In 2012, we were one of the 16 districts awarded the US Department of Education’s Race to the Top funds to use for personalizing instruction, improving student achievement, closing achievement gaps, and more. As a majority minority, high-poverty district struggling with low scholar achievement, we knew this was a unique opportunity to implement new programs and initiatives across our K-12 continuum. One of the actions we took with the help of this funding was to enlist a consultancy partner, Education Elements, and together we designed an aggressive plan to have our entire instructional staff trained in making our classrooms more scholar-centered through personalized learning models. We hit the ground running, focusing on closing the achievement opportunity gap in the early years, revising our curriculum scope and sequence, adding digital content and building leadership capacity.
Our partner started conducting on-site workshops in 2013 following an intensive program audit, and together we designed personalized learning instructional models and trained educators. Our teachers’ commitment to our mission paid off. After four years of teaching using a personalized learning approach and implementing strategies to erase the look and feel of poverty in its schools, the percentage of scholars reaching their NWEA MAP growth targets increased in both reading and math. We drastically increased the amount of scholars taking at least one college course in high school and our graduation rate skyrocketed from 54% to 87%.
After seeing this success, we knew we were moving in the right direction. However, we knew if we didn’t also shift our district-level practices to become more responsive, this initiative and others would begin to plateau. After deep reflection on my career in education, I knew the next level of change needed to take place among my leadership teams. Very little had been done to improve upon or change our leadership and management practices. This was a gap I was eager to address in April 2018 when my colleague, Amy Creeden, and I officially became assistant superintendent and superintendent respectively.
Our theory of action was based on growing our capacity to support teacher who, in turn, support our scholars. The components involved helping the administration improve its team leadership capabilities, increasing collaboration and focusing on enhanced communication skills.
An unconventional start
During the workshops provided by Education Elements and as we experienced their ongoing support, we saw that their team members just worked differently. In addition to leading incredibly efficient meetings, they were always collaborating (and encouraging us to do the same). This high level of collaboration allowed them to make swift, informed decisions. Around this time, their CEO mentioned he was working on a book outlining how to implement the tactics we were observing. We began to implement the strategies outlined in “The NEW School Rules: 6 Vital Practices for Thriving and Responsive Schools” with Education Elements, and haven’t regretted this course of action since we started one year ago. While we are eager to make even more shifts, the outcomes of implementing responsive leadership practices are already widely felt by our team.
Here are the steps we are taking to improve how our leaders lead.
We revamped our meetings. We send out an agenda in advance of meetings so attendees come prepared and know the purpose for each meeting. Our time is used more efficiently, which is especially helpful now that we have time limits on our meetings. We encourage attendees to contribute items to the agenda so they can discuss their needs, which helps them feel included in the process and has created greater psychological safety on our cabinet team. A meeting facilitator then leads attendees through the agenda and confirms next steps, which keeps everyone on task and moving forward.
One example of a meeting change is in the way we start and end them. To kick off meetings, we use a tool called a “check-in.” It’s a quick question such as, “What has been the high and low point of your day/week?” or “What is occupying your mind as we start this meeting?” This ensures everyone is mentally present, feels included, and knows the meeting is a safe place for sharing ideas. Similarly, a “checkout” at the end of the meeting allows the group to share feedback. A checkout question is short and sweet, such as, “Reflect on how you are feeling leaving this meeting. How has this changed or stayed the same?” Attendees leave the meeting feeling heard and ready to complete their next steps. Our check-in and checkout questions also help us get an opportunity to connect with colleagues and learn more about how they think through decisions and manage stress.
We created opportunities for staff to bond. In corporate America, coworker bonding opportunities are more prevalent than they are in education, through team trips, holiday parties, and more. We’ve put a big emphasis on creating more flexibility so teams can come together and get to know each other better. When educators or administrators have an opportunity to do this, they build trust and learn they can rely on their colleagues.
We encourage attendees to come to meetings early (if possible) so they can catch up with their colleagues, drink a cup of coffee together, and really get to know each other. We have also started a book study. The team reads a book and meets after the workday to talk about the topic of focus and hang out. These strategies have made our own administration team feel more like a close-knit community, as well as adding to our own development as leaders.
We seek insight from experts to build our skill sets. Learning from experts and leaders from other industries gives us a fresh perspective on our own practices.
We started hosting a coffee and conversation series during which leaders from other industries come present to our administrators. They speak about their leadership challenges and successes, and then our administrators can ask questions based on their own experiences. For example, one of our community members is a retired New York City Fire Department battalion chief so he presented about what it was like to be “the new guy.” He also discussed strategies he used in his professional capacity to manage making rapid decisions in high stress situations. We also had our local police chief present about how he handled pushback when he had to make organizational changes.
We also provide opportunities for outside professional development. For instance, we recently sent a colleague to a conference about LGBTQ matters so we can learn more about scholars’ needs and gain awareness about this topic. The colleague reported back about lessons learned so we have a better understanding of new and changing legislation, as well as how to best engage in related topics at different grade levels.
We are improving ourselves to help teachers
Changing our meeting structure, creating opportunities to bond, and seeking expert help was not an instantaneous process. We continuously reflect on what works and what doesn’t and then add new strategies.
This process is helping us support our teachers more and run our district differently. We’ve flattened our district’s organizational chart so everyone feels ownership and instead of being a district of schools we are one cohesive school district.
This year we plan to continue to improve our professional development practices and create more opportunities to cultivate relationships among our staff. This will allow us to continue our forward momentum and improve outcomes for our scholars.
Richard DelMoro is the superintendent of the Enlarged City School District of Middletown in Middletown, N.Y.
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