Today’s guest post is from Caleb Olson. He is a fellow administrator at a local middle school. I have always been impressed with how he thought through tough problems and this post will show you why.

In a garden bed in front of my house, I have exactly one tulip.

Not one tulip among other flowers, mind you. One. Single. Tulip.

One. Single. Tulip.

When my wife and I bought the house, we purchased six dozen tulip bulbs from Thanksgiving Point (which Wikipedia aptly describes as a “nonprofit farm, garden, and museum complex in Lehi, Utah”). Each year, the Ashton Gardens at Thanksgiving Point hold a Tulip Festival showcasing hundreds of varieties, and at the end of the season, the bulbs are dug up and sold to the public. Eager to match the pristine and well-manicured lawns of our neighbors, we planted the bulbs one fall evening, certain of multi-colored glory the following spring.

What the flower bed should have looked like…

The next spring? A few promising shoots of green – but no tulips.

The culprit? Mule deer. My home lies in the foothills of Mount Timpanogos in Utah. In early spring, the hungry mule deer move down out of the canyons and into the streets and yards of the suburbs, looking for tasty treats in the yards of well-intentioned but novice homeowners. Tasty treats like tulips and cabbage starts. In my yard, after a year or two of being nibbled away by wandering deer, the tulip bulbs have either died or been dug up, but one single yellow tulip bulb has survived several seasons of deer, tilling, weeding, and clearing to produce two beautiful buds.

The Culprit

My tulips were doomed from the start. The autumn night we planted the bulbs was cold and breezy, and not all of the bulbs were planted deep enough as we hurried to get back inside. After a winter of snow and thaw, many of the bulbs were exposed and easy pickings for a hungry deer. We planted the bulbs after only a few months in our home and before we knew how rampant a problem the deer would be. And, worst of all, we simply had no idea how delicious tulips were to those deer (a fact many of our neighbors were happy to point out to us later in the spring as we complained about our failed attempt at gardening). We moved into our home in the spring and saw beautiful flowers in our neighbor’s yards and thought we could, with little effort, be just like them. One thing we failed to realize, however, is that our neighbors, knowing the area and the mule deer, had planted their tulips not on the edge of a garden bed as we had, but in the middle, surrounded by daffodils, hyacinths, and other flowers that are toxic to the deer and offer some degree of protection.

I think of our failed tulip project each spring as my wife and I discuss what we might want to do with our garden beds – and as I see the other two or three stalwart straggler tulip bulbs that manage to avoid the beady eyes of the mule deer in another bed to the side of the house. The failure of my tulips has had an impact on the garden beds in the rest of my yard to this day. We often wait to plant until later in the season, when the deer have returned to the canyons, and we plant things that are certainly less showy and dramatic, but also far less effort. Having been burned once, we are a little more leery of undertaking the time or expense of additional major plant projects.

Many attempts at school reforms or changes end in failure, and quite often, it is for the very same reason my tulips didn’t survive to the end of their first season:

We rush the timeline. I bought tulips bulbs at the end of May. The bulbs sat in my basement for months until late October when I realized, in a panic, that snow wouldn’t be that far away. The bulbs were planted in a rush to get them into the ground in time, and that rush only accelerated as the night grew darker and the wind colder.

School reforms often suffer the same fate. We know in November or February that there is a need for a new student handbook, a plan for rolling out standards-based grading, or a less punitive discipline system. But those are all tasks for “the Summer”, the mythical land of quiet halls and abundant time where our best intentions live. As it does every year, the dark gray skies of second quarter quickly become the field days of late spring, and deadlines loom, and something that “will do” gets rushed to completion.

We fail to read the landscape. I had no idea that mule deer would be a problem in my garden when I planted my bulbs. When the snow piled deep over those same bulbs and I could see five or six deer walking through the then-empty lot behind my house that winter, it was a novelty and a fun thing to point out to my children. It wasn’t until I had a garden bed full of tulip shoots all neatly nibbled off at ground level that I fully understood what I was up against.

As an administrator, I know I have been guilty of coming back from a conference or a training excited with an idea or an approach that seemed like the silver bullet for all of my school’s problems, only to wonder days or weeks later why the six-paragraph distillation of a two-day training didn’t spark the same excitement in my faculty, not realizing that while I was at a training getting inspired, my faculty spent those same two days (plus countless others before and after) worried about grade deadlines, discipline problems, broken copiers, and angry parents.

We don’t ask for help. I saw the success my neighbors had and thought I could replicate it – if they can do it down the street, why can’t I? When my own tulips failed, I spent the rest of the spring glaring at the beautiful blooms down the road. I have a neighbor whose yard is full of beautiful tulips each spring, and each spring for five years I’ve looked jealously at those bulbs – but never bothered to walk down the street and ask how in the world he manages to pull it off.

How many schools have you worked at or know of that tried to purchase the same program, start the same club, or even order the same t-shirt as a successful school down the road or across the state without any associated attempt to reach out for guidance or explanation, only to have the attempt crash and fail by Christmas? Thankfully many schools and administrators are starting to buck this trend, but it still happens far too often.

My own school fell victim to “the tulips” this year. A great plan in July started to fracture in October and was dropped by December, due to a combination of forces both internal (the pressures of running an overcrowded school with a new administrative team) and external (boundary changes, reductions in staff, and changes in district direction). We’ve made progress as a building this year, but in many ways, it has been in spite of our building improvement efforts rather than because of them.

So what’s the solution? How do we overcome these challenges to move forward? If I had that answer, I’d probably be a lot more famous than I am now – and I’d almost certainly have a yard filled with more tulips. I don’t have foolproof answers, but I can share a few that are working better than anything else I’ve tried in my six years as an assistant principal:

We talk as a team. For the first time in my administrative career, I work on a team that has prioritized weekly team meetings. We may not always stay on topic, but we always meet and collaborate. That alone has enabled us to be more responsive and address issues better than anything else I’ve ever tried, even though our plan for the year didn’t pan out.

We make plans – and then start to act on them. A good landscape would start with a plan, complete with pictures of measured beds and locations of plants. While the administrative team I work with may not be quite at that level yet, I do feel we have a bias for action. Our team meetings end with plans, and frequently with assignments. Most importantly, those plans are flexible. When my tulips were destroyed by the fuzzy scavengers of the hills, my garden dreams went with them. This year, as it became obvious that our carefully crafted and timelined plan wasn’t going to work, we didn’t just give up and kick the problems down the road until “the Summer”, we started to change. Timetables lengthened, priorities shifted, and we kept trying.

We have a direction. For the first time in my career as a teacher and administrator at three different schools with five different building principals, I feel like there’s a purpose behind our actions as an administrative team. In previous schools, we were driven by what looked best to the district or what other successful schools were doing. For the first time, I feel like what is best for students truly is our driving force. Even if an idea fails – and they certainly still do – there’s a rope to grab onto to climb back out of the dust. That goal helps to frame our actions and provide perspective to make decisions that are what we feel are best, not just what might get us the most acclaim on social media or in the district gossip grapevine.

We’re not perfect, but we’re trying and we’re making progress. And unlike my garden bed with its single lonely tulip, our efforts as an administrative team will continue to blossom and grow. Yes, the “mule deer” in our school and community will continue to try to nibble at our early shoots, but we’re positioning ourselves to gain the upper hand, and those little setbacks won’t derail the whole effort, and it won’t be long before the garden of my school will be among the best, because that’s what our students need to be prepared to move into the world and start gardens of their own.

-Caleb Olson

For anyone that is interested in writing a guest post, please contact me @stewhud. I love to have a variety of insights and experiences on Relentless Educator.