System leader perspective
To sustain systemic change, find the right partner and plan for the long term
An interview with Vicki Kirk
- Vet personalities as well as content.
- Build systemic integration and support.
- Address current and long-term needs.
When our district received Race to the Top funds, we decided to use the money to employ academic coaches. We needed to bring in an external partner to train the coaches as well as principals and aspiring principals.
At the time, Tennessee was embarking on a new evaluation program, which provided the criteria for effective instruction, so we knew exactly what we wanted teachers and principals to learn and were able to tailor our professional learning to align with the evaluation program.
I didn\'t want to bring in a canned program to train our coaches. I wanted something that would match our culture and integrate into our plans. The staff already had some initiative fatigue from past programs, so we needed to start fresh and build a reputation with the way we did our training.
We decided to bring in Mike Murphy, then an independent education consultant. We knew his work from past interactions and knew he could build a rapport with teachers. He is congenial and knows how to get a group started well and on the right track.
Vet potential partners
It is important to get to know as much as possible about potential partners. I am very reluctant to engage someone without being able to see them in action or have a trusted person to talk with about their services. We interview potential partners about how they can fulfill our needs and not just offer something without customization. I\'m reluctant to use someone who doesn\'t want to talk about how they can customize their work for us and help make it sustainable after they leave.
Trust is a big factor. I have worked with outside consultants for 15 years and have seen different consultants who delivered the same materials but were received differently. It\'s important to find someone with not only the right content but also the right personality who can work with your staff. However, you can\'t know how a consultant\'s personality will fit with your staff unless you spend time with him or her - maybe even engage a trial run.
When we introduced Murphy to the group, we polled the teams to find out what they wanted to keep and what they wanted to let go from current and past professional learning. We had already done some work around developing mission
s and vision and beliefs and goals for the Race to the Top plan, so they already knew why he was there. There wasn\'t 100% buy-in, but there was enough of a general consensus for a healthy start.
Murphy and I take time periodically to plan and brainstorm together. In the middle of our Race to the Top initiative, we reserved a room in the library and met there so we could consider how to develop something that we could sustain after the Race to the Top money ran out. We had to build our capacity so we could manage on our own. That takes a lot of trust.
Murphy knows the district\'s challenges and goals. He builds evaluation of the plan from the start. We periodically check to make sure we are doing what we said we\'d do and that we are achieving the goals we expected in terms of leader knowledge and actions.
Our most recent endeavor is working with groups of principals across the district. These principals meet in groups to study a topic that was selected as a need as demonstrated by their evaluation. They are accountable to one another for their learning, and the plan has a bias for action. They are expected to do something, to put an action plan into place.
Each principal has action plans, and Murphy checks in, gives encouragement, and asks questions when they are not meeting their goals. The principals know that he cares about them and is helping them get the work started. The whole process has been action-oriented, and many of those going through the program have been instrumental in providing assistance to others as well.
Figuring out how the different pieces will fit together is often one of the hardest parts. For example, for our academic coach and learning leader training, we had to make sure we were building capacity, planning sufficient time for learning, and getting a good balance so the teachers didn\'t feel they were being pulled out of their classrooms too much.
Murphy doesn\'t tell us what we need to do. He asks a lot of questions instead. Sometimes we wanted him to tell us what we needed and how to fix things. He didn\'t allow it, though. That way, we determine for ourselves what we are trying to accomplish. That is hard in the beginning but worth it in the long run.
Coordinate all external partners
I had a conversation about effective professional learning with Tennessee\'s deputy commissioner of education, formerly the director of schools in Putnam County. She shared her experiences and successes with ENI, an educational consultancy. She recommended ENI to help with our needs. After talking with ENI representatives about what they could do, we sent people to Putnam County to talk with them about their work with ENI. We were satisfied with what we saw and heard, so we engaged ENI to help with our math training.
ENI\'s work dovetailed with Murphy\'s work, so he met with ENI representatives to make sure their work wouldn\'t overlap unnecessarily. ENI also met with our coaches to discover what they already knew so they could avoid overlap when ENI worked with learning leaders, teacher leaders, and teachers. I kept ENI informed about the work we were doing with our coaches. We had one or two in-person meetings and a couple of phone calls to minimize redundancy. In the end, each of the partners clearly understood from the start what our goals were and what we needed to meet those goals.
Our partners want to understand how they are aligning with our goals, so my staff and I conduct regular updates with our external partners and their teams. We have quarterly meetings and check in after each visit. We also have a formal debrief three to four times per year plus regular phone conversations. It\'s important to keep an eye on the results and have regular opportunities to say, \"We need to tweak what we are doing and change course a bit.\"
My staff and I debrief with our own supervisors regularly and conduct surveys to see what is working. We try to provide our partners with that feedback and make sure everyone understands what the overall goals are and how our work aligns with that.
Plan for the long term
Ongoing support for teachers is built in through our learning leaders, who are classroom teachers that serve as models and mentors for others. They have made the biggest impact. We\'ve invested additional time and effort to make sure they are trailblazers in Common Core.
They receive additional training on topics such as working with adult learners, conducting professional development, and evaluating professional development. We invested extra time with our learning leaders so they can assist principals with implementing new initiatives by modeling and acting as study buddies. When all of our money is gone and the consultants are not around, everything we have done will be built into our system.
Vicki Kirk (firstname.lastname@example.org) is superintendent of Greene County (Tenn.) Schools.
Disclosure: Mike Murphy is a senior consultant with Learning Forward\'s Center for Results.