Getting Things Done in Your School District

Time for a listicle.

I have loved lists for as long as I can remember – the first memory being a scrap of paper I carefully wrote and posted on the kitchen wall in second grade about how to eat dinner, entitled “Rolls” (“Rules”).

In a world gone Covid-crazy, lists help me feel directed, in control, and purposeful.

So does achieving concrete results for our students – which may also feel in short supply right now. What follows are a few suggestions from my two decades of experience working with school districts and their occasionally labyrinthine bureaucracies. When I’ve felt at a loss or stymied in something I am trying to do for kids, something on this list usually breaks the dam.

Please enjoy these rolls (with a lot of butter and jam).

1. Be a PITA.

I put this first because for me, it requires the greatest amount of courage. Not allowing the perceived – or tangible – frustration or irritation of the people you’re bugging to derail you from your purpose may be the one thing that is the difference between success and failure.

I have to remember that being persistent is not a knock on other people’s competence –  life happens to us all – but rather a recognition that a situation may require “elevation” to stay on people’s overflowing radar.

2. Employ lateral “carpet bomb” comms.

Yes, there is such a thing as a chain of command, and I do need to be respectful of it (trying to work out a conflict with a colleague one to one before doing an end run to my principal, for example).

However, if I’m at a loss for resources, I have often penned an email and put absolutely everyone on it who MIGHT know something about what I need. I’m transparent about it: “This is an email to many, many people. I am hoping to glean some insight,” etc. The “hive brain” often comes up with a suggestion or a thought that enables me to get moving again.

3. Know who really runs things.

That would generally be the following people: the nurse; the secretaries; the tech support; the custodians; and the bus drivers. Make an intentional, deliberate effort to call these folks by their names, buy them donuts, and otherwise recognize them for their often unseen work. You would be amazed at what a secretary can do that your boss – or you, for that matter – cannot. If you’re consistently kind to them, they will move mountains for you. And you should be anyway.

4. Find your daffodils.

Awhile back the terrific coach in a previous district sent around daffodil seeds and a note to new teachers. The take-away: find colleagues like this who are smart, who adore kids, who go the extra mile, who ask the right questions, who don’t roll over – and stick to them like glue.

They’re in every district, every school. Find them, and make them your friends. They will be your best sounding boards when you need to think strategically about a goal.

5. Speak the three most powerful sentences in the English language.

Donuts are helpful, but saying these things on the regular is what really works to show the people in 2) and 3) above  your good will: “I don’t know.” “I need help.” “I’m sorry.”

6. Build reciprocal credit.

Does your daffodil SpEd colleague need you to cover after-school homework help because she’s sick, and her request only came this morning? Do it. My experience is that doing one or two of these high-leverage favors on the regular will eventually be paid back to you when you really need it. Plus, it’s just the right thing to do.

7. Amplify.

Sometimes one voice isn’t enough. Sometimes it needs to be two, three, or seven. If something isn’t happening that needs to happen – consistent Internet access in a certain hallway, for example – ask several people to contact the doers and shakers at one time. This can have a similar effect to #1: the repeated emphasis of a need strengthens the volume of that need until it is heard and met.

8. Go outside.

Occasionally a completely fresh set of knowledge will do the trick. If you have a family who needs legal assistance, who in local social services might know what to do? If your district doesn’t have the funds for a project, what grants or partnerships might be available in the community?

9. Do it yourself.

I give this advice with caution: sometimes being a lone ranger can come back to bite you in the butt and/or exhaust you, so you have to judge your circumstances while employing this technique. Nonetheless, sometimes a need is great enough that it must be served immediately, and sometimes the only way to serve that need immediately is to serve it yourself.

Example: It’s going to be in the negative number temps tonight. My student has broken heat. While we investigate federal programs for energy assistance, which is a long and complicated process, she now has two space heaters provided by– you guessed it– her teachers.

10. It’s not a failure – it’s a game.

It helps me to think of my roadblocks the way my kids think of levels in a video game. You’re going to encounter “bosses,” and some of those will be bigger and badder than others. None of them will play fair.

But there’s nothing like gamifying a challenge to help leach the pain, frustration, and self-doubt out of it; and as a video game will show you, there’s no other way to move beyond the level than continuing, with cheer and good will, to fight the boss. A game does not think you’re evil, incompetent, bad, or wrong. Don’t take it personally. Just keep going.

Image by JamesDeMers

Dina Strasser

Dina Strasser is a veteran educator of 20 years, 14 of those as a middle school ELA/ELL teacher. For six years she worked in many capacities at the non-profit group EL Education. Now she's back in the classroom, and this year she’ll be teaching middle and high school English language learners. Her early experiments with dirt have progressed into a lifelong love of the outdoors.

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