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Systems or People?

Where to begin? What to focus on? We are all so busy that we naturally seek out ways to simplify our work. We know we can’t do everything, so we look for what will make the most difference. Here’s the problem.


This often leads us into false dichotomies. Even when we know both topics are important.


Take the debate between focusing on creating systems or developing people. There are die hard believers that the only way to improve an organization is by creating effective and efficient systems. Others will tell you that systems don’t matter and everything depends on the people.

Where do you find yourself on that continuum?


Most people would agree that the answer is to do both. The challenge is how.


What if we focus on systems as a way to develop people?


The largest within school factor that impacts student achievement is the classroom teacher. This should be the focus of our work. This is a focus on people. However, as leaders, there is no way we have time to develop every individual teacher. Here’s where systems focused on developing people are valuable.


Systems in schools should do one of three things:

  • Promote the development of teachers, both individually and as teams.

There are a number of systems and structures that promote the development of all teachers: teacher teams, coaching, professional learning systems, etc. The effectiveness of those structures will be a determining factor in the development of the people within the organization. These structures diffuse leadership, leverage collaboration, and lead to ongoing continuous improvement. They support teachers in the improvement of their teaching practice, the development of a guaranteed and viable curriculum, and support the needs of students.

  • Create efficiency across the organization in order to save time and focus for improving teaching and learning.

School-wide systems need to be in place that ensure teachers and leaders have the time needed to engage in the structures listed above. For example, a poor school-wide behavior management system leads to wasted time in managing student discipline needs. A poor response to intervention system does the same. Even a poor teacher absence/substitute system leads to lost time.

  • Facilitate individual (especially leadership) efficiency.

Developing personal systems is also a critical component in saving the time and focus needed to improve teaching and learning. For example, having an efficient email system is critical for leaders to have the time they need. Teachers need to have an efficient lesson planning system. Calendaring, meeting agendas, managing to do's, and communication are all systems and structures that need to be created in order to be more efficient with our time.



The danger with systems is that all of the examples above can be put in place for the wrong reasons and not have the intended outcomes. They can become goals unto themselves. If we don’t focus on how our systems lead to improved teaching and learning, then we are likely to miss the mark. We need to stay focused on developing people and use systems as a way to get to that outcome.


Additionally, no system replaces building relationships, fostering trust, and creating the needed culture to support people and improve schools. These foundational components must be ever present in our work. Systems might help in their development, but only if used purposefully.


Which of these would help you be more effective in your work this year--developing better systems or maintaining a laser-like focus on how your systems develop people and lead to better teaching and learning?


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