Stop trying to “Improve” your school


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You're listening to the school leadership reimagined podcast episode 177. 

How do builders like us make a dramatic difference in the lives of our students in spite of all the obstacles we face? How do you keep your vision for your school from being held hostage by resistant teachers, uncooperative parents, ridiculous district policies or lack of time, money or resources. If you're facing those challenges right now, here's where you'll find the answers, strategies and actionable tips you need to overcome any obstacle you faith. You don't have to wait to make a difference in the lives of the people you serve. You can turn your school into a success story right now with the people and resources you already have. Let's get started.

Hey Builders, welcome to another episode of the school leadership reimagined podcast. I'm your host Robyn Jackson. And today I'm going to talk about a word that we use a lot in education. And I'm going to talk to you about why we need to probably stop using that word and that word is improvement.

We hear it everywhere. 

Every year, we're talking about school improvement, we write school improvement plans, we track data to see how well we have improved, we're always talking about improvement. But I'm going to argue today that the word improvement may be the problem and maybe the thing that's holding us back and and I'm going to make a case for why we should stop trying to improve our schools. And what we should do instead.

Now before I jump into that, I have a couple of announcements. The first one is builder's lab, we are now having Tickets on sale for builders lab and it is not too late to get your ticket. Our next builders lab is at the end of January. And it's another 360 degree experience, which means that you don't have to buy a plane ticket, you don't have to book a hotel, you can enjoy builder's lab from the comfort of your own home or office. Now just because we're you're going to be home and this is going to be a virtual experience doesn't mean that it's going to be the typical virtual training you've always been through where you just, you know, kind of sit and stare at the screen all day and just mark people marching through their slides. Nope, this is something entirely different. Everybody who comes to builders lab says the same thing. They say I cannot believe how engaged I was the whole day they at the end of the day everyday, they're like, Wait, it's over Wait, I cannot believe how fast time flew. I can't believe how much fun I have, you're gonna have time to actually interact and engage with people that you're going to meet new colleagues, you're going to be learning things and then immediately applying them, your brain is going to explode with all the things you're going to learn.

But the most important thing about builder's lab is what you will be able to do when you return to your school after the event is over. Because when you come to builder's lab, you're going to be learning something called micro slicing, which means that once you've learned that and you go back into your school, you'll be able to not only get into more classrooms, but you'll be able to stay there for only five to seven minutes. And that's long enough for you to get at the root cause of why a teacher's practice is or is not working, and give that teacher more powerful feedback feedback that they actually listen to feedback that they embrace and use. When you return from builder slide, we're not going to just be able to micro slice individual teachers classrooms and practice and give them great feedback, you're going to be able to micro slice your school or your district. So you'll be able to very quickly weed through all of the data and information, you know, data dives and looking at charts and none of that, instead, you'll be able to quickly take a look at your organization, figure out what's the one thing that's holding you back right now from achieving your vision for 100% of your students. And then you're going to know how to eliminate that one thing and next 90 days.

Now notice I said eliminate not deal with not find a way to mitigate, eliminate it in the next 90 days so that it is no longer a problem. You're not going to just come to build your slab and learn some things, we're going to show you how to apply them right away. When you come to build your slab you're going to learn about the four disciplines of builder ship feedback, support, accountability and culture. You're going to learn how to give teachers better feedback, how to give them more, more powerful support that actually helps them move their practice, you're going to learn how to identify toxicity in your culture and eliminate it and you're going to learn how to help everybody on your staff be more accountable.

So it's not just three days of training. It's not just this cool box you get in the mail. It's not just this, you know, exciting, amazing experience. Yeah, I mean, those things are there too. And don't get me wrong. They're incredible. But what's really incredible about builders lab is who you become And what you're able to do, by the time you leave that experience, you go back into your school, you have new clarity, New Energy, we've had people tell us over and over again, that they were at the point of about to ready to give up. And then they came to builders lab and all of a sudden, things started to make more sense. And they could see their way through. And they were so excited to go back to their schools and what they were able to do in the second half of the school year, outweighed anything that they had been doing all year long. If you want that if you want to be able to get a more classrooms and give teachers better feedback, if you want to be able to take a look at your school and, and really focus and not try to do all the things but narrow things down to the most important work for your school. If you want to get new energy and motivation. If you want to walk out with 100% vision, a vision that involves 100% of your students being successful and a plan for how to make that vision happen. You need to come to builders lab, all you need to do to get your ticket is go to mind steps That's mine step

Now, the other thing I want to tell you about is I want to tease you a little bit because next week, I will be announcing something here on the podcast, that is a free experience that you are going to love you know, some of you have been coming to some of our free vision trainings. And if you haven't been to vision workshop, yet you need to come because that is the place where you can get one on one coaching from me for free, and walk out with a vision you love. We have something else exciting happening next week, I'm going to be making the announcement next week. And so you want to tune into the podcast. And if you're not signed up for our emails, so that you get notifications, not just about the podcast, but all the cool things that are happening inside of builder, ship University, then you need to go to mindset You can go to school leadership Or you can go to build your ship and sign up to get those notifications.

So all of you already in the list, you're going to get the exciting news, we're going to drop it in an email to you next week. And those of you who are not on our list, you can hear about it here on the podcast. And but you need to you know, listen up for this a really cool opportunity that we've got ready for you. And we're going to be announcing that and talking to you about how you can sign up for that free opportunity next week.

Alright, let's get back to this word improvement because on the surface improvement doesn't feel like such a bad word. 

I mean, that's what school is supposed to be about, aren't we supposed to help people improve? And yet, there's something really wrong about the idea of improvement. You know, first of all, if when you use the word improvement, people, there's baggage attached to that word. And people, they hear that baggage attached that word. And so improvement often doesn't mean to them what you think it means. And the first thing is that improvement is hard. I mean, people have been trying to improve schools for years. And they have failed at improving schools for years. So when you go to your staff, and you say, Hey, we're going to do this new school improvement plan, or we're going to do this new improvement methodology, immediately, what comes to mind is not the hope and excitement of what could be, what comes to mind is the disappointment of what has always been because there you know, people remember their past failures, people remember past failed improvement plans, people, people remember the fact that we've tried to improve in the past and it didn't work. And when you use the word improvement, you are activating all of those memories of past failures. And so people already walk into whatever improvement effort you have going on with the baggage of a past failed improvement efforts.

The second reason that improvement is not the right word and improvement is actually undermining some of the work that you're doing in your schools is that people also remember not just past failures from improvement efforts, but the word improvement forces people to admit that what they have right now is not working. And maybe that's what you want to do. You want people to realize that something is not working. But there's there's a level of shame that comes with that, right. So when you say, we need to improve our school, what you're inherently saying is that our school is broken. And people are giving a lot of time and energy and effort. And the moment you say that our school is broken. They're saying I'm working really hard for something that's broken. And two things happen.

One is I feel the shame around that, that I'm working really hard and I'm a part of something that's failing, it's broken. That's why we need improvement. But the other thing that comes from that as they start thinking if I'm already working hard at something that's broken improvement means that it Got to get better. And that means I may have to work harder. And so when we, when we use the word improvement, not only does it bring the baggage of past failures, but it also makes people feel a sense of shame around what they are already a part of the work that they're doing every day, because if it weren't broken, it would need improvement. And so when you use the word improvement, you create this, this resistance, that it's almost a subconscious resistance in people. Because when you're saying that what we're doing is broken, you're and you're saying that all of our efforts in the past have failed. And so why on earth would I want to try again, alright, the third thing that happens when you use the word improvement, is that there is what's called the pain of disconnect.

So think about this improvement means that I have to do something differently, which means that, that I have to let go of what I'm currently doing to do something new. And that new thing may not work. In fact, in the past, we've done new things, and they haven't worked. And so there's a pain of disconnect. And people often resist being improved, they often resist school improvement, because they're, you're telling them that I'm going to have to try something new again, and I'm going to let go this thing that that you told me, I had to do last year for school improvement. And now I have to do this new thing. And, and I just learned this past thing, and I finally got comfortable with it. And now I've got to let it go and do something new.

You see, a lot of times when we tried to get people to improve, and we see their resistance, we think, Oh, they don't care about kids, oh, they're lazy, oh, they're overwhelmed. Oh, you know, all these things that are character judgments, when in fact, none of those things are likely to be true, what what's really happening is that the moment you come to somebody with a word improvement, you create shame around what they're currently doing, you, you you, you make them remember all the past failed attempts at improvement. And you're telling them that I gotta let go this thing that I'm comfortable with, and disconnect from that to try something else. Because you want to know what the most dangerous part about the word improvement. The word improvement assumes that the system and the process that you're using will work, it just needs to be tweaked. And what's dangerous about that is in a lot of cases, it's the system is irredeemable, the system doesn't work at all. And so when you come to somebody who say, Let's improve this broken system, it almost you're setting people up for failure, because the system itself is the problem. And so what we do year after year after year is we keep tweaking at these broken systems in our schools. And we keep improving them. And we never admit that maybe the system doesn't need to be improved, maybe the system needs to be just thrown away, maybe we need to start over again. And so when you use the word improvement, when you come to the work with an improvement mind set, it limits your ability to transform your schools.

You know, one of the things that continues to thrill me about the work that we're doing inside of builder ship University, is that the first level of builder ship University is all about revising your vision, throwing out that old vision and coming up with a new vision that includes 100% of your students, and then a mission and core values. And then we call it an alignment architecture, which is about now that I have a new vision, mission and core values, how do I get everything else I do in my school in alignment with that vision, mission and core values. And that alignment architecture helps people realize that there are a lot of things that are relics of the old vision of the old way of doing things that are no longer in alignment with what where they're headed now. And instead of telling them to improve those things, we're telling them, that's a sign that that's something you no longer need to do, you can stop doing it today. Because has nothing to do with your new vision, your mission, your core values. It has nothing to do with the school that you're building. And then the last piece of level one is we create something that we call the one plan, which is where we sit down and we say okay, what does the new school look like? And what are the the critical elements that need to be in place in order for our vision to become a reality. And what's so rewarding about that entire process is that instead of taking the school you already have and trying to find ways to improve it. What you're doing is you are building a new school from scratch. And when when you have that freedom when you allow yourself that freedom to stop looking at the school you have and trying to tweak it and improve it when it may be Iridium probably broken, you can then start dreaming up a school that is worthy of your students and worthy of your teachers and worthy of your efforts. A school that is worthy of your 100% vision, a lot of leaders right now are trapped in an improvement mentality. And that improvement mentality is keeping them from building a school. That is, it's not only worthy of their students and their teachers and their own efforts, it's worthy of their vision for 100% of their students. The longer you stay in an improvement mentality, the longer you stay trapped, and what already exist, because improvement doesn't say, hey, let's build something better improvement says, let's take the thing that's already that already exists, that's broken. And let's take that thing. And let's try to duct tape it together. So that maybe we can serve 10% More of our kids or 15% More of our kids. Or maybe, maybe the gods will smile on us. And we can duct tape it together enough so that 80% of our kids are being served, all that work. And you're still left with a broken piece together, system held to held together by you know, bubblegum and scotch tape that isn't serving all of your kids, all that effort. And it's still broken all that effort. And you still have students who are failing, mean to get out of the improvement, mind set effect in buildings up University, we don't even have you write school improvement plans, we create a one plan. And that one plan is about the one the one most important thing in each of these these critical cat categories for school that you need to be focused on right now. So you're not doing all the things, you're just focused on these one things. And it's about building a better school from the ground up putting systems in place that will maintain that one plan and sustain it and grow it so that you can read success for 100% of your students.

You know, one of the reasons why I think everybody should come to builders lab. First of all, I'm biased. We think it's an amazing program. But one of the reasons why is that in builder's lab, you really do start to see where your system is broken. And then when you get when you catch hold of that 100% vision. And you You couple that 100% vision with micro slicing, you start to see the pathway forward, you start to see what you could build, you also start to see what are the obstacles you really need to be worried about and which ones only feel like obstacles, but they're not the most important thing right now. So then you have this, this laser focus, and then we teach you a system for how to remove obstacles every 90 days, you're just removing another obstacle. So that that way, nothing stops you from what you're building. You know, when you when you when you focus on building rather than improving. You're not wallowing in your old problems. You're not You're not trying to fix things over and over and over again, that never are going to work.

Instead, you just say you know what, it's not working. Let's take a look at our vision. 

What do we need to build now? What do our students need right now? What are the things that are getting in the way? And how do we eliminate them, so they're no longer an issue for us, so that nothing stops us from achieving success for 100% of our students. The other thing is that when you focus on on building and a builder ship mindset versus an improvement mindset, you're no longer a part of a broken system, you're no longer trapped by a broken system, you know, when you think about, oh, I'm just going to be improving, then you're admitting to yourself, I'm a part of a system that's broken, that needs improvement, because it's not working. When you're a builder, you're not trapped in that you don't see yourself that way. Instead, you see yourself as a creator of something new. And I'm going to tell you, that is so empowering. You know, a lot of people are going to work every single day. And they know in their heart, they may not admit it, but they know in their hearts that no matter how hard they work, they're not going to reach every kid. They know in their hearts that their school is not set up to serve every kid. And we've been sold this bill of goods, this improvement mindset that says you know, as long as we're growing, and we're increasing student achievement, 10% here and 5% there's 7% there that that work matters. So we spend our entire life chasing these tiny little incremental improvements when we could be spending our lives building schools where you're not looking at temporary percent growth and 5% growth, you're looking at 100% of your students successful. So, we have got to let go of improvement. And I want to challenge you this week, to start catching yourself.

When you when you fall into this improvement mentality when when you start thinking about you see something broken, and you start thinking, Oh, well, let's do this, let's tweak it here, let's put a let's put, let's put a bandaid on it here. Instead of saying, you know, that's not working. And I could work really hard to make it work a little bit better. Or I could just go and build something that'll work 100% of the time. When you're in the improvement mindset, you're trapped by what's broken, and you spend your life tweaking, and you work really, really hard. And you don't feel the rewards of that work, because you're working hard and your efforts never ever give you the payoff that you're looking for. Because all you're doing is you are you are adding another piece of duct tape to a broken system. When you're a builder, it feels different. It's not the builder ship isn't hard work it is it's hard work. But the payoff is incredible. Because you work hard, and you build a better system. And you you start to really get creative, and you start to tap into the possibilities. And the more you build, the more motivated you become. And the more you build, the more lives you change, the more you build, the more other people catch the fire and start building with you. And then you begin to collaborate. And then the collective group of builders build something way better than you could even imagine for yourself. And so every day, it feels like you're gaining momentum, because you're not trapped by a broken system, the sky's the limit for you.

So I want to challenge you this week. If you catch yourself thinking, I need to fix this, I need to improve that. I need to tweak this, I need to modify that. If you find yourself playing small that way. Then remind yourself there is another alternative. Yeah, ask yourself, if I fix this, is it gonna get me to 100%? If I tweak this, is it going to get me to 100%? No, oh, then I don't need to mess with it.

Instead, I need to go over here and build something that will it changes everything. 

So first challenge: Are you in an improvement mindset? Are you in a builder mindset? Here's the second thing I want to ask of you. You know, a lot of you listen to this podcast every week, and I'm so grateful for that I don't take it lightly. I think a lot about what we're going to say on this podcast, because I want to encourage you because I know that there that when you catch on to this builder, ship mindset, and you really start becoming a builder. Everything changes for you, not just for your students, I'm going I'm doing this ultimately, because I believe every child deserves to be successful in school. That's the mission of everything that we do. But I also am doing this for you. Because I've seen the difference between principals who are stuck in an improvement mindset. And people who are builders, one of the things that is the most gratifying thing for me is that people don't build a ship University. After being in there for a couple of weeks. They're like, You know what, I believe I can do this, I finally have hope. I finally feel like that the work I'm doing can make a difference. And that transition is everything. Because then once you feel that way, there's no stopping what you can do instead of coming home from work drained and exhausted, because yet another day of you know, duct taping things together versus coming home. Tired, yes, but excited about the work you've done and satisfied because you are seeing true progress happening in your school. It is a complete night and day difference. 

And so I want to encourage you on this podcast, but if there's somebody else, you know, out there who is stuck in an improvement mindset, who is working really hard and and they're not seeing the results and they're starting to burn out, then I want to challenge you to share this podcast with them. Let them know that there's another way they may not even know that there's something else they may think this is all there is. I see principles all the time and some of the principal groups that I'm a part of who are posting about how they're just burned out how they're losing their fire, and I really wish that I could find a way to reach out to them and say there is and other way without sounding like I'm trying to sell them into something. And so one of the things that I think can help is that if you know somebody like that, somebody who's just about to give up somebody who's tired, somebody who's exhausted somebody who's, who's frustrated, because they're, they're working really hard, and they're not seeing the fruits of their labor, they know their schools could be better. But they don't know how to make their schools better. Because all they have is that improvement mentality, that I want you to share this podcast with them, and give them some encouragement this week, let them know that there is another way. Because you do not have to be trapped inside of the broken system that currently exist. You do not have to spend your entire career making tiny changes and small tweaks that get you nowhere. You don't have to continually be frustrated because you know, that there there's something bigger that you're meant to do. But the day to day demands of your current job, keep you from doing that thing that that you know, in your heart, your call to do for students. Here's another way and it starts with letting go of an improvement mindset and embracing a builder ship mindset, like a belter.

 I'll talk to you next time.

Hey, if you're ready to get started being a builder right away, then I want to invite you to join us at Buildership University. It's our exclusive online community for builders just like you where you'll be able to get the exact training that you need to turn your school into a success story right now with the people and resources you already have. You'll find our best online courses, live trainings with me tons of resources, templates and exemplars and monthly live office hours with me where you can ask me anything and get my help on whatever challenge you're facing right now. If you're tired of hitting obstacle after obstacle and you're sick of tiny little incremental gains each year, if you're ready to make a dramatic difference in your school right now, then you need to join Buildership University. Just go to and get started writing your school success story today.

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