The 2022-23 school year was an interesting one for all of us learners. It provided us with significantly more opportunities to learn together in person. It also reminded us that we have so many important areas to focus on (social-emotional learning, equity, school/district academic intervention, connecting classroom work to standards and evolving practices, etc.). So many, in fact, that it can be challenging to prioritize a few over the rest.
With that in mind, while it wasn’t easy for me to narrow my lessons learned from this past year into a few big buckets, I was able to pull four foundational ideas to the front as learnings I never want to forget.
Everything is cyclical
In no way am I trying to suggest that all we do is get caught up in circles (though that can happen at times in education). In fact, one big lesson I learned this year is that the cyclical nature of our work allows us to better predict, and therefore pre-plan, key components of our work.
For example, schools and districts are now asking for our assistance at pre-pandemic levels. Like the pendulum swinging back and forth, some of the alterations we made during the pandemic have moved right back to where they were before! Of course, we’ve learned quite a bit over these last few years, so our cycling back is now even more well-informed.
Another example shows up in a recent collaboration with districts to create a new learning opportunity. As we embarked on this work, we employed a similar design process to other successful services we have built in partnership with schools in our region. And knowing those processes from other aspects of work we have done allowed me and members of my team the chance to stay focused on district needs rather than worrying specifically about the design implications for our organization. While this isn’t always the case, the cyclical nature of things allows us the opportunity to think forward and plan for what may come based on what has been true in the past.
A future focus requires a tangible present
So, this new opportunity I mentioned in the previous paragraph? Its focus is on using what we learned in the present to make sure we can keep our vision set clearly on the future. This year, 14 districts participated in a future-focused event that sent educators to a regional day focused on AI, ChatGPT and the benefits and challenges that can exist in this aspect of our lives.
By forcing ourselves to live in the here/now for a bit, we make it easier for learners to recognize what is in front of them, what isn’t and what needs to happen to make sure they are able to adjust their practices for whatever the world may hold. The big idea here? If we want a future-focused mindset to help lead our work, then we have to take a good look at the present as a start.
Transitions impact everyone
The idea of transitions has been a recurring element for a number of posts I have written. A few years ago I was transitioning into my current role as director of curriculum from serving as our department’s assistant director and, earlier, science lead. Each time I have transitioned, I have worked hard to keep the focus of the support on the people who will be impacted by the change.
As leaders of people, it can be terrifying to have colleagues, mentors, supervisors and others express fear, anger and mistrust when transitions take place in less-than-stellar ways. Often, those less-than-stellar marks speak to us not doing as great a job communicating the change and welcoming everyone’s voice and perspective as effectively as we must.
That doesn’t mean transitions in the traditional sense can’t be a positive experience. They definitely can. We just need to remember that the person doing the transitioning isn’t the only one going through a challenging experience. But it requires the person doing the transitioning to step out of their own perspective on the process and invite in all others who could be impacted.
Celebrations are a necessity
As I have grown in my practice and as a person, I’ve come to realize that positive communities and cultures have one big aspect of their identities in common. Namely, they celebrate successes. These successes can be everything from birthdays to births, and from bowling nights to bingo games. All of these events, whether they appear minor or major to those involved, share an important message: “We care about you.” That culture of care can sometimes be just enough to help teams move through the really tough times.
Though my involvement in organizations has changed throughout my life and my career, I do acutely remember that the organizations that celebrated elements of change together were the ones where people would actively choose to engage with the change and growth process overall. Celebrations aren’t a complement; they are a necessity. In short, welcome the celebrations of your team, and do it as often as feels meaningful.
These four year-end reflections are not meant to be exhaustive in any way. There have been so many lessons that I have learned over the last 12 months, and many lessons still require much more thinking and reflection on my part. What is most important is that we welcome lessons as they come and recognize that we can’t force learning until the form and the function are right for us. Just like in the second lesson I shared above, we first have to understand where we are now before we can be ready for whatever the 2023 -24 year throws our way.
Enjoy your summer!
Fred Ende is the director of curriculum and instructional services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Ende currently blogs for SmartBrief Education, and his two books, “Professional Development That Sticks” and “Forces of Influence,” are available from ASCD. Connect with Ende on his website or on Twitter.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.