How Administrators Can Support Teacher Leaders in Their Schools

Jeffery E. Frieden, an educator, and blogger I greatly admire put out this tweet in February:

Friedman quote

I have to admit the first time I read it I thought to myself, what on earth would cause an administrator to not support the efforts of a staff member to create meaningful change for students?? Since I began my administrative career in Elmhurst District 205 innovation has been at the forefront of what we do.  Our belief statement about curriculum and instruction literally says,

“Students learn through innovative, engaged teaching methodologies taught by highly qualified, dedicated and inspiring professionals.” -Elmhurst Community Unit School District 205

For me, supporting innovative ideas of educators is one of my absolute favorite parts of my job.  (Not to be completely lame, but my tagline on Twitter literally reads, “You had me at, “I’ve got this idea.”)  Doesn’t every administrator feel that way?

As the responses began to unfold I realized the naivete of that thought.  There were valid questions and points brought up from both teachers and administrators demonstrating varying perspectives on the topic.  It was a rich discussion that ultimately left me evaluating and reflecting on my own perspective and approach.

Common Fears, Beliefs & Questions

It was clear from the responses that everyone was on the same page as far as the focus should always be on helping students. However, there appeared to be a major dichotomy from many teachers and administrators as to how to why innovative ideas weren’t flourishing.

From the administrator perspective, many responses included a desire to have data to back up the idea, a well thought out plan of execution and a connection to the district or school goals.  Making sure that educators had support or research behind their ideas was a theme that popped up repeatedly.  When they said no to an idea it was because it wasn’t clearly thought out or didn’t have a connection to district outcomes.  

Teachers who responded wanted to feel heard by their administrators.  Many expressed that they felt like innovation was a defeated effort before they started because their administrator was not open to new ideas.  They wanted their ideas to be met with enthusiasm, support and thoughtful questions that helped them bring their idea to life.  They wanted a leader that not only says we support innovative ideas, but also supports the words with action.

The Plan

Reflecting on the comments made in this thread I realize that I have been lucky in my teacher/administrator relationships.  I had administrators who either left me to my own accord to do what I knew was best for kids or leaders who regularly gave me the green light on my ideas.  As a result, I felt trusted, empowered, and inspired in the places I worked.  

As a new administrator, I hope to continue this approach to supporting innovation, but also think that based on some of the tweets I read I might be missing some structural pieces.  By incorporating these pieces, my hope is that the innovation started by one becomes more widespread leading to more success in students.

1. The Why

Tell me why you want to implement the idea you are bringing.  Is it based on the interests of your students?  A problem you are seeing in your classroom that you’d like to solve?  Something related to our mission and vision? An article you read?  Where is the idea coming from?

2.  The Plan

This is more of an overall plan as opposed to a step by step.  How do you plan on bringing your idea to life?  Who will this idea impact in your class?  What’s an estimated timeline?  Tell me about your idea so I can share in your enthusiasm. ūüôā

3.  What You Need from Me

Is there anything I can do to support you?  Do you need extra materials?  Feedback on your idea?  A partner to implement it with?  Reassurance from me that it’s ok if it doesn’t go according to plan?

4.  How You’re Going to Evaluate it

How will you know if it’s a success?  This part is more about thinking about the outcomes and how we’ll know if the students have met them.  Sometimes it’s anecdotal notes with specific behaviors or mindsets to be observed, student reflections on the work or even a project of some sort.  I don’t mean that you have to give every student a formal assessment, unless that makes sense for the idea you’ve created.

5.  How You’re Going to Share it With Others

One of the problems that I’ve seen happen over and over is that we amazing things going on all over our building on a daily basis, but administrators or coaches are the only ones who get to witness it.  How are you going to share your brilliance with our staff?  It could be something as simple as sharing it on social media and tagging it with our school # or as involved as presenting about it at a staff meeting or Late Arrival.  

Final Thoughts

Innovation in schools is critical to the success of our students.  Our kids are constantly changing and we need to make sure that we are regularly reflecting and shifting instruction to ensure their needs are met and their strengths are grown.  This starts with administrators supporting staff in taking risks.  This is more than saying we are innovative, it’s taken action steps and following through by supporting them through the process.  

I was lucky enough to be able to speak to Jeff directly about this idea in his podcast, Dear Teacher Don’t Give Up! If you’d like to hear more regarding both of our thoughts on the topic of teacher leadership and innovation, please click here.  (As a side note, both his podcast and blog are chalked full of inspiration and great ideas to use in the classroom. If this topic doesn’t interest you, I’d highly recommend checking out others.)

Goals Groupies: Synergizing the Passions of Staff

Last year, I read this post by John Spencer about the importance of being in a “Mastermind Group” with other educators.¬† ¬†It’s basically a group of teachers that meet regularly to explore and share ideas and also give one another feedback.¬† Because the members get to know each other well they can push one another in ways that would not be possible with other groups.

This idea has always stuck with me as something that would be great to implement with staff.¬† So when we started exploring options for our monthly staff meetings as an instructional leadership team, I brought this up as a possibility for a way to structure our time.¬† After talking through a variety of options, including a focus on the 6C’s or differentiated choices aligned to our School Improvement Plan, we ultimately decided on having staff finding a group of people who had written similar personal goals for the year.

The purpose behind this was twofold:

  1.  It gave people time to delve more deeply into something they were already personally invested in.
  2. It made our goal writing process more meaningful because staff would have dedicated time to continually work on them.  This is in contrast to past practice, where many educators (myself included) would wait until it was time to have a follow-up conference on their goals later in the year.  

At our first meeting in September, we had staff members do a “speed date” activity where they moved around the room talking about their goals for the year with different people.¬† Their goal was to find others who had similar interests or their “Goals Groupies.”¬† When they found a “match,” they would write that person’s name down on an index card.¬† At the end of the meeting, they met up with the people on their card and came up with an official focus for their group.¬†¬†

Although I had met with staff members on their goals for the year prior to this meeting, it was fun to see how groupies ended up evolving and what they ultimately chose to focus on.  We had 5th-grade teachers working with first-grade and even kindergarten teachers.  There were groups of specials teachers mixed with grade-level teachers.  The goals chosen were just as diverse and included:  SEL, critical thinking, parent communication, inquiry-based and real-world projects, reading fluency and accuracy, and facilitated IEP and collaboration.  

This past Thursday was our second meeting.  Our Goals Groupies were given time to explore their work more fully setting specific outcomes for their impact on students, creating a plan of action and agreeing on what they would bring to share at the next meeting.  We gave them this template with guiding questions to help them to further think through their ideas.  As I walked around the room, I listened to rich conversations and genuine enthusiasm for the work they were doing.  It was a Thursday after school, but everyone was just as energized as if we were starting a fresh day.  

This process has only reinforced my belief that when we empower staff to take the lead, we embolden change that impacts students far greater than any mandated initiative ever will.  When staff is given dedicated time to collaborate with colleagues who have a common passion, we capitalize on our strengths as a school as well as build capacity in multiple grade levels. The goals the groups have chosen to work on have far surpassed my wildest dreams of what we could work on this year as a staff.   I am beyond excited to see the impact on students as the year unfolds.

 

Coaching for Innovation

This post originally appeared here on the LaunchPad: Official Blog of TeachBoost.

Over the past decade, innovation has become one of the more popular buzzwords in education. Thought by many as a path to make students successful or “future ready,” innovative teaching practices are highly sought after by leadership at all levels. The problem is, when many educators hear the word “innovation,” images of technological grandeur and unimaginable teaching strategies are often conjured up, instead of something that can be as simple as a small shift in practice.

George Couros, author of¬†The Innovator’s Mindset, defines innovation as “something that is new¬†and¬†better.” I love this definition because it recognizes that¬†innovation isn’t changing things just for the sake of change. If something is to be innovative,¬†it needs to be not only new but better for students. In order for innovation to thrive in our schools we have to build school environments that foster idea generation, collaboration, reflection, and risk-taking without fear of repudiation if something doesn’t go as planned.

So where does the role of a coach come in? To strategically enhance these key elements.

Laying the Foundation: Assessing Needs and Trends

It starts with foundational best practices for anyone in a school:¬†build relationships, be present, and get to know those you serve. In this way a coach finds out the needs, interests, and strengths of both students and staff. Not only does this lay the foundation of a great relationship built on trust, it also gives the coach an idea of current practice around the building. If we want “new and better” practices to flourish then we have to first be experts in the great work that is currently happening with students and build from there.

One of the things that I did as a learning support coach was¬†meet with every teacher both at the beginning of each school year and halfway through. We would discuss what they loved most about teaching, areas they were interested in, ideas they were working on, puzzles they just couldn’t figure out, what they enjoyed most outside of school, as well as areas they might want to work with me on.

In addition to meeting with them in person, I’d send out a¬†Survey¬†and a¬†Needs Assessment¬†to get to know the staff a bit better. Over the years, these tools have been modified to meet our school’s improvement plan, previous work we had done, conversations, and coaching cycles I was regularly involved in.

After my meetings, I compiled all of the information I gathered into one large document and looked for trends. From this information, I was able to personalize my coaching and create strategic groupings and partnerships based on the needs or interests of teachers, plus send them articles or videos as resources. As a result, innovative practices spread more quickly, teachers began to collaborate, and relationships built on trust flourished.

Being Vulnerable Through Modeling

An integral, and often scary, part of innovation is the possibility of failure that leads to risk-taking.¬†In order to encourage others to take risks, we need to first model it ourselves.¬†One way to do this is by being vulnerable and to share both your success and setbacks of a new strategy or idea you’re trying out.

In my fourth year of coaching, I found a lot of teachers asking me about the difference between compliance and engagement: “What does it look like in practice?” or “How do we know if students are truly engaged or just complying?” From these conversations the “Student Engagement Inquiry Group” was born. The purpose of this group was to define student engagement versus compliance and then explore teaching practices that would enhance student engagement during lessons. Knowing that a large part of engagement is offering choice, during the first few meetings staff members explored a¬†hyperdoc‚ÄĒa master document with links to various resources.

Using Video

After creating a deeper understanding of student engagement, as well as teaching practices needed to support it, we (the student engagement inquiry group) created an¬†observation template¬†with student engagement “look-fors” when in a classroom.

Knowing that it’s difficult to be judged in front of one’s peers, I offered to teach and record lesson and then have the group evaluate me using our template. Afterward, we used our next meeting to evaluate how engaged the students were. This led to some great discussions and increased the learning process because teachers could focus on what the students were doing. Ultimately, the video process led our group to eventually observe and provide feedback to one another‚ÄĒwhich supported a shift in an innovative process throughout the building.

Going Further: Building Teacher Leaders

One of the greatest discoveries in my first year as a coach was that teachers who loved the work we were doing together would go back to their team and share. This would cause a ripple effect and the innovation would spread!

Coaches looking to spread innovative practices need to be adept at building up teacher leaders in their schools.¬†Educators love learning from their peers because they’re literally “in the trenches” doing the work daily¬†with the multitude of outside factors that might affect how successful or unsuccessful an idea might be.

Co-Presenting

There are a variety of ways to build leaders of innovation in schools. Besides selecting leaders at each grade level to work with, another great way to build leadership in innovation is to ask a staff member to co-present with you at a staff meeting or professional learning day on an idea you have worked on together in their classroom. This highlights great instruction but also takes away some of the pressure a staff member feel when they have to present by themselves.

Edcamps

Another way to build up teacher leaders is to offer an “Edcamp”-style professional learning day where teachers can learn from their peers. Teachers can present on their own or with a peer or group. The other teachers who are not presenting get to select sessions that they would like to attend. Oftentimes this results to more learning beyond the day because teachers will continue to reach out to that staff member after the event. Check out¬†#hawthorneignites¬†on Twitter for some examples of how this has been successful in one of the buildings I am currently an administrator at.

Making Innovation Visible

I read¬†a recent blog post by AJ Juliani¬†where he talked about the importance of highlighting the instruction we want to see in our schools. As a coach, I created a biweekly newsletter that I send out to staff;¬†in¬†this example, I organized the newsletter into different categories, all related to the practices we wanted to see in our classrooms. Additionally, I’d provide examples of the work that I was doing with staff to spark interest in new ideas as well as show cohesion in our work. Even if someone only briefly glanced at the newsletter they could see the focus of the work being done for the year.

Social media is another great way to spread innovative practices. Tweeting, or posting to Instagram, videos and pictures of instructional practices that you see in classrooms is a simple way to make practice visible. A fantastic way to enhance this is by tagging other teachers who you think might be interested in the post.

Final Thought

Innovation for the sake of doing something new is meaningless and leads to frustration by others. However, once we get to know the strengths of those we serve and connect new ideas to the needs of the building, we can truly create something new and better benefits all parties!