Tilling the Soil

Written by Maša Užičanin

The problem

I recently planted a garden, so I suddenly developed an interest in learning about healthy soil. I looked up the US Department of Agriculture’s definition of “soil health” and was surprised to discover language that feels so relevant to my own work:

“Soil is an ecosystem that can be managed to provide nutrients for plant growth…One goal of soil health research is to learn how to manage soil in a way that improves soil function. Soils respond differently to management depending on the inherent properties of the soil and the surrounding landscape.”

As I learned more about what it takes to keep the soil in my garden healthy, I couldn’t help but notice the overlaps between farming and education. Over the past fifteen years, I’ve spent a lot of time in many different types of districts across the country. I was a teacher at the New York City Department of Education, ran professional development at the New Jersey Department of Education, managed a district portfolio at a national foundation and most recently started supporting district clients in Pennsylvania. Each ecosystem I’ve encountered is contextually different. Each is trying to enable a habitat where young people can thrive. But I continue to encounter a big problem across these systems that warrants serious attention. 

Far too often, we plant seeds in the educational soil (e.g., Common Core, Personalized Learning, Future Ready, STEM, STEAM, STREAM…the list goes on) and right when these seeds start to take root, right when our people get used to a new idea and become hopeful that it might actually have an impact, we rip the seedlings out and we plant something new (or we throw new seeds on top of the old seeds hoping for a fruitful harvest). Soil management of this sort yields infertility – new seeds simply can’t grow or survive under these conditions.

I bet you’ve heard teachers react to such poor soil management. They say things like: “This too shall pass,” “What are they going to come up with this year?”, or “I’ll just wait this leader out because things will change again as soon as he/she leaves.” One interpretation of these statements is that the majority of our teachers don’t want to change. I beg to differ. I’ve talked to thousands of teachers across the country and they’re EXHAUSTED and demoralized by all of the value neutral planting and replanting. They want change. They want what’s best for their kids. But they want change that is meaningful, sustainable and impactful. This type of change requires some serious soil tilling – strategic clarity, collective efficacy, and most importantly, patience.

The solution

At Sevenzo, we think a lot about the district-level conditions that need to be in place for change to actually take root. This year, we launched a new service to support district superintendents in creating the conditions for change in their systems. The service is rooted in best-in-class research on change management, but simply put the old adage holds: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We can’t keep imposing change on the people in our systems. They have to be participants in the design, implementation and sustainability of the change.

This sounds great, in theory, but collaborative change-making and participatory design is hard work. Superintendents already have the most difficult management job in the sector. They’re managing staff, school boards, finances, politics and local community needs and contexts. At the onset of our engagement with superintendents, our team often hears the following key pain points:

  • I have to do something about our opportunity gap.
  • My people are tired of new initiatives.
  • I have limited capacity and time to deeply analyze my context (culture, capacity, conditions).
  • I don’t know how to get my staff on board with making another change.

We support superintendents to address these pain points by helping them cultivate three essential elements of change readiness within and across their system: will, structure and process. When in place, these elements enable healthier system function, increase human capacity and support implementation sustainability. We refer to this process as “tilling the educational soil.” Intentional and strategic tilling of the soil yields the types of mindsets captured in Figure 1 below:

Figure 1. Essential elements of change readiness within systems

How we work with superintendents and their staff to support change efforts

The Sevenzo team engages superintendents, their teams, and vested stakeholders in a multi-step process to help establish the conditions for change. We start by supporting superintendents to develop a robust visioning statement for student success. We then support their teams to focus on system redesign, rather than program implementation, in order to ensure that the vision for student success remains rooted in system-level rather than program-level thinking. Too often the pressure to roll out new programs gets in the way of more strategic and effective system redesign.

1. Conduct a Deep Contextual Analysis

Figure 2. Eight dimensions of the system

What is the current state of your soil? Before any new system redesign effort can take root, a contextual analysis of the current state is needed. We support superintendents to conduct a deep contextual analysis of their current system. We survey multiple stakeholders (i.e., teachers, principals, district office personnel, etc.) about the current state of their system using an online platform that captures viewpoints across eight core dimensions of the system (see Figure 2). We then visualize these inputs from multiple stakeholders, identify common themes as well as areas where team members lack consensus.

We often encounter lack of consensus, especially within the teacher engagement dimension (see Figure 3). Teachers often don’t feel like they have much say in the system, which demoralizes them, but district office personnel believe that input provided twice a year via survey is sufficient. We’re finding that naming such discrepancies does wonders for morale and begins to sow the seeds for buy-in.

2. Engage Multiple Stakeholders in the Change Management Process 

Figure 3. Differences in opinion amongst stakeholder groups (Teacher Engagement)

Next, we engage multiple stakeholders in a participatory design process to accelerate buy-in, enable authorship and help build Will for change within systems. All educators and district staff want to be seen and heard. This is a basic human need. We support superintendents by bringing together staff from across the system to engage in open, honest, and sometimes difficult conversations about the current state of their soil. We then work with staff to tackle areas where consensus is lacking, to identify what needs to change, why it needs to change and, most importantly, how these necessary changes align to a strong vision for student success and collective efficacy. We have received feedback that external facilitation of these conversations increases trust among stakeholders and helps unearth the “undiscussable issues” that are often the root cause of poor implementation.

3. Establish Structures and Processes to Support Collective Action

Figure 4. Riverview School District teachers and administrators engage in redesign session

We then help district teams establish Structures and Processes that enable effective, ongoing collaboration between staff members in order to support collective action (e.g., PLC structures). All new initiatives are in danger of failure unless staff have access to structures and processes that allow them to collectively grapple with these essential questions:

  • What is our shared definition of student success?
  • What do we want our young people to learn?
  • How will we know if they have learned it?
  • How will we respond if they are struggling or far exceeding our expectations?

Technology tools, curricula and other programs can support staff in acting on these questions, but they are NOT sufficient, in and of themselves, in moving district staff towards a shared goal or collective action.
We support districts in tilling their soil and are excited to continue learning alongside them as they engage in this important work.

For more information, reach out to Maša Užičanin at masa@sevezo.org.

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