A woman speaking with her colleagues to spark and sustain change, gathering input

What strategies can leaders use to navigate resistance to change and encourage employee buy-in? Join Dr. Janet Pilcher as she engages in a conversation with Mrs. Aubree Short, Principal of Los Tules Middle School in Tulare, California, to hear how surveys and rounding have proven to be pivotal tools in her journey toward school improvement. Aubree explains how post-COVID data revealed a need for improvement in climate and culture for both students and teachers. Listen as she reveals how collaboration amongst high performing employees has transformed Los Tules from a trauma-informed school to a trauma-sensitive school through the implementation of the Ready to Learn program.

This episode addresses questions such as:

  • How do data-driven insights transform school culture?
  • What role do high-performing employees play in rolling out organizational changes?
  • How can rounding with students and teachers be used to improve the change process?

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Episode Transcript

Aubree Short: We don’t need to be perfect. We just want to show progress, right?

[Intro music plays in background]


Janet Pilcher: Hello, everyone. Welcome to today’s Accelerate Your Performance podcast. I’m your host, Janet Pilcher. Thank you for tuning in this week as we focus on what it takes as leaders support people to work through changes that are important to achieve positive outcomes. And we engage in this work because we want our employees to stay with us, be engaged, and to be connected.

For the past two episodes, we’ve been focusing deeply on managing high performers through the phases of change. We’ve talked about why change causes anxiety, especially for those employees who are accustomed to achieving successful outcomes. We’ve also talked about strategies you can use to help your employees through transition periods, like last week when we discussed adopting a new math curriculum.

And today, we’re going to speak to a leader who’s practicing these strategies by initiating change and coaching her employees through it. Aubree Short is a middle school principal at Los Tules Middle School in Tulare, California. Prior to this role, she served as a classroom teacher, math, and technology curriculum specialist and provider of professional development.

She’s wrapping up her 21st year in education and her first year of partnership with Studer Education. Aubree’s presented at several conferences, including CMC South Conference, the STEM Symposium Conference, and the National Conference for Teaching Mathematics. She’s also partnered with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

I’m happy to welcome Aubree here today to discuss her experience in leading and managing a pivotal change in her school. So let’s jump right in.


Janet Pilcher: So it’s with great pleasure that I welcome Aubree to our show today. Welcome, Aubree.

Aubree Short: Hello, it’s great to be here.

Janet Pilcher: Good. So let’s just get started. I’ve had conversations with Charlotte, your coach, who I’ve known for quite some time, Aubree, kind of by the way, we worked at the university together years ago, and just fantastic individual, and she speaks very highly of you.

And so she told us a little bit about the Ready to Learn program that you implemented. So let’s start there. Can you tell us more about that program, and why you saw a need for it in your school?

Aubree Short: Yes. So, Charlotte is great, by the way. I really, really enjoy working with her. She makes me feel so comfortable and I can just be really honest and get some real answers. So I really appreciate her.

The Ready to Learn program really started out—we noticed—this is my third year as a principal at Los Tules. And we were really struggling with climate and culture when we got back from COVID. And so one thing we noticed was that we took a district-wide climate and culture survey. And what we had noticed from our two years of data was that our results really shifted.

So the first year, teachers, staff felt that our climate and culture was higher, and students felt that it was low, and they didn’t really belong, and there was not a connection.

And the following year, so last school year, it completely flip-flopped. Climate and culture results were up for our students. They felt more like they belonged, and they felt better about coming to school, and staff did not actually. They felt that there was a disconnect between the things that we were doing to improve school-wide discipline. And as an administrator, I felt that I was really struggling to get discipline and our climate and culture under control.

So as we looked at our PBIS data, we also noticed that most of our minors, over 200 of them for a four week period, were all in the classroom, and they were all for disrespect and defiance. So I knew that my staff was really struggling with discipline in the classroom as well.

So that was our focus last year. And as we went through each month trying to fix that data, we did see some results, and we worked on specific things. But at the end of the year, when that survey came out, and it really dipped significantly with how my staff was feeling about how things were going in regards to climate and culture and student discipline at school, that was a big wake-up call for me.

So I said, “you know what? I need to find out more information.” So I interviewed more of my staff through formal, like, Google Forms and then also had some meetings with some of my high performing teachers.

Janet Pilcher: Mmmhmm.

Aubree Short: I went to them, and I guess I did a rounding of sorts where I asked them really specific questions: “Why do you think this is? What could we do?” And I met with all of the departments and then some had some individual conversations, and that’s where one of my staff members who had worked in a previous district said, “you know, we read this book, we did this book study on creating resilient learners. And I really think that this might help us because I think that reading this book and doing a book study and maybe even getting some professional development around how we can change to respond to behaviors and strategies that we can do differently might really help.” So that’s how that journey began and why we felt the need for it.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. And you know what? I really, a number of things spectacular about what you’re saying, but very specific, Aubree, I mean, you were really looking at the data, right? I mean, you were looking at data points to help inform you on what’s going on. And I mean, if you didn’t look at those data points and take those serious, you wouldn’t be having the same conversation because you wouldn’t be curious. You wouldn’t look behind what’s there. And so, you know, just congratulations to you from a leadership perspective of looking at that and really being curious about what’s behind that and asking those questions.

So let’s keep going with this. Can you walk us through the specific steps you took to implement the program? What did the process look like?

Aubree Short: So basically, after listening to my staff and getting input and really processing, “okay, how are we going to have a great 23-24 school year?” I went ahead and ordered—I just said, “you know what? I’m going to order this book.” So I immediately started listening to Kristen Sowers and Pete Hall. And the reason why this struck me is Kristen Sowers is a therapist and had worked at different schools with behaviors and understanding behavior and trauma.

And so I really felt like we needed to get back to the roots of the things that we had done pre-COVID about starting to learn about trauma and how that affects the brain and students, especially after COVID. So she also worked with Pete Hall, who was a principal and administrator. So I immediately started listening to her book as I was driving back and forth from work before school got out. And I thought, “oh my gosh, this is great.”

So the idea was that we need to get people on board. So I said, “okay, I don’t want to organize the book study.” And the one teacher who was one of my high performers said, “I’ll do it. I’ll do it.” Perfect.

Janet Pilcher: Of course. [laughs]

Aubree Short: I ordered all the books. We invited the entire staff, and they started the book study.

And then I thought, “you know what? I’m in the middle of writing my strategic plan for next year. Let’s just see how much she would cost to come and do professional development. She’s come to the Valley before and she’s worked with the county office of Ed.” So I just reached out to her.

I sent her an email and sure enough, she got right back to me and we were able to work that all out and start with some Zoom meetings to figure out when could she come in person and do Zoom meetings and really coach us through this process of moving from trauma informed to actually trauma invested.

And so the book study started, and I think it was only about seven or eight teachers who really wanted the book, and that was okay.

Janet Pilcher: [laughs]

Aubree Short: And we wanted to start like that grassroots movement of who really wants to be involved in this. And then we had set up in August. Kristen came, and she did some observations. And so she would go and observe and she was looking for—we were having her observe the students who were struggling the most with behavioral needs that had been through some trauma.

So she would go and just observe them and come and give us feedback. And then she would do sessions with our entire staff about what did it mean to be trauma invested and how is that different from just being informed.

So after all of that and her coming, she came three times in person throughout the whole school year. She just finished her last time. Each time she would share with us some things I’m seeing. And one thing that she thought was that if kids don’t feel heard and you don’t have that empathy for them, then they’re not going to be ready to learn.

So that really started that process end of November, early December. We knew we needed to move forward with a way to have kids share how they were feeling and how would they express when they were not ready to learn. And so that next step was I need to get input from staff.

I had four different opportunities either before school or after school so that everyone could come and invited everyone, including classified. It didn’t matter if you’re the custodian or, you know, a teacher. I wanted to get input, and they were one-hour sessions. And of course I did compensate them hourly to come, but they gave input on what that Ready to Learn scale would look like.

And so they had lots of opinions because Kristen’s ideas and from our book, it’s really simple because we were teaching the kids already about the brain and how the brain works and what happens if you’re ready to learn or you’re not and you’re going to flip your lid. And if you’re learning compromised. And so the great thing was is they were very vocal. “We need five levels.” They wanted it to be, you know, “what do our hand signals look like?” I mean, we got down to the nitty gritty of the color and “how does it look? And what do I need to do as a student, but then also what do I need to do as a staff member?”

So we had those four sessions, and we did lots of work and we shared that out, and then came winter break. And so I believe it was 17 of my 28 teachers attended one of those sessions. So those 17 were invited to over winter break to come to my home.

It ended up turning to be, I was going to pay them three hours and some of them stayed four. And we started working on the lessons on how do we roll this out to the full school, to the students. And so that was great. And that was about six people. And then from that six, I knew there were some people who came and really were invested that were also not just high performers, but they were incredible influencers. And I knew that they could help influence and had the knowledge to continue the work.

So that dwindled down to three, and myself included, we would meet in the mornings before school and really start to plan those lessons and make sure we had the materials ready. And so the amazing thing is we created nine weeks’ worth of 30 minute lessons twice a week. So it was a lot, but it was great. And we would use feedback from our students on what’s the next week going to look like? And remember, we need to go back to 10 healthy habits for our brain and the results were pretty incredible.

We would go to staff meetings and we would share different parts of the process. And I would get feedback from staff and we did an “I notice, I wonder,” and I went through the wondering with Kristen because she said, “OK, if they’re asking these questions, then they’re really worried about this.” And so then we would prepare for that in the lessons. And we got feedback from kids, and a lot of teachers were worried would the kids take this seriously.

So we specifically called out our tier two and our tier three students ahead of time and myself, my vice principal, my counselors, we met with these kiddos ahead of time and we explained it to them and we asked them questions and they were kind of our guinea pigs and they were so excited about it.

Janet Pilcher: So as you went through the process, there were certain teachers who were kind of right, right on really excited about—

Aubree Short: Yep.

Janet Pilcher: Others kind of buying in a little bit, and then probably, some, just kind of, then it’s something that they just begin to have to do, right? I mean—

Aubree Short: Right. They were a little resistant, a little unsure, like okay, it’s compliance kind of a thing.

Janet Pilcher: One of the things we’ve been talking about Aubree in the last couple of podcasts you know is really how to, when you do something like what you’ve done which is excellent, you know, love the way that you you’ve gone about, first of all, looking at data, involving teachers in the input and the process, and giving them an opportunity, letting the people who want to buy in buy in and putting them at the forefront to model it.

And then now we’re executing to a certain extent, and one of the things we’ve been talking about, and Charlotte and I talked about on the podcast that we were connected to, is you know then you have those resistors to change and that’s where you kind of came in and she said, you know, you did a really nice job when you had that resistance to change that you all work together to help kind of move through that resistance. So you know, as you, as that proceeded, how did you do that? I mean what was going through your mind and then what were the tools and tactics that you used to help kind of manage the resistance part of the of the people to move to change?

Aubree Short: One thing that I felt has been really helpful is sometimes instead of meeting as a whole staff, we actually, we’re an AVID based school, so we really, also one of our cycles is working through AVID, and we’ve done a really good job of creating goals and all being on the same page and having that same language.

But not with this Ready to Learn, so I established these—we call them squads—and so I would meet with their AVID squads versus the whole entire staff. So as we were rolling this out and getting feedback, that is a step I missed. Before I did the four sessions, I met individually with those squads or two squads at a time to get that really specific feedback because then I could really hear, and I implemented some strategies where everyone was required to write a sticky note, and we did some Kagan structured activities so that everyone had a voice.

Janet Pilcher: Mmmhmm.

Aubree Short: And so then what we did is we strategically put in place some accountability checkpoints so we could tell when those lessons rolled out. If teachers weren’t actually doing the lessons because I wasn’t getting responses from their students, then I went and had some individual conversations. And I guess you could call them some rounding conversations to say “hey, tell me what’s going on with our Ready to Learn rollout. Is there something that’s going well,? You know, what’s been challenging? And how can I help you implement this? Like what’s going through your brain?”

So I was able to have some really good individual conversations with those who were resistant, and there were times I had to go back through my “why”: here’s the “why” we’re doing this. I want to remind you why, and we went back to, like, our word of the year, and we want them to be resilient, and what was I hearing on all the feedback that you guys wanted to work on, so that helped, and I, and I would say I still have some that are unsure.

Janet Pilcher: Of course, yeah. [laughs] You know, that’s part of it. You know, there’s some that go with you, you know, just, and not just at your school. I mean, like everywhere, like in organizations, right, there’s some that really come with you that right at the beginning, there are others that are “I might come with you, but I’m going to kind of watch what happens,” and then others are like, “eh, I really don’t know, I’m going to wait and see. I’m going to kind of hang out a little bit.” At some point they come with you. And there’s those that just, I’m going to just, kind of dig their heels in from time to time, so I think you probably are seeing in any change, again, not just in your place, but that’s kind of the that’s that process of how people you know manage that change.

But you know, one of the things that Charlotte talked about is the rounding that you did, the continued connections that you did, probably brought some of those people who might not have come along, Aubree, you know, to come along with you. I don’t know if that’s what you felt like but did you feel like that just those continued conversations, continuing to share the why, helped some of those initial resistors come with you?

Aubree Short: I think so, I think so because I, we could have some one-on-one conversations about what they were really feeling, and sometimes the ones who are resisting or unsure don’t always have a voice in a big group setting, so they can be overshadowed. And so I think giving them the opportunity to speak privately and not be heard, keeping those conversations a little more private but giving me some information on my next moves, I think, were really helpful.

And also I, believe it or not, one thing I did at the very end, just this last—was the end of March—was our last meeting with Kristen, she actually went through and did a rounding of sorts with all of the departments, so—

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Aubree Short: She had some questions and some things that she did, and I wasn’t there because I wanted them to be really honest, and she got some really good insight on where they were with their implementation and some of the students that they were still struggling with to get ready to learn. And so that was great feedback that I could address whole staff and say, “you know, if you guys are feeling this way, here are some things that we’re going to work on,” and it gave me some more information to really address this continued process as we finish out the school year and start thinking about our preparations for next year.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, so good. So you know, as you’re getting close to the end of the year and you look at the results, I mean just kind of looking back and looking at where you are now, you know, what have been some of those results, and what overall effects has it had on your school and community as a whole?

Aubree Short: Yeah it’s been very exciting just seeing the students’ responses about how they’re feeling, and so we actually, in the process of this, we implemented PBIS rewards, so we wanted to give—have a school-wide system to give students points for their positive behavior, and my MTSS teacher, Ashley, she’s amazing.

In that program we were able to customize a digital Ready to Learn scale, and so we have a digital one, and I have teachers that weren’t even on the original team coming to me saying,“hey, oh my gosh,” so we didn’t even tell anyone. She just rolled it out. Kids could get to it through their Clever account, and kids started filling it out. Well, she organized it so if anybody put they were level five—that’s the emergency—we get an email. So we call those kids out and they’re like, “oh my gosh. You saw that?” They were, like, so surprised, and so one of the teachers came and said “oh my gosh, we need to do this every day in first period,” because we had some practices put in place about how kids communicate with hand signals—well some of the kids were embarrassed or didn’t want to—so some of the results have been that other staff have really surprised me about their buy-in that I maybe didn’t know about and coming to me saying, “hey, how do we make this better? I think we can try this out, and I think we need to make these changes. And we’re gonna know where kids are, and we can check in on them.” And I was able to get those two to present to my whole staff, and it came from them and not from me which was awesome.

So I feel like the overall feel with the kids is they’ll use it if they come to me regarding, um, you know a discipline issue or they’re struggling to be like “Mrs. Jordan, I’m at a three today, and this is why I’m at a three,” and they use that language now interchangeably. Staff use the language; they’ll come to me say I’m out of “I’m at a five, I’m at a four. This just happened, and I need a break.” So just hearing the language being used is great.

We’ve been looking still consistently at our minor and major data, and we are averaging about four minors a day that are for defiance or disrespect. The interesting thing is we’ve always been consistently, in a four-week period, on average about four a day, but our players are changing, so we can see our top 10 students who are receiving the most minors at a school, and what we have noticed is that those kids are changing, so it’s not the same kids.

So we know that having the scale and being open to giving kids a break and listening to them and showing the empathy for when they are struggling—kids are not abusing it—we were very worried that kids would abuse that. But what we’ve seen is the kids who are our frequent flyers are actually excelling and doing so much better.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, so just a couple of things. I mean, one of the, as you know, just from the work with Charlotte, what we really focus on is what you’re talking about just in a natural sense, Aubree, that looking at the data, looking at data not as a number, but there are students behind those numbers, right? You’re looking at the data points and looking at who represents that data point. Taking action, you know, basically on that, the individual the students that you’re serving, and then using that information to have good conversations with your teachers, letting them kind of lead if that’s the right, you know, when they have the opportunity to lead, giving them that lead—

I always say, in my book, too, at the end—I’ve always said leadership is for everyone, I mean leadership skills are not just for people in positions as leaders, but we’re really all leaders in every aspect of the work when we come to work, especially in education, because we step in to lead and apply those leadership skills when we’re called to do that. And you just allow, I mean, you just open your school to really provide that type of environment where your employees, your teachers, and staff can naturally do that, but you’re using that improvement process and data informed processes to help you have those meaningful conversations.

And then you’re looking at “Where do we have difficulties?” and let’s attack those rather than “let’s ignore them.” Just such good, there’s so many good points that you’ve made throughout the, the day today, I mean just so many good points that we could basically say, “best practice, best practice, best practice,” so just appreciate you for what you’re doing there.

I’ll just kind of end with, if there’s any last thing that you want to talk about or just a, you know, advice that you would give to any leader in terms of how you really help once you’re implementing something that obviously you’re very passionate about, right, something you’re passionate about, something that’s meaningful to you, you’re seeing something different occur within your schools, you’re seeing a difference in students, probably families as well.

Aubree Short: Yes, um, what I’m really excited about, well I’m excited, first of all, we have not got our results back from our, um, we did from our staff survey, and I was very excited and pleased about those results with the survey that we took. Um and then we just took the student survey and the parent surveys, so we don’t have those results quite yet, so I’m really excited to see how those come out.

But also, we are planning for our open house. We are planning a session in the cafeteria where students can teach their parents about our Ready to Learn scale, so our real, our next step is to, how do we inform our parents more about it? We’ve shared it with our students site council and our PTO parents and some parents who, um, have some students that are struggling with tier two and tier three, um, either behaviors or social emotional needs, and they are so excited about it. And, um, I’m just really excited to see the rest of those results so we have more data.

Just, I guess, my advice would be is that if the data is showing there’s a need then there’s a need, and it’s not personal. It’s situational. And keep using that, um, that motto that, you know, we don’t need to be perfect; we just want to show progress, right? And growth and listening that if your staff wants to go in a certain direction, and you’re hearing that over and over, then why not? If that’s where they want to go, go for it. Find a way to listen and to make it happen, and, and if they feel heard, just like the students, and you show them empathy, then you’re gonna, you’re gonna grow together as a team.

Janet Pilcher: Such great advice and such good work that you’re doing, and we will link to Kristen. The resources that you talked about, and we’ll link in the podcast.

Aubree Short: Awesome.

Janet Pilcher: We give resource links, so make, we’ll make sure we link to the book that you’re talking about so that people can see that book, and who knows, maybe I could connect with her and do an interview and we could do a podcast together. Sounds like she’s doing some great work with you all, and we enjoy the opportunity to get to work with you and see the good work that you all are doing. Thank you so much for what you do, Aubree.

Aubree Short: Thank you Janet. Tt was so great to talk with you today.


[Outro music plays in the background.]

Janet Pilcher: Thank you for listening today. This is such a good story because Aubree and her faculty looked at the data faced the brutal facts, as her coach, Charlotte, said in the last episode, and chose the strategies and tactics to create change that’s best for their students and teachers.

While your own circumstances and facts are unique to your organization, I hope that hearing her story, along with two previous episodes, gives you courage to approach any necessary changes with confidence.

If this episode was meaningful to you, we’d love to hear from you. You can get in touch with us by tweeting @studereducation. That’s s-t-u-d-e-r-e-d-u-c-a-t-i-o-n. We’d love a follow.

And as always ,I thank you for tuning into this episode of Accelerate Your Performance. I look forward to connecting with you next time as we continue to focus on the Nine Principles Framework so that we can be our best at work. Have a great week, everyone.

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If you enjoy the podcast, explore Janet’s latest book, Hardwiring Excellence in Education. Each chapter focuses on the Nine Principles® Framework offering tools and tactics to enhance leadership skills and elevate organizational performance.

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