Instructional Problems Require Instructional Solutions — Without Distractions
Take a moment and think about your day today — start to finish — and pay specific attention to anything (multiple things, people, issues, calls, etc.) that threw you off or distracted you.
A distraction, by definition, prevents you from giving your full attention elsewhere and cannot be the most important item. (We’re not talking emergencies or crises — we know those happen and will have to be addressed — it’s the myriad little things that throw you off course from what you should be doing, even what you have scheduled to be doing.) Did you attend to those distractions or did you brush them aside for the urgent and important actions that you had already prioritized?
We all let that happen to us at one time or another. When it does, it feels like a house of cards collapsing. In a worst case scenario, you’ve likely lost your entire day to the distraction and probably haven’t even resolved it. Scattered and disrupted, you are too off kilter to really figure out what the right solution is and you’ve left your key priorities and actions tumbling for the day. In many instances, we’ve found that leaders chasing solutions because their original priorities aren’t focused enough and they are already unbalanced, allowing a distraction to take root.
It’s not uncommon. We’re all guilty of this. But it diverts our efforts in strange directions. And the strangest directions tend to be towards non-instructional solutions to issues that have their roots based squarely in classroom instruction.
In the words of TLC, “Don’t go chasing waterfalls.”
Get to the root cause of your important problems. Your intense focus on those will shield you from the cacophony of school house distractions. (We have found this to be especially true for instructional problems because of how easily swayed leaders are from pursuing instructional solutions to these instructional problems — though it’s true for all types of problems!)
Step 1: Identify The Instructional Problem — Make sure you have the problem clearly and succinctly defined. Once you’ve done that, you are more easily able to identify the root causes of the problem.
Let’s use an example where a subgroup of students performed lower than expected on the interim assessments — a problem that we worked with one of our school partners to think through as shown in the image below.
Step 2: List Possible Causes — Think expansively and from multiple perspectives. It’s a good chance for you to ask yourself, “Yes I know teachers/students/parents/etc. should know this, but why don’t they?” Get out of your box and consider multiple internal, external, environmental, cultural, adult, and student oriented factors. (The fish bone framework can be really helpful here!)
Step 3: Label the Causes — Identify each cause based on the factors in step 2 (internally/externally controlled, adult/student, environmental/cultural, skill/mindset), particularly thinking long and hard about whether or not they are within your influence and adult oriented.
Step 4: Highlight The Adult and Internal Factors — These are the critical factors that you can do something about! The rest are the waterfalls you don’t want to go chasing (though they are critical to acknowledge so that you don’t unintentionally get distracted by them).
Step 5: Prioritize These Factors — Sequence the factors in a way that you can address fixable and achievable items, while overcoming meaningful obstacles. Align them with systems and structures that already exist (no reason to add more to the plate) and delay items that might be too big for the short term.
Now that you’ve found the root causes to common instructional problems, you can focus on triaging the most impactful solutions, empathize with the main actors in implementing those solutions, and stay focused on what matters most at critical times and in the face of disruptions and distractions. Let those distractions bounce off you and stay focused on your charge as the instructional leader.