I am sure that many of us, as educators and leaders, would rather move on from this year rather than spend time reflecting on it. From constantly answering questions like “Mask on? Mask off?” to orchestrating the return to in-person learning to determining what rigor looks like this year, it has been hard.
While there were certainly unexpected challenges, there are things we can learn from the highs and lows of 2021–22 that can prepare us to move into the next school year. Here’s how I am processing the highs and lows of this year in order to prepare myself for the fall.
Confront Your Past, and Learn From It
In order to learn from our mistakes, we have to admit to them. I can go first.
This year, I attempted to implement a new block schedule that would have students in their A-day classes on Monday and Tuesday, B-day classes on Thursday and Friday, and a “zipper” day Wednesday when they would go to both A- and B-day classes. In theory it sounded great; in practice it was awful.
Kids were confused and went to the wrong classes, our bells and clocks wouldn’t sync, and we realized that a few staff missed lunch or had overlap of classes during the same period! I was mortified at how quickly such a well-intentioned idea went from great in theory to awful in implementation. So after three Wednesdays of trial and error, I had to stand in front of the staff and say that I had messed up.
But here is the thing: I was expecting booing, eye-rolling, and staff walking out on me. Instead, the message was received with smiles, laughter, and a few “bless your heart” comments. So we adjusted the schedule, experimenting with different rotations. It didn’t take long before people found a groove with the new schedule and moved on from the epic fail.
In reflection, acknowledging the mistake taught me a lot. Although it can sting a bit to reflect on what didn’t go as planned, there are lessons to be learned from our mistakes that we can transform into future successes. What I learned from this very public lesson was to admit my errors, make amends, and move forward.
Listen to Your People, and Reflect on Their Feedback
The best way to move forward is to make sure you have people willing to follow you. As you are reflecting on this year and planning for the next one, don’t forget to ask your people for insights and ideas to make plans better.
Feedback can take many different forms. Every week, we ask teachers to answer an open-ended question: “Jess, I have a question about…” Staff can ask us anything (and we are a middle school, so they really do ask anything: “If two wrongs do not make a right, why do two negatives make a positive in math?” Or my all-time favorite: “Which is better—pancakes, waffles, or French toast?”). We respond to all of the questions and share out the responses in our weekly staff update.
This year, some of the questions helped me realize that staff were confused about processes I thought were clear. Other questions helped me look ahead to special events, end-of-year planning and prep, and other things on the minds of teachers that weren’t on my radar.
Opening up a door to provide staff with the opportunity to ask anything gave me room to improve communication with my whole campus.
Celebrate the Steps—Think Process, Not Perfection
This may sound strange, but as a school campus, we celebrate our epic failures as well as our successes. We call it our celebration of learning. In my first year, I kept hearing “This has never happened before!” as we faced a series of unique challenges. From that came the mantra “Once in a Career Year,” which we put on a button and distributed to every staff member. This year, we’re celebrating this: “It’s Fine, I’m Fine, Everything Is Fine.”
My goal in sharing some of the rough spots from 2021–22 is to give you a chance to laugh a little and to learn a few things. My overall message is this: As leaders, we should stop trying to be perfect and start focusing on moving forward in a process.
Our block schedule experiment, though far from perfect, had an important goal: trying to bring middle school students back to campus five days a week in a way that felt sustainable after two years in a hybrid mode of learning. Our process gave us multiple moments to pause, reflect, and calibrate as we moved forward through the school year. Even though it took some trial and error, block scheduling gave students more time to immerse themselves in the classroom again—and that was worth getting right.
A big takeaway from 2021–22: It is OK to make mistakes, and it is essential to own them when you do. As you are planning the next school year, make sure you are finding strategic and intentional ways to reflect on how this year went, how you receive insight and feedback from important people, and when to celebrate the small steps toward the big wins.