By Sean Precious, Instructional Superintendent at Denver Public Schools
The fitness of focus and coherence in school leadership
I tell people that I have one of the most enjoyable jobs in the world. After classroom teaching, coaching other teachers, and leading schools on the East Coast, I moved to Denver five years ago and am currently an instructional superintendent with the Denver Public Schools. I have the honor and privilege of supporting eight schools around the city, six high schools, and two middle schools. This means I get to spend a lot of time in multiple schools across a system, in a variety of neighborhoods from the Far Northeast to Southwest Denver. Every day, I see how committed, dedicated and passionate our school staff is and how tirelessly they work in service of our students and their families. In our highest-need schools, we have seen tremendous growth in student outcomes but also in other important areas such as school leader retention over time and the percentage of students who feel “safe” or “challenged” in their school.
I’m not a policymaker. I’m just a leader who is trying to support our schools with whatever they need to do right by their students. And yet, none of us are fully satisfied with their outcomes or the stubborn gaps in their school or community. We have so much more work to do, and the path to success for our students, families, teachers and school leaders is not always clear. And even when it is clear, there are tremendous obstacles, particularly for our most impacted students and their families. In addition, we all have to rise to the challenge of our new graduation requirements which are currently in place for freshmen and those students that will graduate in or after 2021.
And so, from where I sit – particularly when I am sitting in traffic as I travel between schools – I often wonder: what’s truly holding us back? What’s the real issue here and how can we come together to provide a great school in every neighborhood?
I think this is a big part of the answer: complexity. Simplifying the path to success for all of our stakeholders involved, particularly those doing the work every day with our students and their families, can drive the change for which we’re all striving.
Focus and coherence are harder for school leaders
How do we make the complex simple? I like the terms “focus” and “coherence” a lot, and I use them often in the work I do. But, in the context of a busy school leader, what do those words mean and what can I do to better support our school leaders in these areas?
For me, focus is narrowing to a small set of highly coupled priorities that are important to students and their families, establishing clear metrics in partnership with the community to define those metrics and then constantly asking, “How are we doing? Are we on track? If not, what needs to be done differently?”
All leaders deal with unexpected challenges, managing crises, and building relationships with a variety of stakeholder groups. But in my view, teachers and school leaders deal with more of them than leaders in other sectors. A doctor can sequester himself for hours inside an operating room; a lawyer can block out the world while “in court”; but a teacher or principal is never fully shielded or protected from being pulled in a variety of different directions. While the impact can be huge – we can effect change for thousands of lives – it is not easy to focus our efforts or attention on what matters most: helping teachers and students and their families.
In my role, I see school leaders trying to do a whole lot, every day: lesson planning, visiting with a student club or organization, observing other teachers, meeting with parents, and more.
And then I watch all the many interruptions that happen to them: substitute teachers (we call them “guest teachers” in DPS) showing up late, student discipline issues arising, facilities breaking down, and lots and lots of emails (some of them from leaders like me).
How do we help our teachers retain focus through all of these interruptions?
The “fitness” of focus and coherence
Every principal knows that focus and prioritization are important. The adage of “pick three things and focus there” is not lost on anyone. And yet, some of our schools are not where they could be. The answer is about more than focusing. We need coherence: how we all align around these priorities, how we talk about them, managing all the ways in which well-intentioned organizations and partners can get in the way of the work that matters most to our school leaders and their teams, as well as to our students and families.
Here’s an example: every morning, I roll out of bed and attempt to motivate myself to go to the gym. As a former high school cross country runner and swimmer, I still enjoy all sorts of cardio and weightlifting. I’ve followed a fairly basic routine for the last 20 years – some combination of the treadmill and some weights – nothing too flashy or fancy – but in 30-45 minutes, I can usually get it done and get on with my day.
I’m always amazed at the number of machines, tools, and equipment in most gyms. For those newer to getting in shape, it can be overwhelming. It also doesn’t help that as a society we spend billions on products, advertising and messaging to promote the latest type of diet, fad, program, trend, etc., each one a competing priority on our time, attention and mental energy as we try to focus on what will help us achieve our fitness goals – more times than not, simple measures like “lose weight”, “gain muscle”, or “reduce blood pressure.”
But I retain my focus by staying coherent around my main fitness goals.
Just like someone walking into a gym for the first time, a school leader and teacher have a lot of choices to make about how to best serve students. They also bring their own knowledge, skills, and mindsets with them. And while our anatomy and physiology are as complex as our educational system, the daily moves and habits are, in fact, quite simple. Run at a certain pace for a sustained period. Eat fewer calories and more vegetables. Sleep for a certain number of hours each night.
To drive better results for our students – and ultimately the communities in which we serve – we need to determine how to make the overly complicated ridiculously simple, so all of our stakeholders can execute with ease.
Three focus areas for school leaders
My fitness goals are pretty simple: “run three times a week” and “consume less than 2,000 calories a day” are among them. I think our focus areas as leaders can be simplified to three key goals:
- Hire teachers who have high expectations for the students and families you serve – implicit in this is the mindset that all kids can excel on an absolute scale when given the opportunity
- Help teachers develop the skills to plan backward from end of course requirements, grade-level standards, high-stakes assessments like the SAT (depending on what grade and/or course you teach)
- Observe teaching and learning frequently to ensure students are grappling with grade-level appropriate learning tasks in front of students, scaffolding as needed at first and then ensuring students are successful independently – remember that the task we put in front of students each day will ultimately predict their performance
Simple, but by no means easy. And neither is maintaining a healthy BMI or cholesterol level – as all sorts of “epidemic-level” data in our society today reveals. But we know it can be done.
By breaking down the complex into simple, replicable moves, and making our organizations coherent around those goals, we can truly support our school leaders and teachers so they can achieve dramatic gains in student growth This is how we give our communities hope for change, and give our students the best opportunities. And we know that when we give our students the best opportunities, they will always rise to the occasion.