How Agile & Scrum Can Save The Education System — Interview with Krissyn Sumare

Maria Matarelli, Executive Coach and Certified Scrum Trainer (CST) did an interview with the Director of Agile in Education at Blueprint Education Inc, Krissyn Sumare during the Global Scrum Gathering. Krissyn and Maria had an interesting and inspiring conversation; here is an excerpt from their talk.

Maria: I am here with Krissyn Sumare, the Senior Director of Academics at Blueprint Education, and they are using Scrum in schools. Krissyn, that is amazing. I love hearing about this. Can you tell us more about how this came to be?

Krissyn: In about 2014, I took a job as a Principal. Then two weeks later, I realized that our school was failing and on the brink of shutting down. We had a low trust, a lot of teachers that weren’t returning, and students that weren’t proficient. Even at the most minimal level, the state had given us a grade of an F and said, there’s really not much you can do from here, but in a month you can come and plead your case and try to figure out how you’re going to turn things around.

So our CEO said, I know it’s going to be a long road, but I want to start by implementing Agile and Scrum. And to that, we were like, “what are you talking about? What? To fix a failing school, you want to implement something that we’ve never even heard of?” And so that was our start. Skepticism. Full of doubt. Like a lot of people start with their agile transformations, just disbelief that there is a framework or something that is so powerful that it can completely change not only an organization from failure to thrive but can completely change the mindset of the people that work there. That can take teachers that are completely burned out and on the brink of like completely leaving the field to be revitalized and feel like, “I got a few more years in me”. I want to do more of this! I want to see this out to the end. We teach a different generation now and we have a lot of students that are completely disengaged from school, from education, from their teachers. And even from each other, cell phones and social media. Just a complete disengagement.

And so when you throw in some of the facets that agility brings at students and teach them how to have empathy for each other, how to receive and take feedback from each other, how to resolve conflict… When you’re teaching them these things, we’re really preparing them for the workforce.

And even if they don’t go directly into the workforce, we’re preparing them to be adults and just decent human beings.

Maria: So you had one month to turn the school around?

Krissyn: So Agile, didn’t fix it in one month. That was us getting together and saying, “Hey, we have a plan and this is what the plan is”, and presenting it to lawyers and, to the Department of Education and saving our place. And that was one piece of it. Being able to save it, but being able to go through the process and the pain of what it took to get there. What really hurt was having teachers say, “I just don’t buy into this.

I don’t want to be a part of this, I don’t really feel like this is going to work.” One of the biggest failures was really, getting teachers to bring it into the classroom. You’re going to teach Math and you’re going to use Scrum and you’re going to be Agile and is going to be wonderful.

It was completely flopping and failing. And we had to initially turn it over to the students and we had to give it to them and watch how they made agile work for them. And we watched and learned from them. And then we started to embed it at our level. Believe it or not. They led the way organically, that’s just the nature of agile. The people closest to the work, that’s where the magic should happen. And so even today, that’s how our organization operates.

We function as an agile team and before we make any decisions, we go to either the students or the teachers and ask for all necessary information. And then we craft what might be an answer or a solution.

So it’s not a traditional school.

How exciting to be in a classroom where your students are essentially working you out of a job. Where the students are saying, “I need you for this, but I don’t need you for this part. Go help another team.”

Maria: How was the leadership able to let go and let the teams really take on agility themselves?

Krissyn: It certainly wasn’t easy. And when we started. I told you I’d just come in as a Principal. And then I was told that I need to give control to everyone else. That was a little hard to swallow. But then the second phase of that, we had a coach that wanted me to put my Scrum board up in the middle of school. My dirty laundry was on display for everyone to see. So that did not feel good. That was humiliating in a sense. And the transparency that it brought and the humbleness that it brought to me as a leader, I felt freer than I ever have been in control. Control is not being in control. And being able to trust that the people around you have your back and that you’re not in it by yourself. There’s freedom in that. There’s freedom for leaders that are willing to trust the people they work with.

Maria: How long did it take until things really did start to turn around?

Krissyn: I would say that there were two very painful years of “This is just not going to work. What are we doing?”

That culture started to change and I think was the only thing that kept us moving, because all the other stuff was like “this agile stuff, this Scrum stuff” and there were no books or nowhere else that we could go and turn and read on how to implement it. There was nothing out there. So we’re just trying to figure this stuff out on our own. And so for two years, it was just those glimmers of beautiful relationships starting to form. And that didn’t exist before. And then by year four, our letter grade, changed from an F to a B, and our students actually met the state level of performance. We had never done that before. Our students had never felt that kind of success. So it took about four years before we truly started seeing some of the data. So the quantitative pieces could justify that something is working.

Maria: Thank you so much for sharing the story with us. The inspiration the excitement, the hope. Where can people find more about what you’re doing?

Krissyn: They can go to blueprinteducation.org. They can look under our agile link and join us, help us get the word out, and also participate in mentoring teachers by providing activities, and cool respective ideas… All of these things need to be warehoused for educators and students to access.

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