To Transform Schools, Slow Down

July 22, 2016

I’m a bit of a teacher-nerd in that one of my favorite parts of the job is lesson planning. I’m a notorious wheel-re-creator, as it is a captivating puzzle for me to build together just the right sequence of experiences to help my learners move from point-A to point-B.

I don’t necessarily script out activities or transitions down to the minute, but the execution of the lesson is a purposeful performance on my part. I design each lesson not only with a clear intention of the learning I want my students to develop, but also the experience I want them to participate in, and the reactions I hope to cultivate. Each lesson is a thoughtfully composed chapter in an epic novel, building upon what came before to prepare the reader for what comes next, building toward the greater cumulative experience.

It is no surprise then, in those occasional moments when my planning has been incomplete (or non-existent) for one reason or another, the lesson stalls, momentum is lost, and the storyline of learning feels frayed. And yet, with the countless expectations placed upon teachers, I’ve discovered that planning time often ends up compressed or minimized in favor of the more tangible demands of assessment or reporting.

As my work has shifted from leading my own classroom of kids to leading at a systemic level, I see parallel pressures placed on school and district systems. Because of the ever-present pressure to improve and show accountability, and because of the perpetual downpour of new mandates and initiatives, there is a compulsion to implement immediately so we can show results. Unfortunately, what follows is a cycle of failed initiatives swiftly swept downstream, to be hastily replaced by the next under-planned-and-hastily-implemented New Solution. The byproduct is systemic jadedness against new thinking. Initiative “failure” begets a panic to patch the sinking ship, which only begets further failure.

This is where accomplished teacher leaders can step in.

Many accomplished teachers share my disposition toward lesson planning. We recognize the power of intentional planning to move learning forward. In conversations with other like-minded teachers and teacher leaders, a common thread emerges often: the time we spend reflecting, thinking, considering inputs (data), researching, exploring, and designing a single lesson is often several multiples of the time it actually takes to implement that lesson.

Part of my work with NBPTS includes participating both as a pilot school and a faculty member in the Network to Transform Teaching (NT3), a US Department of Education grant project whose name conveys the essence of its purpose: to transform teaching, or more precisely to ensure that every child has access to accomplished teaching. A fundamental premise of this work is that transforming teaching cannot feasibly happen one teacher at a time. Transforming teaching occurs when we transform the systems in which teachers operate, thus empowering whole cohorts of teachers toward even more effective instruction.

The learning we do as part of the NT3 work falls under the term “Improvement Science,” the concept that system improvement is a process that is study-able and describe-able. And the more I learn about Improvement Science, to more clearly I understand how schools and systems have doomed themselves to failure again and again by rushing in with the best of intentions, driven by the pressures of accountability. Rushing to “launch” a system change is akin to sprinting into class at the tardy bell with nothing but good intentions and a vague sense of the scope and sequence. Through NT3, participating districts and schools are encouraged to “move slowly now” in order to move quickly later. Intentional, thorough planning makes all the difference.

Accomplished teachers, in the micro-systems of our classrooms, can recover a bit more quickly from the occasional under-planned lesson. In my classroom work I might get one of those crazy flashes of brilliance on the drive into work, only to see my bright idea implode rapidly during 1st period – but I can recover and improve by the next lesson. Systems do not adjust as quickly. Thus, systemic change demands a methodical patience that isn’t as necessary at a classroom level. The pressures of accountability sometimes turn off that part of our planning brains that reminds us the importance of thorough preparation.

All the more reason for accomplished teachers to lead when it comes time for systems to shift: every day in our classrooms we reap the benefits of careful planning skillfully implemented. If we want to transform schools and transform teaching, the best thing we can do is slow down and prioritize planning over implementing.

Mark Gardner, NBCT

Mark Gardner is a National Board Certified High School English Teacher living and working in a transition suburban-rural school district in southwest Washington state. After teaching full time in the classroom for ten years, and three years in a hybrid teaching/teacher-leadership role, he transitioned into a full-time role designing and launching his district’s K-12 New Teacher Induction and Mentorship program. In the 2016-17 school year, he will also be serving as the president of his local teachers’ association. Mark writes for the group blog Stories from School ( which is sponsored by Washington state’s Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession (CSTP). Mark works within his own district to develop sustainable teacher leadership pathways and professional development. Follow Mark on twitter: @mdwyg.