Champions supporting other Champions
When thinking about your own job or role, how do you think it allows you to make change?
There’s a lot of positional influence that can come from district leadership but in our School District I am confident that a “top down” direction is matched by a “bottom up” belief that student well-being has a tremendous impact on student success. It’s a belief shared by teachers, administrators, support staff and trustees, and its pervasiveness is one of the strengths in our system wide approach.
As Superintendent, it’s more than the ability to influence district priorities, to require school plans focusing on wellbeing or to find resources to support our initiatives. I’ve seen that simply acknowledging and elevating the importance of well-being validates our deeply-rooted beliefs and unleashes a passion and commitment in educators throughout our schools. As one teacher told me, the value I place on student wellbeing not only gives teachers permission but also creates an expectation that they attend to student wellbeing.
If you could share one piece of advice about how to connect and engage with people around middle years issues, what would it be?
First, it doesn’t matter so much where you start but more that you get started. If you’re waiting for someone else to take the lead you might waste a lot of valuable time waiting. Invite similarly-minded people to look at the MDI, start a conversation, spark some curiosity, generate a movement…whatever it takes to make the middle years both common issues and common ground.
Second, be prepared that people will be both over-whelmed and over-inspired by the vast amount of information in MDI reports! There is so much data in the MDI report that, given our moral commitment to wanting to improve every single measure, people tend to set goals and plan initiatives far beyond what they can realistically handle. It’s also likely that each participant in a ‘data-mining’ activity will discover something that individually interests or resonates with him/her but not necessarily with the larger group. This is particularly true when multiple stakeholders come together but that’s one of the joys and challenges of working with the breadth and depth of MDI information: there’s something for everyone in the MDI and we need to be mindful that moving from understanding to action is dependent on a variety of factors.
When considering school level MDI results we ask administrators to consider zones of interest, influence and control. For example, a school might be very interested in the issue of nutrition and its impact on learning and may exert a degree of influence on nutrition through breakfast/lunch programs but it doesn’t control student nutrition that largely happens in homes. Nutrition is an important area to address but it might be best addressed in a different manner and with a community partner. Instead, we suggest that initial MDI plans might consider areas over which schools exert the greatest control and have the greatest impact. To that end, most of our early attempts to action the MDI focused on explicitly teaching social and emotional competencies such as self-regulation or empathy, or increasing school-related assets like connectedness or school climate.
Most importantly, though, is the realization that schools need to understand the data in the context of their school community, to identify areas that resonate with the school, and to engage where they have the capacity to leverage positive change. No matter what schools choose as a focus area, the impact of initiatives to improve student wellbeing are felt across the MDI. So, a focus on After School Activities will yield an increase in the number of students reporting assets relating to after school activities and is equally likely to impact on measures relating to connectedness with adults, peer relationships, empathy, pro social skills, and so on.
What challenges have you overcome in the process of working with the MDI?
We received and reviewed MDI reports for a couple of years before we became more purposeful and intentional about the data. Shifting from a curiosity about the MDI to intentionally using MDI data, however, presented three initial challenges: perceptions about the validity of self-reported student data, the inability to “drill down” to individual students, and tracking results over time.
The first was easily overcome given the attention paid to the development of the MDI and its rigorous field testing but the other two issues required a more significant shift in thinking as to how we use student evidence. In the end, we had to accept that unlike our past experiences using individual student literacy or numeracy data, working with population-based evidence required a new approach to understanding the data and planning for action. And this was a good shift – away from the ‘fix it’ targeted intervention approach – to thinking more globally about student well-being and universal approaches to improve outcomes for all students. Also, since we don’t (and shouldn’t) compare data from different Grade 4 and 7 cohorts, we chose to apply a ‘line of best fit’ approach in looking at trends over time.
What’s your current project or next adventure?
Our MDI journey is about becoming more intentional about student well-being and systemically embedding practices, processes and programs into the fabric of our school district to improve outcomes for children and youth. Currently, student wellbeing is one of our system goals and each school is required to have a well-being goal as part of their annual school plan. Incorporating well-being as part of schools’ annual growth plans is a first step that requires both an unwavering commitment as well as ongoing attention, support and resourcing. We’re getting better at using the MDI data and articulating school plans that foster student well-being but we still have a way to go before it’s truly embedded system wide.
Looking forward, though, exploring the world of social-emotional language is an important next step not only as it relates to deepening our understanding of well-being but also as it relates to guiding student reflection on Core Competencies. Without a sufficient, developmentally-appropriate vocabulary to understand, identify and express feelings and emotions, it is difficult for students to dig deeper into or extend their MDI voice and/or to meaningfully reflect on Personal/Social Competencies.
At the same time, it’s difficult to look student well-being without a corresponding look at teacher well-being. We need to be equally intentional about SEL for teachers since we know that teachers with strong SEL competencies have greater success implementing SEL practices and programs targeted to students.
Finally, at a system-leadership level, working with colleagues, other Ministries, agencies and community leaders is necessary to ensure MDI insights are shared among schools, families and communities. While school districts administer the MDI they don’t own the results or the responsibility to improve wellbeing outcomes – it’s a shared ownership and responsibility that requires a collective awareness and commitment from all stakeholders.