Team activities for budget planning

Spike Cook, Ed.D

Spike Cook, Ed.D. is principal at Lakeside Middle School, Millville, NJ. In addition to this role, Dr Cook published two books through Corwin Press (Connected Leadership:It’s Just a Click Away; Breaking Out of Isolation: Becoming a Connected School Leader). He is the co-host of the popular PrincipalPLN podcast and his blog, Insights Into Learning, was recognised as a finalist for Best Administrator Blog by the EduBlog Awards. Spike earned his Doctorate from Rowan University and is featured in their Alumni Spotlight.

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Image credit: Flickr // marcyleigh. Image credit: Flickr // marcyleigh.

Schools throughout the world are beginning to plan for the upcoming academic year. The underlining aspect of the improvement process is how it can be achieved on a budget. For instance, if teachers want smaller class sizes, that will come at an increased cost to the district / local authority. If staff want to redesign the front entrance to the school, is it affordable? If the staff identifies curriculum as an issue, can the necessary materials be afforded? These are the tough questions faced in the budgeting season.

In order to address these issues, there are systemic processes that can used to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. This continuous improvement cycle allows educators to:

  • Identify the problem.
  • Determine possible solutions.
  • Have a voice in the process.
  • Build morale and confidence.
  • Operate within the confines of a school budget.

What are the problems?

It is not difficult to ask the staff to identify the areas that need to be improved. Ask any teacher and they will mention: budget cuts, discipline, parent involvement, not enough technology, too much technology, “You can’t take input personally.”enrollment, assessment results, transportation, perception of the school, PLCs, SGOs, lesson plans, administration… the list goes on and on. Sound familiar? Let’s face it, schools are being asked to do more with less. Everyone has a solution, but how can you address all of these problems?

In order for a problem-identification process to occur, it is imperative for schools to identify what is working and what is not working. You could also have a parent/community session and do these same activities. This can be accomplished in a few easy steps. Honestly, this is probably the easiest part of the process, and it empowers the staff to be part of the solution. As a leader, you need to ask the staff for input, and not take it personally when you get it. This is about the process, not the people!

Problem-Identification Processes - Usually 45 minutes to 90 minutes (depending on number of participants):

1. What is the problem?

In order to define the problem, you need to involve as many people as possible. At a staff meeting, arrange colleagues into small groups (I suggest four to six people per), hand out Post-its to everyone, and have them brainstorm the problems plaguing the school. This helps people to feel like they’re part of the process. Keep it simple. Have them raise three to five issues that your organisation is facing. Each Post-it should stand alone (note: subjects and verbs). This part should take about five minutes, and needs to be done quietly.

2. Group work

After everyone has filled out their Post-its, have the group go through and read their problems individually. Each person gets a turn to read. Since this is an idea-generating activity, there is to be NO JUDGEMENT. Once again, everyone will feel part of the process! This part should take about five minutes, depending on the amount of participants. Depending your organisation, you may want to have people take their usual seats if the opportunity is there.

3. Affinity

This part of the activity really gets the group dynamics working. In order to curtail individuals such as the ‘know it all’ or the ‘loudest’, a proper way to achieve affinity is through silence. That’s right, have your small groups work silently until all Post-its are on a big sheet of paper, and grouped by theme. Most likely, the group will have already seen the trends, and more often than not, they will have similar ideas on the problem. Everyone, in silence, will need about five minutes to put the Post-its together in themes.

4. Report out

After the groups have organised their Post-its into themes, one member of staff should be appointed to report out to the rest of the participants in the meeting. This way, everyone can see what the small groups were working on. The heading of the themes should describe the ideas. For instance, if five people mentioned that the outside of the building is unappealing, then you would categorise this issue as “Appearance of building”. This should take about five to eight minutes. It is important for the participants to not judge or criticise the group reporting their findings.

By the end of the group-share, you should have eight to 10 themes that need attention. These themes can be narrowed down during the meeting (preferable), or at a later date using a Google Form or another data collection tool. I recommend that this take place during the meeting, as this adds extra transparency to the process. The group facilitator should have written down all of the themes shared out. Now, allow the staff to vote for their top three favourites. You can have them vote using stickers, markers or even fake money. The themes that have the highest action (marks, stickers or money) will be the areas to improve.

Countdown to the end of the school year is as easy as 3-2-1:

Another technique to get the staff to reflect on what is working - or not working - at your school is the 3-2-1 Countdown to summer. This activity could be exactly what your staff need to have their voice heard and to begin making some change. Since the concept is so applicable, I’ve integrated it into staff meetings prior to the end of the year. The purpose is to reflect on the year now coming to an end, and to begin to plan for the next school year.

After introducing the concept, have the teachers work individually to identify their 3-2-1 (Parr, Kevin ASCD).

  • 3 to Keep – Taking from the blog post hyperlinked above, teachers “identified three practices that were working for them”.
  • 2 to Tweak – Teachers were asked to identify two activities/practices that they would like to continue, but that needed a little improvement or “tweaking”.
  • 1 New/Delete – Teachers were asked to identify one area that they would like to try that is NEW to them. You could also have the staff identify one area they would like to eliminate (within reason, of course).

Putting the activity into motion

After working individually, the teachers share their 3-2-1 in small groups. These discussions will be very rich with reflection, connections, and new ideas. Then have them share their findings in a large group for everyone to hear. Here are some of the insights from our school, Lakeside Middle School in Millville, New Jersey:

After the 3-2-1 workshop, I challenged the staff to try this method with the students, and was pleasantly surprised with the results. Teachers had their learners reflect on their class using the 3-2-1 method. This feedback “The feedback from the teachers was amazing.”is great for helping the teachers to plan for their next year! One grade level even tweaked the activity, and had the students change the ‘1 new’ to ‘1 that should go’. I liked that approach, and if I do this again, I would like to see an area for ‘1 to go’.

As the principal, I felt this activity was very easy to implement, and the feedback from the teachers was amazing. I was amazed at all of the insights from this year. I was able to see what is working in the school, and what needs to be improved - ideal when planning your budget for the year ahead. The activity gave me an opportunity to listen to teachers, and hopefully empower them to take chances to improve their learning environment.

These two activities are a great way to get started on identifying the problems in your school, and will allow you to determine which direction your school will go within the budget. The next step will be for you to begin the action planning. This will require you to take the ideas, put them into a chart, and ensure they get measured and completed! Honestly, this is much more difficult than identifying the problems, but if you did the problem-identification properly, staff will be energised to continue the work!


Journey to a High-Achieving School: Eliminate Destructive Excuses (2013), by Fred J. Abbate,‎ Ken Biddle,‎ Joseph M. Tomaselli
Kevin Parr:

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