“Wait! Hold on! I just need a few more minutes! I want to get this just right…” a Middle School student working on a video project when the bell rings
Somewhere along the road to embracing an ambitious vision that will improve student learning one is often confronted with an inevitable tension between the status quo and the need to disrupt the most fundamental aspects of the school day. Our vision for learning involves providing greater student agency, opportunities to empower our learners through personal learning, individual passions, meaningful action, and modern learning. We asked ourselves: how do we best prepare our students for the challenges ahead? More critically, how do we provide them with the skills, the beliefs, the mindset to help solve the challenges that will face them? We started with a two-year process of changing our assessment system to include focus on formative feedback and authentic contexts. We renovated our learning spaces to provide for collaboration and flexible grouping. We adopted technologies that supported the type of learning defined in the vision. Each of these changes was possible because we had a clear learning vision for our students and because we work with a group of teachers who have collectively established a culture of excellence that puts students first. And yet, we knew we had to do more. We needed to create time for students to pursue their personal learning interests. We needed to give students time to delve into authentic learning in depth. We needed to disrupt on a grand scale. Time was of the essence.
Schedules are notorious scapegoats. With the usual constraints of lunch times, buses, shared facilities and teachers, leaders have long used scheduling elements to end the change conversation. “We can’t bring about that change. The schedule just won’t let us.” As if the schedule has a life and will of its own. Of course, the devil is in the details. In fact, we spent three days in the scheduling underworld. The process was exhausting, and I’ve been thinking about why that is. School leadership can be tiring business on the best of days: why was the process of building a new schedule so utterly exhausting? Colleagues I speak to assume it is about the intensity of hours sitting at the computer, making sure that each click and tick is accurate. Certainly, that is part of it, but I am convinced that is only part, in fact, the smaller portion of the challenge.
The most tiring part of scheduling resides in all of the decisions that go along with each click and tick. Building a schedule is an essential component of a good school. Only the quality of teachers is more important than how we choose to allocate our learning time. Each decision must be guided by student learning first and foremost. Often the easiest solution is one that compromises this principle by limiting student choices, for example. Options that may make things easier for part-time teachers may block student access to certain classes. Small groups of students may require schedules that consume valuable resources that might benefit larger groups. What is pedagogically ideal may be realistically problematic. Quite often, easy decisions are not in the best interests of students. Each decision along the way requires consideration of a complex variety of perspectives and implications. These decisions require a clear, consistent learning vision that serve as a roadmap one is obligated to remain faithful to.
“Wait! Hold on! I just need a few more minutes! I want to get this just right…” This is a comment I heard while teaching a film production class. The student simply wanted to make sure that the music, images and effects were perfectly aligning to convey her message. When students become highly engaged in work that has real purpose, time disappears as they strive to produce the best possible result. Scheduling is the process of operational compromise, but we should never compromise on what is best for students. Changing the school day for teachers is an exhausting process that requires change management, but it is the business of making future decisions that impact student learning that is the most demanding work a leader can do.