Root Cause Analysis: You can’t tell what it is… and you can’t tell what is isn’t


Something happens when you get transparent with yourself…you change. Face the wrestling match within yourself – between your old self and your new self.


Many of us go back to school each fall with healthy ambition. We’ve kept up on our pedagogical profile over the summer months by reading widely, attending professional development and gathering and investigating fresh ideas to strengthen our instructional expertise in the upcoming school year. We begin ambitious, inspired, and inflated. Upon returning, what we now know and own as best practice begins to yield evidence of improvement, student engagement, and progress when we slowly test out our new strategies and modified (previously relied upon) methods of instruction. This slow transformation is transparent not only in our daily anecdotal observations of student collaborative dialogue, but also on paper in the varied ways we assess our students to check and proudly verify that learning is indeed occurring.

We’re excited. We’re renewed. We want to share. We decide to step out into the unchartered waters of reciprocal peer leadership with our colleagues.

What we find is that building community not compliance is not as easy as we romanticized. Despite data surveyed, results inventoried, action taken, and progress made, co-workers are reluctant, passive, and shockingly annoyed by the examination and synthesis of current instructional practice among the team. It becomes almost intrusive…invasive…and painful. Feeling like we’ve stepped on the toes of solid, set in stone, tried and true instructional choices that make up the varied curricular decisions of the unique members of our professional team is a consequence of the initiation and invitation to change.

As a result we begin to question our own motives in this quest for learning transformation. The instructional investigation and integration of best practice in terms of change is not going to occur through seamless metamorphosis as we had imagined or at the very least hoped for. On the contrary, it feels like it may not occur at all. At this point we pause, step back…and make an important decision. We decide not to use our environment as an excuse to why we can’t grow or change. We take on the empowered prospective of “people can’t limit us.” We tighten up our bootstraps, and as Colleen Cruz advises in the Unstoppable Writing Teacher, “We march onto the battlefield.”

Root Cause Analysis

It’s not where we’re planted that determines how high we’ll grow. It’s our persistence. Making excuses in relation to our environment is what inherently occurs. Educational resources in terms of materials, textbooks, “stuff,” can and often do become the reason…the excuse for why true change can’t occur within the four walls of our classrooms. However, the problem with assigning blame in this way is that there is always someone else in some other classroom, district, or third world country…that has less resources available to them than we do, and yet they still successfully find a way to produce outstanding results of student learning and growth.

If not the lack of educational resources at our fingertips to place blame, then we look to people in our environment to assign the blame: hierarchical leaders and outside stakeholders, parents, etc. This cycle of blaming continues to artificially affirm our right to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them, whole-heartedly believing it is all we can do considering the environment we are provided. We believe that we are instructional experts and continue to assume our right to plug along as we always have despite the glaring signs of disengaged students in our rooms, flat-lined or poor test scores, and the continual and constant overall feeling of overwhelming resistance to change festering inside us.

Coming face to face with the devil of decision has not manifested itself into our rationale of “why” yet.



Environment is not an excuse. We cannot justify our growth and as a direct result, the growth of our students, by blaming our environment: people or resources. It is a decision that is executed, a choice we accept, and an excuse that is made.

Root Cause Reflection

We can’t pick what we didn’t plant…harvest what we didn’t sow. Look for test scores that yield prosperity in a field where opportunity for prosperity wasn’t the seed sown. We can’t go looking for something that was not put in ground. Expecting to pick an apple, when we deliberately planted oranges. We must come to the realization that we reap what we sow.

Possessing the kind of defiance in our professional spirit to do more than we’ve done up to this point is where real change will begin to manifest. In contrast, continuing to believe that if we leave something alone it will get better, is not the answer. Nothing grows if you leave it alone.


We must dig around the problem…the “it” and get to the roots.

Acknowledging that where the problem appears is not where the problem started is the first step. It shows at one level, but it is a result of the root that we cannot see. We must be willing to get down and dirty. We must resist the urge to keep trying to fix things at a level that can been seen and start digging beneath the surface.

The root of disappointment in progress made is a result of our own dysfunction. Digging out around “it” and getting to the root is the only way to establish real change. Identifying the “it” is the hard part, but it is also where honest transformation can begin to occur.

What is your “it?”

Many of us are hard wired to want the prosperity, but not the work that precedes it…the digging. We see the fruit of other colleagues, but we fail to see the root work that went into it.

Our problem has been planted for a long time, we can’t get frustrated and give up. We need to keep digging.

Continuing to think and to believe that we are disappointed in our job isn’t the answer because the root of the truth is – we’re probably not. The truth is we are probably disappointed in ourselves. Real change will occur when we stop blaming people and situations and make a decision to stop making excuses.  We need to stop focusing on what is on the surface and start owning our own dysfunction at the root.

In Summary

Stop being mad about the seed that didn’t grow. Start comparing what you see in the harvest to what you planted in the ground. Learn from a season of failure and harness and utilize that failure as fertilizer.

Food for Thought

Our schools are looking for real change through real leaders. Are you up for the challenge?


2 thoughts on “Root Cause Analysis: You can’t tell what it is… and you can’t tell what is isn’t”

  1. Loved your post, Val. Your discussion of “root cause” made me think of Ella Baker and her discussion of the concept–yes, she is talking about African American people and the civil rights struggle:

    In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning—getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system. —Ella Baker, 1969

    I hear echoes of this in your writing, although you are talking about owning up to one’s own responsibility and participation in the problem.


  2. This is so true, so true, so true. It is SO hard to continue to push for the changes that we know need to be made when those around us are not helping to make the changes necessary, even when the changes are acknowledged as necessary. I find myself struggling to maintain the level of energy and enthusiasm with which I enter the school year because I am continuously bogged down by initiative after initiative after initiative . . . but no support or real concept of HOW these changes are going to be undertaken. There may be a big picture or vision, but it is hazy at best because there is not clear plan of action to making it come true. For that reason, I often am viewed as being unwilling to change, but that is not the case. I simply want to work smart. I do not want to implement change without a strong foundation.

    Great thoughts, Val, and I love the quote, Laura.



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