Saturday, September 26, 2015

Controlled burns and catching what needs to be caught

The Depot Crew
During my administrator prep program, professors and administrators often warned us of the danger of reactive leadership--becoming so overwhelmed by crises that your entire job becomes nothing more than putting out fires.

One day last week, I had planned to start the day with some 1:1 interviews with  students, then check my messages, visit an advisory, and work on some internship or volunteer coordination and student database management. But that was not to be.

The Big Picture model of education is for every student, but many of the students at the Depot come from very difficult backgrounds and struggle with the repercussions of their histories. On this particular morning, as I sat down at my desk after Pick-Me-Up (our daily whole-school meeting), a student walked in with and started to unload some very heavy stuff that had been happening in her life. She needed lots of support. And it was no wonder she had been struggling with motivation.

After an hour well spent with her, I had to step out to deal with another sensitive student issue, and on my way there, I walked into an escalating argument between two students that required my intervention.

All of this within the first few hours of the morning.

One month into my new job, and I could give 4 weeks-worth of similar examples of serious, high priority, sensitive student issues that have to be dealt with carefully, thoroughly, and immediately. I could give example after example of lengthy, worthwhile, but immediately necessary difficult conversations, check-ins and counselling sessions with students and parents and outside support personnel.

And all the while I'm being peppered with mini-crises and administrative issues: purchase orders that have to be submitted, required forms, phone calls, questions from students and staff, meetings, etc., etc., etc.

And then there's the internship and volunteering coordination, memos and agendas, presentations I give, Book Teams, QR (Math) Groups, and fitness (Dance-a-thon) sessions I run, and lots of instructional, motivational and relationship-building conversations with students, staff, potential mentors and volunteer sites, and parents.

I really do love it all, but somewhere under all of this is my Entry Plan--my plan to interview every staff member, student, and parent, and collect data on school climate, level of rigor, student engagement, and curriculum so the whole school community can improve.

Volunteering at WAIM
I'm probably about 25% done with my Entry Plan, but it's hard to keep a grip on this part while crises blow toward me like debris in a hurricane. The cool thing is, these real crises are truly important and meaningful, and if we deal well with them, we'll be naturally moving toward the end goal--strengthening the students, school and community. The challenge is to make sure that happens and that we don't get so overwhelmed that all we can do is react, rather than pro-actively making these crises part of movement toward the goal.

I had the chance to meet Big Picture Co-executive Director Andrew Frishman yesterday (along with Chris Jackson, BPL's communications officer) and he talked about the importance of doing controlled burns to prevent wildfires. We need to make sure we're doing lots of "controlled burns" in our schools.

Another challenge is to recognize which of these crises flying by are real, and need to be caught, and which we can just let fly us by while we keep pushing slowly, but steadily ahead toward the goal. People need to be caught, carried, counselled, and cultivated until they conquer their own challenges and come out at the other side whole and powerful and fulfilled. The papers and forms and procedures... We'll do the best we can, but it's the other stuff that really matters, after all.


  1. Bill, a pleasure to visit and connect with you and your team and the community of students at the Depot Campus. I recently heard about the "5 year rule" with regards to prioritizing this work... In 5 years, if it isn't going to matter, then don't sweat it... Stay focused on the things that will (or could lead directly to something) matter a lot in 5 years.

    I'd also add that the long term outcomes are what we're really after. Here's a piece that I recently wrote that might be relevant to this conversation? -