Leaders See Challenges and Find Solutions by Michael Paul Bonner

Michael Bonner

Guest post from LSAISD Class of 2015 participant Michael Paul Bonner with his thoughts on the December class of the 2015-2016 school year.  Paul lives in the San Antonio Independent School District and is a graduate of Jefferson High School

The December meeting was the fourth monthly session for our cohort, and while my feelings about the experience have overwhelmingly positive, I entered the library of Tafolla Middle School with a nagging sense of impatience. Mainly my feeling derived from the fact that, while we’d received dizzying array of information about many of the challenges facing the district along with info on some great successes, we hadn’t yet developed any action steps for our group to help SAISD. Given the impressive make-up of our cohort and the extremely aggressive and aspirational goals laid out by Superintendent Pedro Martinez (if you haven’t read the 5 year plan I’d encourage you to do so), I thought 3 sessions would be enough for us to have arrived at a few answers of how we plan to get involved in a concrete way. Did the organization have the necessary urgency given the importance of the task before us?

The day started with us again being seated according to our Strengths Finders themes and I found myself at a table with Sarah Harte and Caitlin Butler. The rest of the day proceeded as follows:

Welcome by Mr. Jeff Price, Principal of Tafolla Middle School

Principal Price gave us a brief welcome and, as he was scheduled to speak with us later in the day provided a preview of what he would be speaking about. He is a graduate of the Trinity University Tomorrow’s Leaders Program run by Dr. Shari Albright (our morning speaker) and is also part of the University of Virginia-Darden School of Business Turnaround Initiative for struggling schools. Texas has labeled Tafolla an “Improvement Required” school for the last two years and Price is a few months into his tenure at the school. As a part of the Turnaround program, Price and all administration and faculty operate on 90 day written action plans developed with the input and supervision of the UVA program. Principal Price provided us with copies of his current 90 day plan along with an executive summary of the Turnaround Challenge, with a promise to delve in deeper in the later session. Browsing through the 90 day plan, I’m impressed by its specificity and in the way goals are translated into individual action. Principal Price speaks with energy and clarity, punctuating his remarks with self-effacing humor and theatrical anecdotes. He is also very adept at being “present” when taking a question, considering fully before he answers and circling back to the question later when he has a new thought that relates. He approached his introduction and welcome as a conversation and the time went very quickly. I am eager to hear more of what he has to say later in the day.

Though we were not in one of her classes, my first impression of Dr. Shari Albright is she a wonderfully effective lecturer. She is welcoming, energetic, and exudes a sort of positivity and joy for learning and inquiry that is infectious. The session was also open to questions throughout, and Dr. Albright handled them all as they came with brevity or elaboration as necessary, but always guiding us through the topic at hand. Her focus was on viewing organizations as complex ecosystems. Much like in nature, all of the component parts of an organization are linked and interdependent. Therefore, changes that are made even in one small area will have cascading consequence throughout the system. The exciting thing about “Systems Thinking” is that you can make small changes that have far reaching, even transformative effect. Dr. Albright calls these changes “levers”. The challenge of systems thinking, is to keep in mind a few main rules of lever-pulling. This is a summary of my notes and recollection of her lecture but the verbiage etc. is my own and the rules below may be incomplete and/or ahem inexact:

  1. Avoid Change for Change’s Sake. First, do no harm. Even in a troubled situation, the impulse to just pull levers can make things far worse than if you did nothing at all.
  2. Consider the Long Term. The goal is finding actual, replicable, verifiable, and sustainable practices which produce the best result for the least effort. A lot of what happens in education and business today is short term focused, and the net-effect of short term thinking is unsustainable gains followed by declines that leave you perhaps worse-off than before you started (see also above) .
  3. Be skeptical of the easy answer. Systems are complex. Solutions to systemic problems are possibly simple, but more likely to be correspondingly complex.
  4. Take the time to find Root Causes. Take the time to discover whether the something is a symptom or a root cause. The solution to a root cause is, by definition, a lever. A necessary change to a root cause, may also involve a multitude of other adjustments up and down the chain.

Somewhere during Dr. Albright’s session (I’d like to think near the beginning), the idea dawned that much of Systems Thinking is focused on tempering the impatience I was feeling earlier in the day, and channeling that energy towards committing to a process of observation and rigorous inquiry first, then action.

Principal Price returned later in the afternoon to talk about Tafolla Middle School and its recent challenges, along with the UVA-Darden School Turnaround Program. One thing to keep in mind, is that the SAISD 5-Year Plan and the Turn Around Program are similarly aspirational, and because Tafolla has struggled the gulf between where the school is and where Price plans for it to be, is vast. Because he studied under Dr. Albright at Trinity, many of Price’s themes and practices were consistent with “Systems Thinking” but he was able to give us examples of how those principles are being put into practice at Tafolla. One of those examples involved the requirement that all teachers be outside their doors greeting students in the hallway between classes as students changed over. This one change was designed as a lever to create a welcoming/encouraging environment for the children as well as decreasing the possibility of unsupervised misbehavior occurring in the halls. Principal Price also gave this example as a way to describe the importance and challenge of being consistent in implementing a change among his staff. In fact, Principal Price’s quote re: change was, “Even a wet baby hates change”. He included his recollection of how he counseled one particular teacher who had difficulty seeing the “all hands on deck” policy as a priority. While it is difficult for me to summarize the steps he took, I was very impressed with his leadership approach and, given the challenges and opportunities at Tafolla I am very glad that Principal Price is there.

Editorial Comment: Article 7, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution reads,” SUPPORT AND MAINTENANCE OF SYSTEM OF PUBLIC FREE SCHOOLS. A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” I include this because the founders of our state recognized that free, efficient, public education was essential to our democracy and the individual liberties we hold dear. This can be seen as overblown rhetoric, I know, but I took part in Leadership SAISD because I believe these things to be true and hope to do my part as a graduate and citizen of the district.  There are a lot of would be lever pullers out there—politicians, administrators, education reformers, vendors that sell to school districts, charter schools, voucher proponents, etc. Many of these “lever pullers” have the best interest of the public school student at heart, but there is also a preponderance of easy answers designed to appeal to impatient people like me. In their eagerness to do something, some of these proposals violate our constitutional principles and many risk running afoul of the rules of Systems Thinking. To all of those who have an interest in SAISD, I can report that I left our last session encouraged rather than impatient that the presenters offered no easy answers or quick fixes. Rather, they talked about a plan which has been successful elsewhere but may have to be changed according to the individual needs of the school and the district. It was refreshingly real. I’d encourage you to look into the Darden School Turn Around Program, and to go hear Dr. Albright speak sometime. Also, keep an eye on Tafolla. I think it is going places.