83 and Entropy

color caos photoThis past August, we celebrated our school’s highest graduation rate ever: 83%.  For us, this was a triumph; the highest percentage before this point had been 74%.  Other things looked good at the end of the year, too: our 9th graders had done well on their exams, attendance increased, and suspensions went down.

This school year, other things have looked promising as well: we started a “hallway countdown” that’s leading to kids getting to class faster, our school is cleaner, and the overall atmosphere seems brighter, more positive.

Yet, as I was bragging about my successes to my leadership consultants Ariel and Shya Kane, they said, “We’re hearing alarm bells when you say, ‘My 9th grade is in great shape.’  On the one hand, that may be true, and you should celebrate.  At the same time, the apparent success is blinding you to something, or possibly many things, that probably need your attention.”

The Kanes reminded me of the concept of entropy: when order devolves into disorder and chaos.  They pointed out that if, for example, I assume the 9th grade is fine and am congratulating myself for that, I might miss a major problem in the 11th grade, or not notice that my overall attendance is creeping down.

This week, I got a stark reminder of how easily things can devolve.  Mid-week, I spoke on the phone with my superintendent and she shared some of my school’s statistics with me: last school year, our safety and discipline occurrences went down by 74%, a phenomenal improvement. “Please congratulate your staff and let them know that what they’re doing is working,” she said.

Five minutes later into our conversation, the fire alarm went off. “I’m sorry, I need to go,” I told her.  “We’re evacuating the building.”

Within the next 24 hours, I saw my great discipline improvement unravel: first, it turned out that one of my students had pulled a false fire alarm, causing the evacuation.  The following day, a different, unrelated group of students started a fast-but-furious fight in the cafeteria.

Both incidents merited high-level suspensions, which I gave because they were appropriate, and consequently said goodbye to my improvement in statistics.  While none of these events were my preference, I felt an unusual clarity around handling them: they were a sign that some of our kids are not speaking to us before problems occur, and that kids are distracted.  My team and I got to work: we were going to use these situations as an opportunity to teach our kids, build greater trust, and strengthen our school culture.

As my team and I were sorting through the aftermath of the cafeteria fight, my phone alarm went off: time for students to switch from 7th period to 8th period.  Between classes, staff members do a two-minute countdown on a loudspeaker so kids know how much time they have to get to each class.  It has led to remarkably fast, crisp hallway transitions.

“Should we do the countdown?” my staff members asked, as this was right after the fight.

Kids need to walk to class in two minutes.  It decreases mischief, gives them purpose, and increases learning time.  If there is a fight, kids still need to walk to class in two minutes. If our graduation rate is 83%, or gets to 90% (my dream), kids still need to walk to class in two minutes.

Running a school is an exercise in fighting entropy.  There are so many interruptions, crises, successes, failures, that are all reasonable excuses to take our eye off the ball or forget a routine “just-this-once. ”

“Yes,” I said.  “Go now, do the countdown.”

They did, and the transition happened in one minute, forty-three seconds.

Photo credit: “color caos,” Emily Yanez, Creative Commons License

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