Education Opinion

All Systems Go

By Nancy Flynn — September 17, 2010 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Systems are not overrated, not by a long shot. When I took over as principal at a junior high school after nine years at an elementary school, there were virtually no systems, rituals, or routines in place; in other words, very little structure and an awful lot of chaos. Students used (more like abused) cell phones, iPods, and other electronics all day while teachers put on blinders. There were daily brawls, blatant gang activity, and worst of all, declining student achievement and a very serious gap.

Systems put everyone on the same the same book, but only if everyone interprets the systems in the same manner. They can’t be left up to interpretation if they are going to work. As Heath and Heath explain in their book Switch, “Ambiguity is the enemy. Any successful change requires a translation of ambiguous goals into concrete behaviors. In short, to make a switch, you need to script the critical moves.”

I realized that not only were we going to have to put systems in place, they were going to have to be spelled out – and not just for students. While the Positive Behavioral Systems Team was concerned with how the students would conduct themselves, the administrators were more concerned with how the staff would conduct themselves.

The systems were designed and scripted for every aspect of the school day. We weren’t going to just discuss the systems with staff, we were going to write them out for both students and staff step by step, crossing every t and dotting every i. For example, we started with riding the bus to school in the morning as that can set the tone for the day, because, from what I heard, no one wanted to drive the Ramsey routes. The students were told (and it was given to them in writing as well) the procedures for riding the bus. They are to greet the driver by name each morning when boarding the bus, take a seat, face forward, keep their bodies to themselves, and use inside voices. When getting off, they were taught to thank the driver. The staff, meanwhile, is outside every morning boarding every bus – all 21 of them – greeting the driver by name and greeting the students, and actively supervising students until the bell rings. When the bell rings, staff escort students through the seventh and eighth grade doors where they receive their breakfast to go bags. Staff are expected to actively supervise the halls during transitions, carefully monitoring lockers and bathrooms. Now, we did not even assume that staff knew what we meant by active supervision, so we spelled that out, too. Active supervision looks like:

Being active – moving scanning Being positive – connecting, positive reinforcement Responding to problems – immediately, respectfully, privately Communicating – with students, parents, and staff

This type of system scripting takes us through the entire day. While it may sound pretty elementary and very extreme, the school could no longer continue doing what it had been doing in the past. It simply wasn’t working. The school was spiraling downward and the changes needed to be drastic.

Last year, the first fight broke out within ten minutes on the first day of school. This year, the first week was without incident and everyone, especially the math teacher who started at the school in November as the fifth math teacher in those first two months said if felt like a different place. Even though the kids grumble now and then about the stricter rules, they are settling into them and, I believe, are actually relieved by the structure and order and by the vastly improved learning environment that now exists.

Now granted it’s only been two weeks, but we haven’t had any incidents or bus reports. As long as the systems, rituals, and routines are consistently enforced and implemented the easier it will be to return to the culture the building enjoyed a decade ago. It’s going to take work and vigilance, but it’s going to work. And when a system needs tweaking, it will be tweaked, discussed, and spelled it out, but as a community it will keep us all on the same page.

On Friday afternoon of the first week, one student was feverishly running up and down the street looking for his bus. When I asked him what bus number he was looking for, he said, “I can’t remember the number, but I know the driver’s name is Edward.”


Heath, D. & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to change things when change is hard, New York: Broadway Books.

Nancy Flynn
September 19, 2010

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.