This year as communities across the nation ended their school year outside of their school buildings, educational leaders continued to envision ways to transform their practice to best support the social-emotional needs of their students for the moment of re-opening. Several articles, statements, and opinions of these leaders have been shared, which include ways to advance social justice and anti-racisit interventions following the death of George Floyd, and combat barriers to access students faced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Leaders in education are stepping up, and creating both strategic personal and organizational goals to move progress forward within their schools and larger communities.

As educators we are not new to reform and the adoption of a much needed change in practices. During this critical reflection, I am reminded of the past three years at the school building I am fortunate to currently serve, Winston Campus Junior High in Palatine, Illinois. It is there where I simultaneously observed staff and student leaders in awe build Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS), pilot a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum, develop a multi tiered approach to Restorative Practices, and adopt a culturally and linguistically responsive professional development journey. Why take this on all at once? We believed our students needed an immediate authentic, engaging, and culturally as well as linguistically responsive learning community, and were called to respond with a sense of urgency as many leaders are also feeling today. The results were as immediate, with an observed 35% reduction in Office Discipline Referrals and 26% increase in Self Assessment Survey School Wide System ratings by staff. Equally worthy findings which were less quantified included the increased sense of community within the building and staff self-efficacy experienced.

Making “Our Own”

Winston Campus Junior High is part of a diverse, larger school district with great initiatives. Leaders in the building quickly realized that the needs and culture of our building were different than other schools within the district. There was a sense of combined community and urgency that allowed us to take many of the universal behavioral/social emotional practices and make them “our own.” In team meetings when this phrase was brought up it immediately brought an overwhelming positive feeling of ownership of the work. For example, within the realm of PBIS we adopted the district’s 3B (i.e “Be Safe, Be Responsible, Be Respectful”) to GAAME (Greet, Accept Direction, Appropriate Language, Maintain Personal Space, and Effort in School and Community) to reflect our school culture. Furthermore in SEL Building Leadership Team we took district curated lessons and added to them, in order to reflect the differentiated needs of our students and follow the “Winston Way.” In particular, we often found ourselves adding more culturally and linguistically responsive protocols to support our students of color. This shared vision of our school community expanded on the shared leadership presented above, and further allowed us to experience a unique contextual fit. Educational leaders now more than ever should push traditional behavioral and social emotional practices further to achieve this for their schools and the system changes they are looking to create.

Shared Leadership

While your teams are embarking on similar pursuits, do not underestimate the power of building universal Tier 1 practice to invest in a positive school culture and community. At this foundational level, all are involved and take on a shared responsibility and leadership. Effective leadership is a driving force in creating systems change. To help propel this work, our school adopted Kotter’s Leadership Process (1996) to: (1) Create a Sense of Urgency, (2) Build a Guiding Coalition, (3) Form a Strategic Vision and Initiatives, (4) Enlist a Volunteer Army, (5) Enable Action by Removing Barriers, (6) Generate Short-Term Wins, (7) Sustain Acceleration and (8) Institute Change. This process was repeated to continue to build and introduce new efforts. While starting at the PBIS Tier 1/Green Team, it made its way to the SEL team and persisted to empower teachers as leaders of change throughout the school. Below are key points to consider in each step of this process:

  • Create a Sense of Urgency
    • Use multiple data sources to support your goals and highlight need
    • Communicate urgency with all stakeholders, and allow them opportunities to also carry this message
    • Be driven by events happening within your local and national school community to create change, consider socio political context, rising legislation, while elevating needs of populations underserved
  • Build a Guiding Coalition
    • Begin to organize members and leaders of your school community who share your vision
    • Ensure diversity in your coalition and be intentional in bringing in individuals from underrepresented groups
  • Form a Strategic Vision and Initiatives
    • Consider long term and short term goals, as well as actionable steps to achieve them and a plan for measuring progress
    • Align vision and initiatives to your mission, who you are as a team or school
  • Enlist a Volunteer Army
    • Bring in members to lead initiatives and grow ownership
    • Consider forming subgroups within your teams to work towards different areas of interest and expertise
    • Regularly come together a collective group to meet and review progress
    • Include students and parents in leadership opportunities as well
  • Enable Action by Removing Barriers
    • Evaluate individual or systematic barriers that may impede your progress towards your goal, name them and bring awareness to them
    • Establish a plan to work against these barriers, with opportunities for feedback from your community
  • Generate Short Term Wins
    • Be sure to celebrate any progress both within your teams and as a whole school, continuously connect these to larger goals to boost morale
  • Sustain Acceleration
    • Revisit vision and goals regularly, continue to obtain feedback whenever possible
    • Regularly communicate with staff, parents, and the community
    • Adopt additional practices, booster lessons, professional development as needed
    • Institute Change
    • Full implementation, with continuous review
    • Ensure natural supports are in place to ensure sustainability
    • Be flexible to adapt course along the way

Together, engaging in this shared leadership allowed us to have a transformative effect on the school and people within. Whether you are starting off small or big with your common school goals, focus on an adaptive process over specific curriculum alone. With this, critically consider your context and how your current alignment is working for or against you. As you eagerly await to enter back into your school buildings, remember this lens as you begin your systems change journey and work to create practices that are your own.

Dr. Vicky Karahalios is a bilingual school psychologist at Winston Campus Junior High in Palatine, Illinois. She also teaches within the school psychology and special education programs at National Louis University.
Twitter: @DrKarahalios
Twitter: @winstoncampus
Instagram: @winstoncampus