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Embracing "Let's Try That!"

Written by Tim Bentum on January 13th, 2020

Schools tend to run in cyclical cycles, perhaps more than other businesses or organizations. There is a definitive start time (usually right after Labour Day) and there is a definitive end time (usually late June). Between those times, life in schools is very busy with students, teachers, parents, administrators and board members running to catch up. One scheduled event leads to the next one and all of a sudden the year is over, with a brief summer break before it starts up again. There are lots of fantastic things about this definitive start and end cycle. However, there are also some inherent challenges associated with the rhythm and flow of schools. Here are four scenarios that perhaps you have found yourself in:

  1. School budgets are usually set one time per year. This is great because, as long as the tuition comes in, it is predictable and manageable. However, what do you do when you come across a fantastic initiative in December that was not budgeted?
  2. The curriculum or program arch for the year in many schools is set at the beginning, and then it runs its course as the year unfolds. This is a great way to gain alignment between teachers and classes. However, what do you do if a teacher comes up with a terrific new idea mid-year but it throws off the curricular coordination between multiple grades?
  3. Many schools set a yearly calendar and publish it widely for obvious reasons. This type of organization and coordination allows everyone in the community to plan adequately for upcoming events, and limits chaos and headaches. However, what if you find out mid way through the year that a particular event would work much better according to your vision if it was moved to a different date?
  4. Many school boards invest a lot of time and energy into establishing and creating strategic plans that could last three or more years. This type of long-range planning is fantastic and can be catalytic towards a desired future. However, what happens if you are approached by a donor who would like to make a significant contribution to your budget, but it comes with some unforeseen strings attached?

Different leaders or leadership teams would deal differently with each of these scenarios and often there is no right or wrong answer. However, as we enter 2020 with renewed optimism and a list full of new resolutions that we haven’t broken yet (hopefully), I’d like to make the case that schools should increasingly (cautiously) lean more towards "Let’s Try That!" rather than "We’ll See Next Year."

Recently I ran across an article from Forbes that trumpeted the idea Fail Fast, Fail Often. Startups in Silicon Valley can’t afford the time to wait until next year to perfect an idea. Time is of the essence, so companies deliver what they have and improve on it later. If a startup is second to market with an idea, they might as well be last. I later ran across a rebuttal to the original article, also from Forbes that was titled, The Foolishness of Fail Fast, Fail Often. This second article argued that simply failing quickly without a built-in culture and system to iterate (key word) and improve on previous learning is a recipe for disillusionment, demotivation and disaster.

That’s the advice being given to startup companies, but what can we learn that applies to our schools? In short, I believe our schools in 2020 could benefit from a healthy dose of (careful, thoughtful, iterative), "Let’s Try That!" culture. Our world is moving faster and faster. Could it be that the yearly planning cycle of schools is leaving us lagging behind?

Happy 2020! May God bless you richly in your leadership this year.

Tim Bentum is the Bluewater Leadership Cohort Mentor and Principal at London Christian High in London, Ontario.  

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