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Transformative Principal is 

Nov 18, 2018

Hi, this is jethro, host of transformative principal! You can reach me @jethrojones on twitter or at

Today is episode 253 and I am so excited about what I am going to share.

My school is rocking and rolling in an amazing way! We are positively impacting kids not just academically, but socially, as well. It’s fantastic. In fact, I’m much more proud of our soft skills growth than I am of our academic success, because today, kids can learn anything anywhere!

Much of that growth is happening in Synergy, which I will talk about later.

But first, everyone is always asking, how do we get our schools to change. You’re listening to this podcast because that is what you want to know! In the fall listener survey there were about 90% of my listeners so far who said they wanted to learn more about the school change process.

Well, I’m going to tell you the secret.


Here’s my four-step process guaranteed to bring about school change:

  1. Vision
  2. Communication
  3. Empowerment of faculty, parents, and students
  4. Continuous improvement

First, vision. Where there is not vision there is death. Do you want to be “just another school?“ No! That’s why you’re listening to some guy in Alaska describe how his school has dramatically changed over the last 18 months

If you go back to episode 1001 of Transformative Principal you will see how we did a ton of stuff at my last school. The same is happening here, with one notable exception. Everything that we are doing is centered around a vision for personalized learning. If it doesn’t have to do with personalizing learning for our students, I don’t touch it.

Our vision is clear. We are going to give kids what they need when they need it. That is personalized learning.

Our vision is clear: if something doesn’t contribute to personalizing learning, we don’t waste time on it.

Whatever training we do goes back to personalizing learning for our students.

We have a ton of new stuff happening in our school this year. Why? Because we are personalizing learning.

Math - project-based learning
Science - switching between 7th and 8th grade teachers each quarter-long unit to give kids choice and voice in their learning.

So, let’s talk about how all these things happened.

Step 2: communication

When I got hired, I came up and met the staff at the end of the school year. I talked at length with a few of them, and started communicating over the summer more extensively. There was a lot going on.

When I got to the school, I met with every teacher I could to ask, “What should we start, stop, or continue doing?” I got a lot of feedback from that. There weren’t a lot of opportunities to talk with parents, yet, but those that I did shared some of their concerns. The biggest thing that I learned in my four months’ research was that there were a lot of problems. It was tough coming into the school.

I did a survey at the end of the school year, and when I asked a question about culture at the school, only 2 responses were something positive. All the others were negative. ALL the others were negative.

This was tough for me. As a side note, one of the ways you measure culture is through little things, like how many people sit together at district-wide professional development. At our PD on Monday, we had the biggest group we’ve had sitting together. It’s working.

We also had a school district strategic vision and big push from the school board and superintendent to personalize learning for our students, which is what I really wanted to do in education anyway!

After all this research, we needed a direction. Many teachers responded to another survey that they wanted to be known for something. They had different ideas, but they desperately wanted to be known for doing something that no other schools were doing.

So, with their input, I created a vision for where Tanana would go in four years.

Here it is: We would fulfill our school district’s strategic vision by becoming the most personalized school in the district.

I announced to the teachers at the start of the year and then reviewed it again. I help monthly meetings with parents to explain where we were going to go in the future.

Part of the challenge was that we would only have students for 2 years.

Step 3: empowerment of faculty, parents, and students

This one is really exciting. I could write a whole book about this!

In our four year plan, there are outlines, and there is room for growth. There is room for personal accountability.

I learned long ago that a leader’s job is not to cap the top end, but rather to help light a fire under someone else.

Through this process parents and students and teachers may feel like they have a little too much power. The reality is you always have that power. It’s ironic that this piece is called empowerment, when we take that power away ourselves and think that we need permission to do good things. We don’t.

Throughout this whole process, teachers and students have been given great latitude to make their own decisions and do things how they think is best. They are the people with the most information about what works for them, so why should I, as the principal, who doesn’t know a lot of what is going on, be making all the decisions.

I do my best to teach them good principles, and then I let them govern themselves accordingly.

One of the other things that I have learned is that if I am running the ship, when I turn my back the ship crashes. There are initiatives that are happening solely because I am in charge of them. This is a recipe for disaster! This will not continue if I am not working my tail off to make sure that happens. I need to distance myself from that so other people can take ownership.

Right now, synergy is in that camp. But it is a school-wide effort and not many people have the capacity or opportunity to see all that there is to be seen! Even still, I need to move that away from me, and give more opportunities to others.

*What is Synergy?

You’d probably call it project based learning. And that would be pretty accurate. But it’s not exactly that.

Synergy is a time for students to learn without limitations. Synergy is a time when students bring all their skills and knowledge together to do something that leaves an impact.

I made a little video to explain it to my students, and I’d like to share it here.

What makes synergy so awesome? It’s all driven by kids. They come up with the ideas. They do the work. Teachers are very much guides on the side supporting them. It’s so exciting to see what kids are creating.

I’m working on a list that shows everything that kids are doing in Synergy, but it isn’t quite done, yet. Kids are writing novels, making scale models of battleships, organizing a step team, finding ways help homeless youth, raising awareness about LGBT issues, decorating our school, writing uplifting messages on origami to give to others, upcycling, organizing after-school programs (sports and chess) for a neighboring school, creating a smoothie company, a locker decorations company, a vinyl decal company, and so much more. It’s exciting!

I can’t believe what I get to witness every week with these kids. Stay tuned for more to come about this exciting chapter in our school.

Step 4: Continuous improvement

This is where it gets really exciting for me. Nothing is ever good enough. Good is the enemy of great. I want my school to be amazing, and it is never going to be if I settle for anything. For me, change and improvement is exciting and fun. For others, change is scary and challenging.

So, how do we make this happen? We constantly evolve in every area we can.

It means that I have a critical eye, and that means critical for the things that I want to have happen, too. Synergy is a good example of that. It started way back when I was a teacher and has been evolving ever since. It has different names in different schools, but the base idea is the same. You might call it Genius Hour or 20% time. I’ve called it “special projects,“ “tutorials,” “advisory,” and now “synergy.”

What is important in whatever process you are evaluating, is that you continually evaluate how things are going. You can’t settle for anything, anytime.

There are challenges with this. But this is where it goes back to the vision that you have for your school. If you don’t have that vision of what we are doing, the improvements can be seen as changes, and that doesn’t help anyone!!! People don’t like to change for change’s sake. They are willing to improve and grow, but they need to do it with an eye toward a vision of some sort.