Check Boxes: 8 Things We Need to Uncheck

Checklist

It was another beautiful Saturday and once again I found myself indoors typing away feverishly on my computer as I cranked out evaluation after evaluation.  It was the third consecutive weekend that I had dedicated time to sorting through portfolios that teachers had submitted as part of the evaluation process.  Don’t get me wrong, in no way am I complaining. In fact, I am always amazed when I am reviewing a teacher’s collection of work. It never fails that I learn a few more things about my teachers that makes me appreciate them that much more.

On this particular Saturday I did something that I try not to do when I am trying to stay focused on the task at hand.  I checked my email.  After more than two decades as a principal you would think I would have learned by now there are two things you often regret after the fact;  checking your email when you are trying to get something important done and two, taking a phone call from an angry parent at 4 p.m. at the end of a school day.  The good news is it was a weekend so I was safe from having to take an earful, but regardless, the email bounced me off the task at hand.  The message I received served as a reminder about an item that all building principals had recently been required to complete. As I read through the email I couldn’t help but shake my head because I knew in that moment that what was being asked of us was not beneficial and quite honestly, felt like a hoop that we were being required to jump through. It wasn’t necessarily anyone’s fault. It was just one of those things that all educators at one time or another experience as part of our job.  I stared at it, pondered it for a moment, and then decided to give it hardly a thought as I quickly skimmed through some documents I had printed and responded to the inquiry.   An hour and fifteen minutes later I was done.

I need to be honest and tell you that I really didn’t care about what I was being asked to do and I am sure my response demonstrated an attitude of apathy. A meaningless task completed, I thought to myself.

And just like that, I checked the box….done.

As the last month of the school year came and went, I couldn’t help but pay attention to how many times we asked students, teachers, and support staff to either complete or submit something where they simply chose to check the box. In other words, they accomplished what was asked of them without investing quality time or a quality thought.  Their motivation was driven solely by a desire to check if off their list.  No doubt that these tasks or “to do” items were implemented at one time or another with good intentions or at least I want to believe so.  

So this got me thinking, what are these checkboxes that are asked of us or in many cases as school leaders, we ask our students and staff to complete where we can pretty much predict that they will be checking off these items at the last minute without a single meaningful thought.

  1.  Handbook Regulations: If you are still a principal who asks your staff to review the do’s and don’ts to students on the first day of school, I would highly recommend you put an end to this practice. The same can be said of teachers who focus on classroom rules or a spend time reviewing the course syllabus.  These items are necessary, but embed these items over the first few weeks rather than the first day.  Instead invest your efforts in the 3 R’s – relationships, relationships, relationships.
  2.  In-Service Trainings: Yep, nothing screams louder than bloodborne pathogens, bullying, mandatory reporter, employee code of conduct, etc. to kick off a school year.  I recognize these items are required and necessary, but again, perhaps there is a more appropriate time and manner in which to check these items off.  One idea is to offer these items to be completed anytime during the summer before the Welcome Back to School days arrive rather than suck the life out of our teachers on the first day of school through hours of training.
  3.  Summer Retreats: This may surprise you a bit, but when district or building leaders do not come prepared with specific agendas and a specific focus to what the retreat will entail, we risk our folks not investing in the process and therefore leaving the experience disappointed.  If this experience is repeated the following year, the retreat becomes nothing more than a check mark that reflects an item taken off the summer list.  And by the way, if you are going to call it a retreat, then leave the campus, include some activities that promote teamwork, bonding, and genuine investment in each other.  Holding all day meetings does not constitute a retreat.
  4.  Reflection Forms: I am a firm believer that personal growth comes from self-reflection.  However, when it comes to professional development, I think we need to give teachers different options to demonstrate their learning. For some teachers, a reflection form may serve as powerful tool. For others, maybe it is a conversation with a department chair or administrator about takeaways and next steps and for a set of different teachers it could be the opportunity for a more formal presentation to show their colleagues how they benefitted and what the benefit could mean for them, their team or their students.  We all lose if teachers begin to see PD as a check box.
  5.  Surveys: Call me crazy, but I feel like every time I turn around we are asking our students or our staff to take part in another survey, often time duplicating many of the same requests for data.  These mandates for surveys are often placed on us due to local, state and federal funding sources that benefit students and programs, but I am not convinced the results are telling us much due to survey apathy. We need to consider suspending most surveys.  This is a practice that is quickly becoming one of the biggest check boxes in schools today.
  6.  State Assessments: I am not here to bash standardized tests, but we all know that many students are beginning to question the value of state assessments.  Many are not only checking the box, they are actually randomly filling in the bubbles. We still have many dedicated students who are still committed to a variety of high stakes tests, such as ACT, AP, PSAT, SAT, etc., but we have no doubt lost ground on student attitudes regarding state assessments.  We need to be more intentional by taking time to explain to students and parents the personal, school and district benefits that can come from taking these exams serious as we are still held accountable for proficiency and growth scores.
  7.  District Strategic Plan/School Improvement Plans: Another danger zone area. In many schools and districts, these plans are not reviewed often enough and certainly don’t guide our work.  When the plan is not utilized to make decisions in a strategic and systemic way, teachers and leaders figure out that the document doesn’t really serve a purpose and quickly learn that when the times comes for planning, they find themselves mentally checked out and simply zone themselves out through the process.
  8.  Hiring: It is not uncommon for me to hear some of my colleagues complain about having to hire new staff. It is one of those jobs that can sometimes take hours sifting through applications and resumes and require an even greater commitment in terms of communication, developing interview questions, assembling  committees, conducting interviews, lessons, tours, etc.  I get it. It’s a lot. But hiring for excellence is something that should never be considered a check box. So let’s check ourselves and make sure that our attitudes are in the right place from the beginning, during and ending when hiring staff.  There is nothing more important than selecting the best people for our students and school community.  Remember, what we model is what we get.

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I often worry about the amount of tasks that are being required of all of us in this wonderful profession we call education that really are meaningless and are often disguised as mandates or even explained as a measure of accountability.

Other tasks have more value, but the investment of time is simply not there.  Perhaps I am naïve and need to recognize that check boxes don’t only exist in the educational world, but in every organization, including the public and private sector. But it still doesn’t make it right and I think we can do better.  We must do better.

Our students and teachers deserve better from us when it comes to assigning meaningful tasks and meaningful work.  If we don’t commit to approaching some of these items in a more purposeful manner, we will continue to find an endless row of boxes filled with check marks rather than boxes full of desire. 

Check, check, check…..done!

 

What other boxes are we asking others to check? I would love to hear your thoughts.

3 Comments

  • Bob Cassiday says:

    There is a lot of food for thought in what you say, especially in regard the beginning of year procedures and the school improvement plans. Already I prioritize the agendas to not waste anyone’s time and any meetings last only long enough to take care of necessary face to face business; everything else can be managed with email or individually. I believe I’ll redesign some expectations of my teachers and focus more on their (and my) developing relationships with the students.

  • richard c colpitts says:

    Great article and something for me to teflect on. Thanks Jimmy.

  • Bob Baker says:

    We began a new policy two years ago in which our teachers do not begin the school year with a detailed reading of the handbook and/or course syllabus. Instead, we require our teachers to begin the year with, as we call it, their best, most engaging lesson plan of the year! We have made the decision to not start the school year (we are a 7-12 building) with the same old routine that bores our students who, even in high school, are still a little excited about the “first day of school.” This policy has paid off tremendously as our attendance rates have increased and the overall climate of the school is improving every year. We hold an assembly early in the 2nd week of school to discuss procedures and regulations, but by then we are able to have the student body run the assembly by creating videos or performing live skits of various areas of importance. Our staff has bought in and we have enjoyed it! So yes, I completely agree – don’t just check the box about syllabi, handbooks and rules… keep those kids as excited and engaged as possible right from the beginning!

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