It’s been just over a year since my family moved to upstate New York and began renovating my childhood home. We’ve tackled countless projects (planned and unplanned) and accomplished so much, but many days it feels like we haven’t done enough. Our project list keeps growing, and we never quite arrive at that satisfied feeling of having conquered it. It’s a familiar dynamic in schools, as well. As the year comes to an end, we see evidence of growth, but it’s hard not to focus on the areas that still need work. Renovating has felt so like schooling that it made me really think about the overlap. Here’s what I’ve found.
1) The longer you leave an issue, the worse it gets. Case in point: my parents used to have a charming, little balcony off of their bedroom. After my mom died when I was in middle school, my dad didn’t keep up with repairs, so by the time we moved in, the wood was rotten and mossed over (so much so that there was a small tree growing out of it). At many instances, he might have leaned into that dilemma to see what could be done, but for many reasons, he couldn’t. As a result, we had a small tree and a LOT of water damage that required us to take the siding off much of the back of the house to fix it.
In our classrooms, we may notice issues that students are having, but we can’t always get to them right away. While those situations can be tricky and the reasons we can’t immediately step in are often challenging and nuanced, everyone is still better off if we step toward the dilemma as soon as we’re able. Calling home isn’t as hard when you’re being proactive, and asking for a minute of a specialist’s time is easier when you don’t feel like it has to happen right now because you’ve already put it off for a few weeks. Many school-based issues don’t disappear with time, so next year, try to move swiftly.
A pre-renovation photo of what would become our dining room. Photo courtesy of Jack Bailey.
2) When you work with other members of your team, the work is better. I have had lots of ideas of what my family can do with our home, yet none of the work has been solely mine. I tried to do a few small projects more independently at the beginning of our move, but inevitably, someone (usually my husband) would come along and give an idea that built on mine or was a smarter or more efficient way to do something. (He’s also much better than I am at picking out paint colors.)
Likewise, the best work in schools isn’t siloed. When we listen to and incorporate the ideas of our colleagues and our students, our collective work is both stronger and more reflective of the community that built it. In the upcoming year, try to seek out the support of those in and out of your classroom to help everyone flourish.
3) You have to see the parts AND the whole. I could make an extensive list of all of the work that needs to be done in my kitchen, but that’s not so useful if there is more pressing work somewhere else in the house (for instance, a balcony with a tree growing through it). Before we began tackling projects, we had to have a good sense of the big picture, and we needed to talk to each other to prioritize the list.
In every school across America, teachers and administrators can identify needs; typically, teachers focus on the specific needs of their classrooms, and administrators, the overarching needs of the school. But it’s even better if both groups work together to understand both individual and big picture needs. In Radically Reimagined Relationships terms, we encourage efforts toward Shared Purpose and Responsibility.
A post-renovation photo of our dining room. Photo courtesy of Jack Bailey.
4) The tending is constant. There are small, regular tasks that we need to do to make sure everything runs smoothly (like running the garbage disposal or touching up the paint). While some repairs allow for a bit of leeway, the little things will add up if we ignore them for long enough.
In schools, when we notice a child’s backpack is disorganized, we can help them with that manageable task before they’ve lost work that took them valuable time. When we regularly pay attention to who needs a quick check-in before they start a task, we can help to get them productively moving sooner. Next year, try regularly checking in with a couple of students a day to see how they’re doing; this regular act of caring will go a long way.
While there are important distinctions between homes and schools, it isn’t coincidental that the care and keeping of them can feel so similar. They are both places that should be designed for growth and fueled by love.
While I hope that the big pieces of work slow down for a bit, I also know that both of these endeavors are iterative processes, and we’ll come back to every decision we’ve made and need to do something more with it later. For now, if you’re a teacher, I hope you can revel in all of the hard-won growth and accomplishments of the year, take a well-earned rest, and enjoy summer.
 This is my paraphrasing of a quote from an exceptional principal that I worked with, Todd Sumner.