Guest Contributor: Krissyn Sumare
When I was offered the position as the next Hope High School principal, I was ecstatic, despite the challenges the school faced. Violence, drugs, attendance, and proficiency issues all threatened school closure, but I was ready for that. What I wasn’t ready for was a new CEO who announced agile was going to be “the big fix” for both our school and our struggling district. No teaching methodology course or academic journal could have prepared me for this complete shift in the way learning occurred.
At its core, agile in education means moving away from prescribed, hierarchical, assessment-focused models, to a more transparent, iterative, and student-driven experience. To make it work, teachers need the trust and autonomy to innovatively foster new types of classroom experiences, and students need to stop feeling like education is something being done to them.
It sounds good, but I wasn’t convinced that agile in education would fly.
From Consistent Problem Diagnosis to Iterative Improvement
We had 99 problems but couldn't focus on one. Why? Because we had fallen into the habit of finding problems to fix instead of fixing problems we found. We had become really good at pointing out all the things that were broken, but we didn’t have a flexible framework to begin chipping away at them. We were literally stalled on the runway. All passengers were seated, seatbelts were fastened, and we had a new pilot, but we still couldn’t take off.
Instead, we had a comprehensive list of all of the things that were keeping us grounded. Our plane wasn’t painted, the seats were dirty, the windows were foggy, the cabin lights were too dim, and we were missing our wings. Agile gave us the courage and structure to prioritize what mattered–wings. Then, once we were in the air, we were able to see things from a new perspective. The little issues that once seemed so overwhelming now seemed like dots on a map. We were flying! The lights were dim, sure, but even through the foggy windows we could see the sun shining and we were inspired.
Teachers who once sat passively in a classroom working on the one thing they could control–lesson plans–began innovating ways to improve the air quality and clean the seats. Students soon became chief designers and stakeholders in everything from what the customer flight experience should entail to what color the paint should be. Our district went from being run by a voice in a control tower, to every employee being a part of at least one cross-functional team.
Through consistent iteration, we have improved over time, eventually going from a failing letter grade to honor roll. Through shared accountability and putting trust in the gap, we’ve grown enrollment by more than 200% and have renewed charters into the year 2037.
Transparency and Trust Over Silos and Slackers
I clearly remember the moment I realized our educational culture was actually changing. There is an all-too-common conversation between teacher and student: “If you want to get a good grade in my class, you actually have to be here.” To my surprise, during a student scrum team’s retrospective, student A said to student B, “Dude, one of the reasons things didn’t go well is because you didn't show up for two days.” The teacher, standing in the back of the room facilitating, cracked a sheepish smile and waited to see how things would play out.
Student B rationalized that since he had finished his tasks, it didn’t matter that he wasn’t in class. The aha moment was when his team helped him recognize that he had value beyond these tasks–they needed his contribution to the creative process. He had missed the ideation of their hypothesis, as well as the day that they found three possible solutions. At that point, student B realized attendance was really about being a part of something bigger than himself–a community of learners, seekers, and problem solvers.
Not only did the teacher work her way out of being an attendance gatekeeper that day, she also learned that by creating the space and opportunity for honest reflection and team improvement, her students would hold each other accountable for being in their seats.
Cultivating a Collaborative Culture of Inspired People
In The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger writes, “I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do is, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff, I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going, I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.”
Most organizational leaders will tell you that they feel an innate need to do all the catching. They take on the role of the pilot, and think it means that they must control all the details of what’s going on inside of the plane, when they should be keeping their eyes focused on the sky.
Transformational leaders want to be known for inspiring their team to do great things, and this rings true for teachers. Our agile transformation was not about rattling off scrum vocabulary or having a common language. It wasn't about things being perfect or change happening overnight. It was about cultivating a collaborative culture of inspired people that want nothing more than to motivate our end users–our students.
We are not all that far from our first awkward sprint, and there are years when August takeoff seems impossible and the turbulent descent in June brings a sigh of relief. The difference is that now, even when there are a million little things that need to be fixed, we sit in pure anticipation of that weightless moment that our wheels lift off the ground and everything is possible.
Agile in education, does fly. Teachers across the globe are embracing and implementing agile values in their classrooms, and I look forward to the day more administrators, superintendents, and full school districts adopt this better way of working and educating our future pilots.
The paradox of being a great educator is knowing which students will fly when you push and which ones you must catch before they fall, and I suspect the same could be said of an agile leader in any industry.
Come fly with us.
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