Stopping the Bus: The Power of Not Moving On

When I began teaching fourth grade at Success Academy, I got off to a rocky start. My classroom management was terribly inconsistent. I tried everything: new incentives, revised consequences, inspirational speeches, angry lectures. But things weren’t changing.

One afternoon, my principal Danique – an incredible educator – sat me down and offered some advice:

“Andy, you over-complicate things. You need to go back to the simple idea of not moving on. When you look at your classroom and you are not satisfied with the way things are going, you need to stop everything. Just stop the bus. And do not move on. That is how you show kids that you mean what you say. Your actions – not your words – reveal what you will and will not accept.”

Danique’s advice transformed my classroom, and would later transform my leadership. She was right. Stopping is the most powerful way to let your constituencies know what you really do and do not value, what you really will and will not tolerate. When a teacher stops a lesson dead in its tracks, it’s a big deal. When a principal stops the school day dead in its tracks, it’s a big deal. Everyone takes note.

And everyone remembers. Below, I summarize two “stop the bus” moments that live in my faculty’s memory. These summaries provide some visibility into what a whole-school stop can look like, and why a leader might be compelled to engineer one.

Stopping to Re-engage

Our faculty had decided that we would focus on improving student engagement for the month of December. The first week of this initiative was inspiring. Teachers crafted fun and fascinating lessons that engaged students like never before. During the second week, I did a morning walk-through and noticed a substantial drop in the quality of lesson engagement; teachers had clearly taken their feet off the pedal. The backward slide concerned me. So, I called an emergency meeting at lunch that day. I told my teachers that I had observed a decrease in student engagement. I took a moment to express gratitude and empathy: I appreciated their diligence and understood that “let downs” were natural. Still, we had to honor our commitment to engagement. Our students deserved better lessons. Teachers acknowledged that they had let the ball drop, and then took five minutes to brainstorm engagement tactics for their afternoon lessons.

On my afternoon walk-through, every teacher was back on fire, and kids were smiling again. The emergency meeting proved powerful. Teachers understood that engagement was something I was willing to stop for. As a result, they more consistently attended to engagement in their lesson planning, which permanently raised the baseline level of enthusiasm in our school.

Stopping to Stay Positive

May was proving to be a particularly stressful time for our staff. The schedule was crowded with special events and we were preparing students for their first-ever “finals week.” As the busy month progressed, I began to sense a change in our staff culture. Teacher interactions – usually fun, supportive, and positive –  became short, frustrated,and cranky. This drop in morale was negatively influencing the tone of our entire community.

So, I engineered another emergency meeting: I sent each member of my operations and office team to cover classrooms for 10 minutes while I met with teachers in the office. When teachers arrived, they were visibly concerned – it was unsettling to be pulled without warning. I kept the meeting short: I explained that I had felt and observed an unfamiliar negativity in our team dynamic. I acknowledged that it was the result of diligent stress. I made clear that, regardless, we all had to reprioritize positivity, collaboration, and generosity of spirit. We owed it to one another, and to the students, to keep our school a happy place.

At first, I was not sure the meeting had been successful. Teachers were clearly surprised and uncomfortable. But within the hour, I had been copied on a number of apologetic e-mails between colleagues. Over the course of the day, the building began to feel more fun and positive. Throughout the week, almost every teacher individually thanked me for calling the meeting and not allowing the negativity to fester. The culture stayed strong right up to our last day.

How to “Stop the Bus”

None of these moments were easy for me. I adore my staff and I am constantly in awe of their hard work and commitment. It was uncomfortable for me to address them in a severe and sudden manner. But, it was absolutely worth it. “Stopping the bus” not only turned these situations around, but also strengthened my identity as a leader. My staff came to understand that I not only hold high standards, but also enforce high standards. They describe these “stop the bus” moments as times when they most came to respect and trust my leadership.

Building up the courage and will to address your team is the hardest part of “stopping the bus.” I genuinely believe it’s one of the most important and most underused tactics in school leadership. Here are a few other tips to consider when engineering a “stop the bus” moment:

  • Cause an interruption. If you address concerns or priorities at a recurring staff meeting or in a regular staff memo, that is great. But, it’s not the same as “stopping the bus.” If you want to send a strong message to your faculty, you need to interrupt the schedule. This shows your constituents that you truly “cannot move on” unless the desired change occurs.
  • Pick your battles. You cannot call an emergency meeting every day. Frequency will come at the cost of impact. You need to really understand, as a leader, what your non-negotiable values and priorities are. You also need to ensure that “stopping the bus” will be sufficient to change the behaviors you are targeting. You may, for example, be disappointed with the rigor of a teacher’s questioning. But this will require deliberate and strategic professional development, not an emergency meeting.
  • Choose your words. It’s important to deliver your “stop the bus” speeches carefully. You need to balance directness and empathy. You should be unapologetic about the problem and the change in behavior you want to see. You should also acknowledge people’s hard work and good intentions. Hard work and good intentions cannot be an excuse for subpar performance. Constituents appreciate knowing that you see these qualities in them, even when they are not performing up to your standards.

Here are six steps to follow for speaking to your faculty when “stopping the bus”:

  1. Describe problem: Explain briefly where you recognized the diversion from a non-negotiable goal.
  2. Acknowledge hard work / good intentions: Recognize staff for their effort and energy in working towards the goal.
  3. Clearly describe the desired change in behavior: Share what needs to happen as a group and as individuals for staff to rally and recenter to achieve the goal.
  4. Provide time to think / plan, if necessary: Allow for staff to recommit to the goal and think about the lessons left to teach. Have staff talk between each other and quickly share back with the whole group.
  5. Offer support: “Is there anything you all need from me to make this happen?”
  6. Demonstrate gratitude: Thank staff for their diligence, commitment, and flexibility.

Have you ever “stopped the bus” to refocus your staff towards a common goal? Has your bus ever been stopped? What worked? What didn’t? Share your story by commenting below.

Andrew Malone is Principal at Success Academy Harlem Central in New York, NY. Follow Andrew on Twitter with 

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