The Art of Creating School-Wide CoherenceSchool initiatives need to allow space for flexibility and innovation
“Leadership is the job of forging coherence”—Michael Fullan
Schools are hard organizations in which to develop coherence. Individual classrooms are highly idiosyncratic places, each governed by their own priorities and the relationships within them. Which is how they should be. The challenge for school leaders is to create consistency and coherence—to have a palpably seen and heard and felt school culture—without undermining every teacher’s responsibility to do what is needed for their students on any given day.
In many schools, compliance masquerades as coherence, but it’s not the same thing. Compliance quickly becomes toxic when it prevents personalized learning and in-the-moment problem solving for the good of the students. No wonder many teachers grow suspicious of administration demands for compliance, and no wonder that administrators often see teachers as being unnecessarily resistant to uniform expectations. It is a set up for conflict.
But there is a way out, a way that goes beyond compliance to collaboration, creativity, and coherence. I learned this path when I was the principal of a high school for students with many significant challenges. The most common challenge our students shared was an epidemic of disorganization; they struggled deeply with executive functioning skills. The faculty and administration knew we needed to intervene and provide better support as a school. But how to do so without compromising the creative skills and discretion of the teachers who knew their students best?
Step One: Shared Interests
The teachers were coping as best as they could with their students’ partially done assignments, lost homework, and forgotten deadlines—but with the teachers implementing solutions independently of each other, the students were not getting the consistency they needed, only adding to the exhaustion of the faculty. It was clear the administration needed to step in to provide some common ground.
William Ury and Roger Fisher’s great negotiation book, Getting To Yes, had taught me that it was important to first articulate to the faculty our shared interests, instead of unilaterally imposing my “solutions.” In this case, literally every teacher affirmed their shared interest in giving students more support to counter their executive function deficits. So I had a starting point for coherence.
Step Two: Tactful Uniformity
Uniformity is essential for elements of critical safety in systems, whether it’s stopping at red lights when we drive, allowing people to defend themselves in court, or following the exit procedures during fire drills. Uniformity can also define and unite communities, as with prayer rituals in religions, or the opening of the day rituals in classrooms.
Uniformity is binary: you do it, or you don’t do it. When I became a principal, one of my mentors advised me to keep the number of uniform demands to a minimum, because teachers require flexibility to meet the unpredictable needs of their students, and they may balk at too much bureaucratic restraint. For its part, the administration must be able to put its full weight behind the demand for uniformity. So to work well, uniformity has to be imposed with great tact.
At its best, uniformity from grade to grade and class to class can save educators time and energy; that’s the inherent beauty of routines. I go into every school-wide initiative explicitly stating that I want to keep the level of uniformity to only what is absolutely going to help us collectively be successful, and only for what the administration can consistently support. I also explicitly state that the required uniformity must not drive the staff crazy. What would be the point of that? I still remember how hard it is to be a teacher; as administrators, we need to develop job expectations that do not require sainthood or soul-crushing compliance.
For the initiative on executive functioning, our discussions as a faculty led us to define three elements of uniformity. These three elements could be easily implemented by all teachers, a key component of gaining traction with a new initiative. They also allowed the students to exercise independence within a supportive structure, a deep priority of our work to help them navigate the difficulties of their lives. Each in their own way would use the resources readily available to them, without feeling micromanaged. With these uniformly consistent elements in place, every day in every classroom, we would then be able to identify which students needed more individualized attention to address their executive functioning needs:
- In every classroom there will be an executive-functioning station, where students could find copies of worksheets, schedules of upcoming events, and lists of past and current homework tasks. Our students carried enough stress already; our support in this area would help them harness their efforts on their academic output, not their disorganization.
- That station will be somewhere to the right of the door into classroom. This little bit of uniformity from room to room helped students to more easily find the materials they needed, and placed no additional burden on the staff.
- The station will include an identical size and shaped bulletin board. Initially I didn’t care whether the bulletin boards were uniform in dimensions, but when I suggested that I could save the teachers the time by bulk purchasing bulletin boards and then making plans with the maintenance crew to install them, the staff strongly opted for this bit of standardization. Here was a case of uniformity conserving adult time and energy. When I then suggested that every bulletin board be uniformly divided into quadrants, with specific information, such as homework, displayed in each quadrant in the same format from class to class, that was when the faculty said, “No.”
Step Three: Smart Guidelines
My suggestion to divide up the bulletin boards, with a rigidly defined section for homework, was an overreach too far down into uniformity. Many teachers of elective courses, who did not see their students every day, did not assign as much homework as core curriculum teachers. They did, however, want bulletin board space for posting instructions for use of specialized equipment in their rooms, which was not the case for the English teachers. An art teacher wanted to use space on her board to post information about exhibitions in local galleries and museums. A good number of teachers weren’t sure yet how to make best use of their boards. They wanted the freedom to experiment until they found the right balance for their curriculum and their particular students. My suggestions for dividing up the boards in a uniform fashion would have limited the faculty’s ability to best serve their students. I appreciated their wisdom. I had to trust the inherent creativity of the staff.
This is where guidelines become critical to building a school culture. Guidelines are a menu of strategies and activities to carry out the level of the work that happens just below absolute uniformity. To support the executive-functioning initiative, we developed a menu of guidelines teachers could use to organize their bulletin boards. We allowed a wide array of possibilities for implementation, leading to one more uniform expectation: every teacher was responsible to employ explicit practices that supported their students’ executive functioning, chosen from the set of guidelines. So this was a uniform expectation to make decisions that helped the students in ways the teachers knew best.
Step Four: Inventions
There are inevitably students whose challenges are too complicated for absolute interventions to be absolutely effective. Even guidelines that provide great flexibility will often not meet the needs of some students. These students often need more of this and less of that, ultimately adding up to an entirely new approach.
To support capacity for this, the job of the administration is to foster a climate of creativity and invention. We need to encourage staff, over and over, to experiment. We need to support “test runs.” We need to share with teachers the experiments that we as administrators are trying in our own positions, and what we are learning. Faculty meetings can be organized to have staff in small groups share their test runs, experiments, and inventions—with no expectation that they have to be successful, only that they share what they have learned.
One of the best inventions in my school’s executive-functioning initiative was when a teacher began to design personalized homework assignment pads for students. She started when one student complained that he couldn’t find a pad with large enough spaces for directions, so they sat together at the computer and designed such a template. Other students wondered if they could have a page that displayed the whole month; others wanted an area with the evening hours laid out so they could better schedule their after-school demands.
Eventually, the option to design one’s own homework pad became a favorite option among the students. We know personalization matters for student motivation; it matters for our staff, too. We need schools that support in every way the inherent passion and commitment that just about every teacher brings when they enter the profession. We need to unleash their inventiveness for our students.
If your school has an initiative to implement restorative justice circles, or executive-functioning supports, or opening and closing rituals of classes, be explicit that “we are a school that values experimenting to reach every student,” and back that up with resources, supports, and celebrations. We start with a shared interest; we establish the uniformity that makes for efficiency; we distribute guidelines; we celebrate inventions that meet idiosyncratic student needs. In a dominant culture of standardized testing, required curricula, and uniform compliance posing as coherence, teachers need to hear loudly and clearly that experimenting with new inventions in the service of every student is an essential part of the job.
Our students appreciated that we made this effort on their behalf, a big step in our practice to build trust with hese these often cautious teens. As a school leader, I became much more successful at leading an initiative from conception through implementation. I grew confident in holding firmly to the interests of the school, without getting rigidly fixed on any single strategy; the collective wisdom of the staff was always greater than mine. The staff could bond in supporting our limited demands for uniformity, knowing that the opportunities to work from guidelines and to be creative were critical to our shared success.