Designing Next Year With Intention

by Greg Bamford


You never would have chosen the last 12 months.

It’s been exhausting, and, let’s be honest: it’s pushed many of our colleagues to consider leaving the profession.

As we begin to emerge from COVID, the temptation will be to go back to the old, comfortable ways. But even before COVID, “normal” was a broken schooling model for many of our students.


Leadership+Design convened four listening sessions with school leaders at the beginning of 2021, and we focused our conversation on four big questions:

  • What have you learned since March 2020? 
  • How has your community changed?
  • What are the needs in your community now?
  • Where do you need help?

We learned a lot.

Where We Are

Leaders told us the last year has exposed gaps in the way their schools do things; some of those gaps are new, while others are newly unavoidable. It has frayed relationships among adults, and sometimes worn at the trust between faculty, staff, and administration. And as everyone rallied to make school as good as possible for students, most people haven’t had time to take care of themselves, to stay connected to each other, or even to grieve what’s been lost.

We also heard about unexpected silver linings. Schools have done so much more than they thought they could. They’re thinking about teaching and learning in more thoughtful ways, paying more attention to social-emotional health, and are newly attuned to community. They’ve hit pause on traditions, and they learned they could live without some of them. Adults have sometimes gotten better at collaborating, and embraced a stronger “bias toward action.”

Finally, we heard school leaders ask: what will we choose to do with this experience? How can we reflect, and plan, with intention? There’s danger that we limp into a much-needed summer break without taking the time to reflect on where we’ve been, and what we do with it now. At the same time, that work can feel daunting.

Six Steps To Plan For Next Year

We took what we heard from school leaders and developed a six-step model for the work ahead:

  • Share stories. So much of what we have lacked is time to process our experiences in community. We believe the work of planning for next year can’t happen well until we’ve had time to process how we got to the current moment. And schools need to design rituals to mark the transitions into the current year, and the transitions that are to come. 
  • Identify what you have learned since March 2020. This allows you to be aware of your emerging knowledge, practices, and mindsets - so you can leverage them with intention next year.
  • Map current community needs. A design thinking approach defines the needs of your community now, which may be different than the last time you crafted a strategic plan. Understanding the needs now allows you to be responsive in your planning.
  • Identify concrete “hacks” to use your new knowledge and meet needs next year. There isn’t time to overhaul everything, and no one has the bandwidth for another year of unpredictable change. But identifying a concrete and manageable set of “hacks” can get us started on making school better. School Retool defines “hacks” as “small, scrappy experiments that move you closer to achieving your aspiration.” That’s a useful lens for thinking about the scale of next year’s ambitions.
  • Declutter. Doing new work means getting rid of old work. Schools are bad at that! We are believers in Ecocycle Planning as one tool to help schools clear the space to take on new activities. Fortunately, the last year has put many of our “normal” practices on pause - this is a healthy moment to re-assess what “comes back,” and what goes away.
  • Make a plan. Obviously, this means deciding on next steps and who owns responsibility for what. But it also means asking: what are the stories we should be telling ourselves about the last year, and about who we’ll be moving forward? What new habits will we need to practice to turn those stories into reality? 

Yes, it will be hard to find the time. But after everything your school has been through, it would be a loss not to use it as an opportunity to get better.

Some schools will be ready to take on this work themselves. If that’s you, we hope this article offers some food for thought.

The Design for Next Year Program

Other schools might want some help. For them, we created a new program with a simple and descriptive name: Design for Next Year. 

Nope, it’s not snappy marketing. But as we built the program, we realized that this is work schools should be doing on a regular basis. Our hope is that some of these tools are useful for schools after any year - a toolkit to reflect, reconnect, set goals, and plan with intention. 

We also paid attention to how we might reduce the barriers to doing this kind of needed work.

  • We design the agenda and facilitate the meetings: if you can carve out time for six, two-hour meetings, we’ll set you up for success and keep you on track.

  • We include some “faculty meetings in a box,” making it easier to have the conversations that matter.

  • Because we know that empathy interviews are one of the most useful sources of information for school teams -- but one of the most time intensive to pull off -- we’ll do them for you.

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