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Learn about four things you can do and your MTSS spreadsheets can’t do. A personal and powerful reflection offered by a K-12 leader.

Before becoming a teacher and administrator, I was a dorm supervisor at a residential treatment facility. This is where my love of learning and seeing the whole-child blossomed.

There I worked with a student we will call “Theo.” Theo was unlike many of the students in our dorm. He resisted assimilating into our culture and joining the team. Showing disdain for us, being rude and noncompliant, and testing limits was his practice. His behavior wasn’t so far outside the norm that we couldn’t deal with him, but he certainly tested the patience of his peers and staff on a daily basis. 

As Theo slowly started to come around, I would often tell him the classic “Boy Who Cried Wolf” story when we’d debrief after a behavior incident. Theo was quick to deflect the attention from himself. Sometimes he lied. The story was fitting and, after months of working with him, he became a routinely positive student and a strong contributor to our culture. 

One evening he was cleaning up the kitchen and mentoring a peer. I was supervising them but not interacting with them. My ears perked up as I heard Theo share the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” story with his mentee. Theo had become thoughtful and aware not only of himself but of his peers and he was able to offer support. 

MTSS Spreadsheets

I am brought to tears each time I recount Theo’s story because of how proud it makes me. Nothing is more rewarding for an educator than when a child seizes upon his learning–whatever the lesson may be–and runs so far with it that he himself becomes a teacher. One of the greatest gifts we can give students is a positive legacy. What will you leave behind on your Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) journey with students? Whom will you impact? Where will that student go because of your Multi-tiered system of support?  One thing is certain: having a “Theo moment” requires moving beyond daily reviews and discussions around a data dashboard. 

So, here we go.  The following are four things your MTSS spreadsheet cannot do…

M = Make Human Connections

As a U.S. History teacher, I once did a bell ringer activity with my high school students that was a bit elementary, but effective. We were studying the concept of chronology and I wanted to evolve their higher-order thinking. They were each given a connect-the-dots picture from a children’s coloring book. Each student completed the activity to reveal a whale or some other object. The connection was made clear because of the work they did. This helped us analyze historical patterns.

Our MTSS spreadsheets help us connect the dots, see patterns in data, and assist us in making data-driven decisions. It will not make human connections. People connect people to people. Whoever you are within your school’s system–teacher, counselor, secretary, student, principal–take action today and create a human connection. A culture of connection builds trust which, in turn, facilitates the next steps in becoming an effective student-support team.

T = Teach for Learning

When I was the Principal at Woodward Academy, I had an amazing math teacher on my staff. He was the first and most vocal teacher in questioning our shift to “grading for learning.” We had many conversations about why we should move in this direction and, in the end, his team led the charge in shifting our culture from chasing points to chasing learning. He was successful within the MTSS framework because he taught all students how to learn; he did not simply teach math. Knowing how to teach and grade for learning is a mindset an MTSS spreadsheet can’t create. People, mostly teachers, teach students to learn. We have a choice to view the whole-child and teach for learning or we can check the boxes, meet seat time requirements and let the points do the teaching. Only one of these choices produces sustainable rewards for our students and for our program.

S = Start with Students’ Stories

Of course, data should drive our decision-making; however, the data in our MTSS spreadsheet doesn’t tell us the entire story. Our students are much more than data and numbers. When we shift our mindset to seeing and working with the whole-child, magic happens. I recently started reading Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull. He founded Pixar and has created classic movies like Toy Story. Ed studied computer science in its infancy at the University of Utah in the 1960s and was fascinated by early Disney movies. Catmull says, “The definition of superb animation is that each character on the screen makes you believe it is a thinking being…if the viewer senses…emotion—then the animator has done his or her job.” Our students are not just data points on a spreadsheet. They are living, feeling people. When the teacher becomes the animator of that data by being curious about and creating a story with the child, dramatic changes in learning can occur.

S = Solve Problems

Finally, as much as we’d like them to, our MTSS spreadsheets loaded with data won’t solve the problems for us. The data can connect the dots, but data won’t paint the picture completely and certainly won’t guarantee impactful action. That is up to you and me. Our best interventions, especially at tier two, should be delivered quickly, efficiently, and by people who need little to no training to do so. The key to unlocking tier three support is ensuring there is a smooth path to access and quality support. We can do this in schools by radically rethinking time. When I know what is essential to be learned by all students, I have just created time for extra supports because the “nice to know” information isn’t essential. I could have a student relearning behavior expectations with a counselor or administrator during the “nice to know” instruction. By re-examining how we deliver core instruction, we can shift time to integrate other levels of support for all students.

Theo taught me all four of these lessons; a spreadsheet of data didn’t. Take action today and look for  “Theo moments” in all of your students.

Jeremy Hilbert

Jeremy Hilbert is the associate principal at Winterset High School in Winterset, Iowa. He spent ten years working with students in a residential treatment center as a counselor, supervisor, teacher, and principal. This unique experience paved the way for his "whole-child" mindset when he transitioned to the public school setting. Jeremy values creativity and learning as he engages in problem-solving within the multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) process. That is visible in his day to day interactions with students and staff. He is also a husband, father, son, and brother, and he enjoys reading, listening to music and cooking.