 4:45. In responding to this situation, our goal was that, when our kids went home, they wouldn’t say, “Oh my gosh, there was a main break and we could have been in a lot of danger, and I didn’t know if I was going to get home because my teacher was really stressed out.” Instead, we decided to celebrate it as “The Best, Longest Day Ever.”

We had a Book Buddy session where our 4th-graders read books to kindergarten classes. Our 5th-graders worked with 1st-graders on math. We turned the older kids into peer tutors and let them shine. Our gym had to be evacuated, so the students who had been scheduled for PE played Kahoot! or dominoes. By taking a playful approach, we transformed what could have been a very stressful day into a day that our students will remember as a positive learning experience.

As I look forward to the New Year, my resolution as an educator is to look at every day and every problem as an adventure—even something as traditionally unadventurous as reviewing student data.

Turning Data Review Into a Search for a Story
One of the challenges some of my teachers face is that when our data team reviews pre- or post-assessment data, they feel like the data is telling them, “You’re not good enough.” For the coming year, I resolve to flip their mindset so that they see data review not as something to dread, but rather as an opportunity for us to come together, talk about what we believe as educators, and make decisions based on what’s best for every child.

I laid the groundwork for the new year last week when I presented some data from CCRPI (our state’s scoring system). I wanted our teachers to understand how those numbers were calculated. Because we’re a high achieving school it’s easy for us to look at our score and think we are fine. It’s when we dig deep that we realize where we need to grow. We did a little chant as we went through it. I’d say, “It’s not the percentage, it’s the…” and they’d all yell back, “Score!”

Adding some fun eases the tension of the process, and my plan for 2019 is to turn my data review team into forensic scientists: put on some Indiana Jones music, give them hats, and tell them, “Listen, we’re going to go digging through all this, and let’s see what treasures we find. Let’s see if we can get to where X marks the spot.” We’re going to meet what every kid needs, but instead of looking at scores on a computer and coming to cut-and-dried conclusions, we’re going to discover each kid’s story.

For example, if we find that our “X marks the spot” is a fluency issue, we can ask ourselves, “What are some instructional strategies that we can use to increase that fluency? Is it getting him a peer tutor to read with him? Is it making him a peer buddy for somebody? Do we want him to listen to books on tape? Do we want him to record himself reading, to do a cold read, and then graph how he reads all week?”

I believe that having fun is essential to making this sort of root-cause analysis work. Approaching this work as a shared adventure creates a sense of psychological safety for teachers. They know that this is not going on their evaluation. They know that we’re doing this so we can become better and do what’s best for every kid in this building.

Inspiring the Adventure Mindset
To reinforce the core belief that every day and every problem is a learning opportunity, I work with my teachers using 7 Mindsets, which are simple but powerful guiding concepts for everyone in our school. For example, the mindset that they are “100% Accountable” helps teachers overcome their feeling that they’re not doing a good enough job, and allows them to build a growth mindset about their ability to become better teachers.

Inspired by the mindset “We Are Connected,” at the beginning of the year, I ask every teacher, “At the end of this year, when your kids leave, what do you want them to say about you?” They want students to feel like we know them as learners and as people. To make this story a reality, our mission—our adventure—is to look at student data and make the best possible choices to improve achievement for each and every student.

For 2019 and beyond, I’m committed to making school an adventure so that my teachers believe that we can make a difference—and then following the data to see the impact this belief has on our students.

Tracey Smith is the principal at Brookwood Elementary School in Forsyth County, Georgia. Follow her on Twitter: @tbsmith01.

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