For Lydia Trevino, principal of Kelly-Pharr Elementary in Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, becoming a more effective leader has meant letting go.
A self-professed “competitive, Type A perfectionist,” Lydia understands her role as principal means the buck stops with her. But it also led to too much micromanaging at work, a staff that didn’t feel comfortable speaking up, and a fear of failure in the face of ever-increasing demands for accountability.
As a recent graduate of The Holdsworth Center’s two-year Campus Leadership Program, Lydia has seen how greater self reflection and a growth mindset has not only created a culture of trust among staff, but it has also improved outcomes for students.
“Self-reflecting is something I do often now,” Lydia said. “I used to believe things have to be perfect and that we’ve got to see results now, because of our accountability-driven world. Holdsworth has really helped me learn to slow down, reflect and refine.”
Starting with a growth mindset
One of the first things Lydia did as part of her two-year learning journey with the Holdsworth Center was to read “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” by Carol S. Dweck. She was so inspired by it, she asked every employee at Kelly-Pharr’s dual language, pre-k through fifth grade campus to read it as well.
Dweck’s book promotes the idea that one’s abilities are not fixed traits but can be improved through dedication and hard work. Having a growth mindset can lead to better outcomes for students, according to a recent study.
Reading about growth mindset together gave the entire campus a common vocabulary and a shared purpose.
“It was really great hearing everyone talk about the book. If we all understand it, we can implement it,” Lydia said. “It helps us break the cycle of feeling we need to be perfect all the time. When we falter, we can look at that as an area of growth.”
Next up was learning how to tackle a tough challenge from the inside. First, by diving deep into the root causes of the problem, then incorporating the expertise of those on the front lines — in this case, teachers — to craft solutions, which can then be quickly tested and refined before scaling.
Known as a problem of practice in education, the concept is akin to continuous improvement methods in the corporate sector like Six Sigma or Toyota’s “kaizen.” While common in many industries, it’s often foreign to educators, says Dr. Liz City, a senior lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and for Holdsworth’s Campus Leadership Program.
“It’s very common for people outside of schools to point fingers and say, ‘You have a problem’” or for leaders to demand teachers implement outside solutions without ever consulting them,” Liz said. “It’s much less common for people inside schools to name these problems themselves, engage in a process of understanding what’s contributing to the problem and explore their role in fixing it.”
That’s in part because educators haven’t been trained to “peel back the layers of the onion” to get to root causes, she said. For example, poor test scores are not the problem. They are a symptom of other problems.
Think big, act small
Liz teaches Holdsworth leaders how to use the problem of practice framework to solve these challenges. To do that, she encourages them to “think big but act small,” a concept popularized by Jason Jennings in his book about how America’s best-performing companies keep the start-up spirit alive.
What can we try quickly, see if it works and adjust?
At least initially, that means choosing a manageable, well-defined problem – something they can implement quickly and adjust nimbly if their proposed solution isn’t getting the desired results.
The Holdsworth model, she said, is to embed the framework into a rapid improvement cycle: “Instead of trying big things for a long time, we’re asking, ‘What can we try quickly, see if it works and adjust?”
Learning to let go
Choosing the right problem proved to be a challenge for Lydia and her team. After a survey showed the staff was missing a sense of community on her campus, they decided to tackle that.
“It was going to be about building community and telling each other’s stories,” Lydia said. “But then we said, ‘How is this going to affect students?’”
Without a clear way to measure how a stronger community would impact students, the team suggested they scrap it and start over. Lydia was resistant.
“I wanted to make it fit,” she said. “I didn’t want to lose the time and the investment. But the rest of the team said, ‘No, it’s okay to let this go.’”
Getting to the root
Accepting her team’s input was a milestone for Lydia’s development as a more inclusive leader — and one that would pay dividends for her campus’s youngest students. The team chose instead to tackle historically low reading scores — but this time, to start at the root.
We’re not going to just put Band-Aids on this.
“We said, ‘We’re not going to just put Band-Aids on this at the fourth and fifth-grade level,’” Lydia said. “Let’s get down to where they’re first starting to read. And what we found was that our first-grade teachers didn’t necessarily know how to teach reading. We heard, ‘We know what to do but not how.’ So we said, ‘Okay, we’re going to learn together.’”
Doing right by students
And here, Liz City notes, is where things can get uncomfortable. Often, she said, educators realize they are implicated in their own practice, “and that means having to admit we’re not doing right by our students.”
As the Kelly-Pharr team dug in, they had to ask a lot of hard questions.
Did all the teachers know the current standards? Did they know the latest research on the most effective way to teach reading? For example, she said, depending on when a teacher did her training, she may still be teaching the alphabet in first grade, when today that’s more commonly done in kindergarten.
The team also learned that they didn’t really know how to analyze the data they had. Taking an assessment model used by fourth and fifth-grade teachers and applying it to first graders “was really eye-opening for teachers,” Lydia said. “It started that accountability piece.”
The sudden microscope placed on first-grade teachers was not initially welcome, said first-grade teacher Margo Perez. But that original exercise has changed almost everything about the way the first-grade team teaches and supports one another.
“At first we were like, ‘Ugh, another thing on our plate,’” she explained. “Before, it was kind of like a lecture, these are the scores, what are you going to do about it? And honestly, we were kind of scared of Ms. Trevino.”
Learning from each other
But this time was different, Margo said. Lydia was asking teachers for their input, and they were learning how to dissect the data they had collected on their early readers. They also had more time to observe one another and pick up tips and strategies.
For Margo, a new focus on phonics and spelling was aided by songs she learned from a fellow teacher after watching her reading lessons.
“We’d always done some observing, but it was often just us looking into a classroom for like 10 minutes, never in our own grade level. I picked up so many little things. It was a game changer.”
The work paid off. The percentage of first graders who could be classified as “independent readers” jumped from 34 percent to 82 percent of English readers, and to 67 percent for Spanish readers, up from 42 percent.
“Once we started seeing growth in the students, that’s the motivation to keep it up,” Lydia said.
When we had that trust, then we were able to focus on reading.
Then the pandemic hit, and everything changed. When school started up again in the fall, the new crop of first graders were not doing well with the virtual environment. It was difficult to get them engaged, much less to focus on their reading skills.
But thanks to the trust and openness fostered among the first-grade team through the problem of practice, they were able to pivot quickly to this new challenge, sharing ideas about how to get to know their new students and playing games that would increase their comfort.
“When we had that trust, then we were able to focus on reading,” Margo said. “But we really needed to connect with them first.”
Growth is the goal
Lydia is understandably proud of the team’s growth — and her own.
“In the past, I expected people to read my mind and I wanted to have control. But now I understand the opportunity I have to build up new leaders by allowing them to take the initiative and follow through while I guide.”
Who you work for really makes a difference.
Margo said her team has a much higher comfort level with their principal, whether bringing her new ideas or concerns.
“She’s much more approachable now,” Margo said. “Who you work for really makes a difference. I used to be nervous all the time but now I know what I am supposed to be doing. And that benefits my students.”
Closing the gaps
With a new year approaching, Lydia and her team know there will be major gaps in learning to fill.
Results of the statewide STAAR test taken by students this spring show the same trend statewide – fully remote students will need more support than their peers who went back to in-person learning this past year.
But Lydia feels confident what she and her staff learned through Holdsworth and the problem of practice will serve them well. They will target small groups of students for additional enrichment and empower teachers to read their own data and test new solutions and strategies.
“They are the scientists,” Lydia said of her teachers. “They are grounded in these tools and will use them to just take off.”