Three Ways to Get a Running Start on Next School Year
It’s a familiar pattern, one that you probably know all too well: the last day of school arrives, you say goodbye to students and teachers for the summer, and just like that, the day-to-day hubbub of the school is reduced to you and a few staff members. The first goal is to wrap up the loose ends of the school year, and then it begins in earnest: strategic planning for the year ahead.
This pattern usually gives way to another common ritual—the frenetic few weeks before the beginning of the school year. You and your team are doing the best you can to get organized, set goals, and have some semblance of order before your students once again stream into hallways and classrooms. Then, it’s off to the races.
However, just because it’s what you’re used to doesn’t mean it has to be this way. The end of the school year is busy, to be sure, but it’s also a great opportunity to set aside some time for you and your team to officially close out the year together and do some advanced preparation for the school year ahead.
The end of the school year is busy, to be sure, but it’s also a great opportunity to set aside some time for you and your team to officially close out the year together and do some advanced preparation for the school year ahead.
This pre-planning has its benefits. Not only does it make it possible for your teachers to truly unwind and enjoy the summer, but it also ensures a bit of well-deserved downtime for you as you know you’ve done the legwork to set you and your team up for a strong start in the fall.
And, it might not take as much time as you think. Here are a few suggestions on how to jump-start the strategic planning process and those conversations now:
Schedule time for reflection
As a school leader, you know that there are very few school years that go “according to plan.” There are plenty of situations and scenarios that throw you off-course, no matter how much school improvement planning you’ve done. So, as you approach the end of the school year, make sure you’re giving yourself and your team the opportunity to look back retrospectively.
Now’s the time to encourage honest and psychologically safe discussions with your teachers and staff on how they think the school year went. How did they feel at the beginning of the year? How do they feel now? Where do they want to be next year? What could have been implemented better? Giving everyone the opportunity to talk candidly about their experiences throughout the past year uncovers challenges—and wins—that you may have not uncovered on your own.
Giving everyone the opportunity to talk candidly about their experiences throughout the past year uncovers challenges—and wins—that you may have not uncovered on your own.
Once you share your thoughts on the year from a personal perspective, talk about it as a team. One way to do this is to have your team brainstorm thoughts around four categories: lessons learned, accomplishments, improvements and gaps, and future ideas. Whether it’s through Post-Its or whiteboarding, prompt your team for their answers to these questions. Their answers will help to build the foundation of your collective work for next year: what the overall vision is, what student success looks like, what the barriers are, and what resources the team will need to achieve that success.
In addition to sharing your thoughts alongside your team, be sure to take some time for your own self-reflection as well. Evaluating your own skill set, strengths, weaknesses, and behavior patterns—and having the courage to ask your teachers and staff for feedback—will help you grow and seek out the right professional development opportunities.
Gather data to see your next steps
When we think of data that’s used for future planning, it’s often the “formal” data—national and district-level assessments, state tests, and disciplinary or attendance records—that is considered. Formal data is essential, but it only tells one of your school’s many stories. It’s the “informal” data—conversations with and insights from your school community—that fills in those gaps. Both types of data are important.
Formal data is essential, but it only tells one of your school’s many stories. It’s the “informal” data—conversations with and insights from your school community—that fills in those gaps. Both types of data are important.
Before you break for the summer, consider what “informal” data is most valuable to you—and make the time to get that data from the groups whose feedback matters most:
- Your Parents and Families: Be intentional and deliberate about the feedback you’re asking for from families—whether it’s about communication preferences or digging deeper to understand what they want to hear about from you and your school. Did you feel the school did a good job with communication this year? Why or why not? How might we improve for next year? What’s most important to you in your child’s education? How might we improve student outcomes for next year?
- Your Community: Did you embark on a partnership with a business, nonprofit, or government organization in your area? Take a moment to understand the initiative from their perspective. How do you feel the partnership worked? Is this something we’d like to continue next year? Do you have other ideas on how to work together? How can our school continue to positively contribute to the community?
- Your Students: Talking with students can uncover valuable insights. If you’re able, consider planning a few focus groups or empathy interviews with your older students to understand needs that may have gone unnoticed. What did they like about the school year? What didn’t they like? What motivated them or stressed them out? What are their goals? Where did they need more support?
- Other Schools: If you’re wrestling with an area of improvement, and you’re aware of a school that had success with the same initiative or school program, reach out to them. What were the steps they took? How did they keep the momentum going? What advice do they have for a school that’s embarking on the same goal?
The data from all of these stakeholder groups will give you the insights you need at your fingertips as you start evaluating what worked this year—and what didn’t—from a holistic perspective.
Consider a new planning approach
As school leaders, we tend to take the long view when it comes to planning. In our goal to be strategic over tactical, we try to plan for the entire year. Even if it means that we don’t know the specific action steps we’re going to take throughout those 12 months.
A shift to short-cycle planning can remedy some of the holes we often see in those yearly action plans. It also removes unneeded stress from your teachers and staff. Instead of planning for the entire year, short-cycle planning works through the duration of a semester or a few months. This approach prioritizes change by separating it into manageable pieces. Leaders and staff choose a few key areas to work on, and the plan becomes a living, breathing document that informs your day-to-day work.
A shift to short-cycle planning can remedy some of the holes we often see in those yearly action plans—and also removes unneeded stress from your teachers and staff.
Shorter cycles can also make it easier to use the formal and informal data you’ve collected and implement it in real time. This is especially true for instructional leadership teams (ILTs), who use a short-cycle work to implement a plan, monitor it, review the data, and pivot or course-correct based on what they learn.
This doesn’t mean that your long-term, traditional plans go away. Everything you’re doing with short-cycle planning ladders up to your overall change management and school vision. It does, however, give you an opportunity to regularly monitor progress and adjust the plan, and the human resources needed, based on your current reality.
Short-cycle planning also gives you the chance to be more collaborative with your team. Plans developed in isolation and then unveiled to teachers rarely have buy-in, so this is a great way to share and co-create the year ahead with your team, and can result in distributed leadership opportunities for your teachers and staff who want to take on more responsibilities.
Planning ahead = less stress, more empowerment
We know it’s a busy time of year, and it might feel like this type of proactive strategic planning is just another item on a very long list. And, it’s also at a time where fatigue is at an all-time high, not only with your faculty and staff, but yourself.
However, a strategic plan also means a slightly less stressful—and much more empowered—experience for everyone when you all reconvene next year. And that alone is worth it.