Finding North: First Step in a School Improvement Plan

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Leading Professional Development

One of the first activities we did with our faculty last fall took place in the cafeteria. Away from the east facing windows, Lake Michigan was hidden from sight. After the coffee was poured and the greetings were shared, our Principal asked everyone to close their eyes, stand up, and face north. The eye closing was not to get people turned around but instead to see what would happen if everyone had to figure it out on their own. Even without the help of the lake and each other, the majority of faculty members were facing north when we were instructed to open our eyes. However, a small group of people opened their eyes to find themselves going their own way.

Before the faculty moved back to their chairs, we took a look around and questioned: What happens if we are all improving but in different directions? It became clear that while we would be moving, we may not be moving forward. However, if everyone was moving together in the same direction, then we would, as a group, get further. This became a collective effort toward setting and striving toward a common student-focused goal.

Consequently, this became our metaphor for the rest of the school year. It was a way for us to talk about our goals, our direction, and our progress. We agreed that to be successful we all needed to embrace a shared goal which became “North.” For us, it centered on student literacy growth, and subsequent faculty meetings were aimed at reaching our goal and ensuring that everyone was facing and heading “north.”

The “North Metaphor” helped to ensure that:

  • We knew what our shared success would look like.

    • The entire faculty created a SMART goal.

  • Everyone understood if they were “on track”.

    • We pulled data three times during the school year to monitor our progress.

  • We had a measurement tool to gage our success.

    • Our school uses the STAR test to provide formative and timely student data to the faculty. Because everyone in the building takes the test, we used it as the measuring tool for our SMART goal.

  • We could look at our challenges through a common “lens”.

    • After years of technology goals, our IT department felt frustrated by the literacy goal. There was less professional development time focused solely on efforts to get faculty using and being comfortable with the technology. They feared that their progress in that direction would become stagnant or lost. The big epiphany came when we began finding ways to use technology to accomplish our literacy goal. Tools that helped differentiate instruction and/or shortened the feedback loop between teachers and students became the focus. Helping faculty navigate and read data also became critical as each faculty member worked toward meeting the common “north” goal. In the background, the tech guys were still working on the infrastructure and capacity to best use our technology, however, the faculty-wide technology focus was on using technology to improve literacy.

  • We began moving in the same direction.

    • Movement is what we most want to emphasize. It was not enough to just face north, but instead, everyone had to be moving toward "the north" to ensure that we would make progress on our goal.


Tips for setting the compass to “North”: Having a Common Goal for School Improvement Plan

  • Make sure “North,” or your school’s shared goal aligns with your school’s overall mission.

  • The “north” goal must be articulated and supported top down.

  • Groups within the building may contribute to “sub-goals,” like the IT goal described above, that create and support movement toward “North.”

  • Faculty members should personalize and set individual goals that help them face and move “north”.

  • Be willing to take a risk and set a stretch goal.

  • “North” should be worded in the positive.

  • Everyone in the building must know “north” and how they contribute to moving forward.


Ideas for School Leaders

  • Transparency is critical to success when it comes to identifying “north.”

    • Everyone had access to the data and the results.

  • Individual or department goals should contribute to moving the group “North”.

    • This has become a focus for our learning communities within the faculty to work together in order to build their contribution toward our overarching goal. For example, faculty members who taught the 8th grade met to compare student reading annotations. They were able to recognize when students were not able to transfer information or skills from one content area to another and then collaboratively work to support the students.

  • Don’t be afraid to set the bar high.

    • Our goal was neither quick nor easy to meet. In fact, for us the idea that “north” = “literacy” is still a work in progress. We did, however, make progress and build faculty capacity that we do not believe would have happened if the goal set had not taken us out of our comfort zones and required all of us to be engaged and working toward our shared goal.