School transformation starts with bright spots

Instead of focusing on what is not going well, Culturally Responsive Leaders must search for examples of success, highlight them, and analyze what makes them work.

This is especially true when we are challenging systemic oppression.

In the world of public education, we’ve been trained to prepare kids for college and careers, using minimal resources. After years of pounding our heads against the wall, the days seem to be getting darker and it feels like winter is always coming. But there’s hope.

As a leader, you look at your test scores and wonder what on earth could be done to move the equity needle. Everything looks like a nail when you are walking around with a hammer. You may think that nothing is going well.

But, think again.

Pull out that stud finder!

Bright spots in your building

There are bright spots, highlights, exceptions to the rule right under your nose. You know they are there, but you probably don’t spend time there, because¬†it is working.

But that is precisely why you should spend some time there. Because something is working.

Kids are happy, learning, engaged. Relationships are strong, students turn in their work, and they have that spark.

Students are doing rigorous work, displaying critical thinking, and using academic language. Students are learning about power and privilege.

There’s that one teacher or perhaps more than a few.

Study them.

Figure out what they are doing.

Quantify it. Qualify it. Amplify it.


Chip and Dan Heath, in the groundbreaking book, Switch, talk about “bright spots”. These are examples of successes in places where most people don’t expect it to be possible. They are “successful efforts worth emulating.” They advise us to search for “the first small sign of change,” “exceptions to every problem” and “a little bit of a miracle.” When identified and leveraged, these bright spots give us direction on where we are headed in the change process. This allows both you and your team to learn from the bright spot. You don’t have to be an expert because there are plenty all around you.

There’s a teacher who is already doing the thing you want your entire school to be doing.

Go there, see it.

Tell others about it.

Demystify the magic into tangible moves.

  • Is it the unit planning?
  • Is it their warm demander stance?
  • Is it consistency? Is it humor?
  • Is it their choice of culturally relevant, high interest low Lexile novels?
  • Is it their connection with your school’s community?
  • Is it how they open their class with students reading and analyzing the learning objective?
  • Is it their special individual handshakes as kids enter the classroom?

What is it? Once you know, give them some love and share it with other teachers. Or better yet, bring people to their classroom or have them lead PD on how to do that thing they are so good at.

I have seen the power of this when trying to get a grade level team to build consistency in their classroom management, as well as when trying to expand Project-Based Learning from 6th grade to our entire school.

Shine a light on bright spots and the wildfire will spread. All you need to know is where the sparks are and why they exist.

Lessons Learned

It is not enough to simply highlight best practices. Celebrations aren’t going to raise test scores.

We must codify what is happening as well as provide people with training, support, and time to practice. We must also get teachers sharing with teachers.

Peer to peer.

I have spent far too much time agonizing over the dim spots and working to brighten those,¬†however, I have seen the most growth when I have focused on our bright spots. Easier said than done, but a little reminder doesn’t hurt. Shine a light in the bright!

Where are your bright spots?

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