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Big Changes Start Small

Guest post by Shelly Cihak, Ed.D. – Shelly is the principal at Poquoson High School, where the emphasis is engaging all students to help realize their post-secondary goals. Follow her learning adventures on Twitter @ShellyCihak.

“Professional development” is a term that often makes teachers groan.  Participants are often tasked with using post-it notes to process through new ideas and then turned loose to magically translate the big ideas into action within their classrooms. Even with the most stellar of professional learning experiences, educators are often given a tremendous amount of new information, instructional strategies, or course content and no framework or time for implementation. While I often leave professional learning opportunities with the best intentions to implement my learning into my practice, real-life often gets in the way.

That was until I was introduced to the Hack Cycle and other structures through the School Retool cohort. As a recent participant in the second Virginia cohort of School Retool, I was able to take manageable steps towards implementing “big ideas” at my school, a process highlighted on this blog in the “Power of Protocols” post.

I began the process with my large aspiration for student learning:  students will master content in ways that are engaging, meaningful and connected to the real world. From this, I moved through the process to isolate my big idea of increasing visibility of project-based learning within our school community. I then designed numerous small hacks, such as publicizing student work throughout the building. Observable behavior then began to change and students were discussing their projects and, more importantly, the learning.

The Power in Small Steps

School Retool empowered me to make an immediate difference in my school…I made small steps toward big changes. I realized that if this process provided a framework for my professional practice, it could also assist my teachers in the implementation of their aspirations to make a difference in their classrooms. With that in mind, I scrapped my initial plan for professional development in favor of guiding teachers through the Hack Cycle.

We began with a driving question: How do we achieve deeper learning and achieve our aspirations for our classrooms? After a few moments for self-reflection, I introduced the Hack Cycleusing the School Retool sock puppet videos. After all, what demonstrates risk-taking and willingness to try new ideas then showing highly-trained professionals – high school teachers, no less – a video with sock puppets? As a way to illustrate the meaning of this video, teachers divided into six groups around two main tasks: finding a solution for lost car keys or a solution for disorganized jewelry (two tasks used in the School Retool workshop). I led the groups through brainstorming with reckless abandon, development of a basic plan, and construction of a solution using materials provided for them. While this activity provided many laughs, it illustrated the feasibility of taking small steps to solving a large problem.


Taking Risks to Move Forward

Then I challenged my teachers to make their aspirations a reality—but I modeled my own risk taking of doing the same thing. I became vulnerable in front of my faculty by sharing my aspirations, big ideas, and small steps that I took throughout the building…as well as an honest reflection of the successes and failures of my efforts. My goal was to create a safe environment for my teachers to move from their comfort zones.

Teachers then paired with a colleague and provided feedback on each other’s aspirations, helping each participant to refine their aspiration and really hone the focus of their own classroom hacks. We then moved from aspirations to actions, as each teacher isolated their big idea and then the small actions that they would take to move towards the big idea. As an exit ticket, I asked each teacher to articulate their aspiration, as well as the small steps that their students would see within the next two weeks. Teachers were asked to view this exit ticket as a pledge to their students, as the exit tickets would be made public within the school.

For a last dose of inspiration, I shared the “Science of Taking Action” TED Talk ( ). Teachers overwhelmingly viewed this video as inspirational and many requested to share it with their students and even with their spouses).


This workshop was very different than any professional development workshop my teachers previously experienced and I was quite uncertain as to how it would be received. Sitting in my office after the workshop, numerous teachers stopped by to discuss their ideas and mention that they felt energized to work towards change. One teacher said, “Professional development is often a dirty term to me, but this was actually useful.”

In my second year of helping move an already successful school forward, leading this workshop represented a small step toward what I hope will be big change. Faculty members are making their small steps forward, stopping by my office to share the introduction of a roller coaster project in Calculus, tweeting about meditation at the start of English classes, asking me to stop by the library to see Geometry students using the Maker Space to understand the Golden Rule, and much more. Just as the School Retool cohort energized my professional practice, it is starting to have the same impact on my teachers.