Challenge the gloom! Now’s the time to surface and celebrate your school/district’s most striking stories of innovative resilience—and turn those traits into your operating norms.

Your community has been traumatized by a long arc of pandemic challenge and a winter of unanticipated gloom. What can you do about it?

The lessons from the Prepared project schools and districts suggest that you change the narrative. One project participant, St. Vrain Valley Schools (CO), did just that in redefining the relationship between the school district and the exurban Denver communities it serves. That was the key that unlocked 15 years of healthy, productive transformation.

The narrative across most schools and districts in the U.S. during the pandemic is deeply negative. Communities have lost touch with what was good, and working, and evolving, amid so many pandemic challenges. And yet: every school and every community has its own stories of extraordinary, innovative resilience. It’s time, as organizational design pioneer Margaret Wheatley famously wrote, to create better health in your living system by connecting it to more of itself (see pages 8-10).

Use this catalyzer to proactively surface your stories, generate a more productive local narrative, and plant seeds for genuine transformation. It involves four parts based on the “Name - Connect - Nourish - Illuminate” model developed by Wheatley and her colleague, Deborah Frieze.

Watch “We are the future of America,” a video highlighting the impact of public education. Credit: St. Vrain Valley Schools

WMTSPCatalyzer 1A: “Name” Your Strong Stories

The Goal: Surface local examples of shared, innovative problem-solving.
Your community undoubtedly has courageous, heroic-types you can spotlight. For this catalyst, seek to identify examples of courageous, innovative resilience that required a number of people to find each other, explore a problem, iterate on solutions, and act. These collective actions are the roots of highly networked, organization-wide adaptive competence that can make you so prepared. As you share these positive stories, also recognize that people have experienced trauma and acknowledge the challenges, stress, and exhaustion felt by most.


  • Story Slam: Work with staff and students to develop a school- or district-wide Story Slam—your own version of the famous storytelling events hosted by The Moth. Who’s got the best story of collective resilience in the face of COVID? We recommend making this non-competitive; all of these stories will be winners. And we recommend a live audience, as your health and safety guidelines allow, to build excitement.
  • Story Wall: Create an online Story Wall and ask members of your school community to post their reflections. Create different “walls” for different purposes—one for loss and angst, one for kudos and stories of togetherness and resilience.
  • Silent Stories: Quietly solicit, through teachers, leaders, and other staff, their most compelling anecdotes or nominations reflecting innovative problem-solving during the pandemic. Celebrate these stories however it makes sense to safely do so. For more communications strategies, see Catalyzer 6. Level Up Your Community Engagement.

WMTSPCatalyzer 1B: “Connect” Your Community to More of Itself

The Goal: Foster interconnectedness.
“Life grows and changes through the strength of its connections and relationships,” write Wheatley and Frieze. “In nature, if a system lacks health, the solution is to connect it to more of itself.” For all of the remoteness and isolation that COVID wrought, it likely also prompted your school/district/CMO community to develop new and different kinds of connections and relationships, internally and externally. How might you help deepen these new connections and foster new ones?


  • Crowdsourced Connections: Conduct a crowd-sourced internal audit that surfaces and describes new connections that have emerged since March 2020. What sparked them? How have they grown and what have they led to? What value might result from surfacing them publicly and/or resourcing them?
  • Vision for a New Normal: Host a visioning exercise to invite your community to envision a New Normal as your school or district emerges from the pandemic. What priorities became clear during this time that should reshape what school is all about? See the resources at, NGLC’s MyWays Project, and the Transformation Design deep dive guide, Collaboratively Re-envision Student Success, for inspiration and ideas.

WMTSPCatalyzer 1C: “Nourish” the Change-Makers

The Goal: Enable your stakeholders who want to move forward.
In his widely noted Harvard Business Review article, “Accelerate!,” change leadership expert John Kotter advises organizations to establish two different operating structures—one to serve existing customers and one to encourage and enable the organization's change-makers. The design work to fundamentally change systems needs to be supported separately and differently from the ongoing work of the organization, in a parallel operating system.

dual organizational models for transformation

Nourish your change-makers by providing them with a different operating system than the one that serves your current “customers”—the students and your community. (Credit: Kotter International and Harvard Business Review, Nov 2012)


  • Guiding Coalition: Engage stakeholders—anyone who has the energy and drive, given COVID—and build your “guiding coalition” to catalyze the way forward. Follow the eight steps in Kotter’s article to build the parallel operating system for your school or district. This new system can drive visioning and developing a pathway to transformed practices, mindsets, and outcomes.
  • District Change Team: Form a team to explore the district-change strategies you can find at the Transformation Design website, which draws on three years of research into successfully transforming school districts.

WMTSPCatalyzer 1D: “Illuminate” the Promise

The Goal: Creating the conditions for the narrative and vision to spread.
Wheatley again: “There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.” Help the narrative and emerging vision for a better new normal to spread throughout your community. We are all starved for positivity right now. There are voices and organizations in your community that will partner with you to help get this ball rolling and give it some momentum.


Discover more Prepared project activities to catalyze your transformation journey.

Photo at top by Allison Shelley for EDUimages, CC BY-NC-4.0