Skinny Rabbits. Fat Rabbits. And School Reform.

For those with whom I’ve worked over the years, the analogy of fat rabbits and skinny rabbits is hardly new to their ears.  First, I need to admit that I read about this concept while reading a book about Coach Bobby Knight. The book, A Season on the Brink, captures a particular tumultuous year for Indiana basketball and the coach’s inability to find a game that “our players can win with”. Meaning, what style of ball can this year’s players play and be successful? This concept has relevance for today’s education leaders. Let’s examine why.

A fat rabbit is slower and easier to hunt than a skinny rabbit when you can find them! These rabbits got fat for a reason. They are smart and stay hidden from predators. When you finally bag a fat rabbit its quite an accomplishment. Fat rabbits have learned how to use their environment to survive and their survival instincts are second to none. Skinny rabbits are quicker and more elusive but they are young and haven’t learned how to hide or fly under the radar so to speak. They are very visible and show themselves consisently. Skinny rabbits haven’t figured out yet that in order to survive and perpetuate their kind, they too must learn how to “use the system” to survive.

As a school leader, I’m constantly examining the fat and skinny rabbits relative to my school. My fat or skinny rabbit (reform or change) is not likely viewed the same by others. Herein lies the problem. How do we know when we have a universal fat or skinny rabbit that needs to be addressed in our school?

Since becoming a middle school principal in 1994, I’ve led four very different middle schools through numerous first (skinny rabbits) and second (fat rabbits) order changes. Here are four of them, one from each school but by no means an all-inclusive list.

Tipton MS & HS: A shift from a traditional 8 period day to an A-B block schedule.

Spencer Middle School: Grade level teams in place of mere common planning time.

H.M. Arndt Middle School: Full prep periods for all fine arts teachers.

Waverly-Shell Rock Jr. High: A shift from a traditional 8 period day, a junior high model and isolated teaching to collaborative grade level teams.

With your outside eyes, which one(s) would you describe as the fat or skinny rabbits? Answer? ALL of them were fat rabbits in their own right. Yep. Even the prep period show down. That one got so ugly that the teachers who sided with us were subsequently dubbed, “Kwik’s Kids” behind my back. This was NOT a flattering term by any stretch.  I even have a picture to prove it! But here is what I learned from each of these “hunts” if you will.

1. My fat rabbit is MY fat rabbit and may not be yours. Never assume everyone shares the same point of view you hold or that of the majority. Everyone comes to the table with their own passion and baggage. In the case of the fine arts teachers at Arndt, they had 10 minute segmented prep periods which were in place to accommodate the core classes. High stakes testing in NC drove many master schedules to be built around math, reading, and computer skills. In short, everything else was secondary. This was an epic battle between core teachers and fine arts teachers. Friendships were gained and lost. It was that passionate.

2. Know your nonnegotiables as the building principal. Some nonnegotiables are driven by such things as transportation and food-service schedules, shared staff and available FTE’s. Get these on the table right away. Even knowing what you cannot do can help narrow your focus.

3. Establish a “no protection” clause for your committee. Simply put, those choosing to participate in the process must come to the table with an open mind regardless of their current passions and beliefs. It’s good to remind participants that they are a valued part of the system but they are not THE system. Look at the big picture. Then…look at the bigger picture.

4. Know your risk v. reward factor. Do you know if your superintendent and even the school board support the proposed  change (second order) or at the very least its investigation? Do you know how your community or parents will respond? Will the systems before you and after you (elementary and high school) be impacted? Quick example. Our elementary schools at W-SR are incredible and many students come to them well prepared. But their work in reading and math, sets the stage for our middle school teachers to work in a low-risk high-reward environment. However, that’s no guarantee that a task we’re wrestling with is suddenly reduced to a skinny rabbit. See #1!

5. As the principal, be the facilitator and information gatherer for your committee. This is the hardest one for me since a good number of the proposed rabbits come from me. When they do originate with me, it’s even more important that I do my level best to keep my passion and biases from the discussion. You will know when to share. (Item #2) If you’re the one proposing a change, you will have your nonnegotiables but they should never come out until your work has hit a wall. You’re not hiding anything at all. In fact, you’re giving the process the respect it deserves. You might even learn that your non-negotiable is totally irrelevant as your teachers find new right answers to existing problems. But…this is the hardest one for me! Guilty as charged and believe me, I’ve stepped in my share of, well you know!

Whether you’re a teacher leader or a building principal, initiating change at any level within your school is tricky business. Many schools talk of school reform or transformation yet years of ingrained and, dare I say, inbred practices and policies are more deeply entrenched than a tick on an old hunting dog. Yanking that tick off of an old dog will likely get you’re hand bit! Let him know what you’re up to and why and you both might enjoy a few more years in the field!

It’s better in the middle!


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