Coaching Championship Schools

September 26, 2019

My dad

I grew up in a basketball household. My parents loved the game, my dad coached for years, and all three of my siblings played throughout high school. My dad even had the opportunity to coach Isiah Thomas, now retired from the Detroit Pistons, for part of his seventh grade year. When my dad passed away tons of his former players reached out to our family to share how much of an influence he had on them as people through the sport. I think about that one often, not just because it is pretty awesome and a reflection of who my dad really was, but also because it says something about the purpose and intent of team sports. My dad knew it. It should be about having a genuine relationship with players and a common goal. Everyone on the team knows they have their part and contribute in their own way to a unified purpose. People join a sport with a goal already in mind- to win and hopefully to have fun. How you get a group of individuals to share in an approach to achieving a goal requires that it is compelling and clear enough that people are willing to take risks to get there. My dad didn’t coach too many championship teams, but he did create some bonds and a sense of purpose that have lived on including inspiring his children to coach our own kids. Getting a whole school district to work towards common goals and yet allowing each school to maintain their own individuality in achieving them can work the same as attempting to coach a championship team.

I read a great post by Jennifer Gonzalez, who writes Cult of Pedagogy, on What Teachers Want You To Know. It was a letter to administrators on what teachers need from them. I read it from the lens of my team’s work in supporting administrators and instructional coaches at each of our eighteen school sites. On behalf of teachers, she asked principals to:

  1. Treat teacher time as a precious commodity.
  2. Differentiate your leadership.
  3. Give specific feedback.
  4. Regularly check in with your ego.
  5. Fight for us.

On behalf of school leaders, I took it as good advice from them to district office staff as well.  Those five embody the work of great coaches and leaders. How do we respect people’s time? How do we recognize that schools are in different places and need us to support them in different ways? How do we more regularly give feedback? How do check our egos by promoting the ideas one school may have and honoring them by recognizing them publicly so others can learn? How do we ensure leaders at the school level and district level are listening to our learners and our teachers to align our work and not put too many things on everyone’s plates? 

We have a strategic plan developed by a committee of staff from all departments, parents, and community members that set our specific goals in four building blocks so that our expectations are clear and our work is focussed. We meet as a leadership team (principals, assistant principals, deans of students, instructional coaches and district office staff) once a month to professionally grow and ensure we are implementing our strategic plan effectively. In our first year of the plan, we worked on a variety of topics each month. We spent some time in small group discussion on the topic and started each meeting with an opportunity to personally connect. Everyone would leave these sessions energized to do the work, but just like when you go to a professional development session without the time to process and plan. Little was carrying over into schools and our relationships between school and district leaders were not getting deep enough to help push the work. A good basketball coach watches the playback, analyzes what went well, sees what needs work and adjusts their plan to better help the players grow. We needed to coach in a new way because we were having awesome practices through our meetings, but not consistently applying the strategies and the plays in the game.

When we really thought about why that was happening, it became clear that we needed our district level support and coaching to be far more specific to the work that was being done at each school site and how it connects to our district goals with a lot more time for reflection. Just like Jennifer suggests, we needed to check our egos, give (and get) more feedback and differentiate our leadership. After that first year our Leadership and Learning team, which at that time consisted of a Director, a Coordinator of Instruction, a Coordinator of Special Education, a Coordinator of Student Supports, a Coordinator of Innovation, and a Coordinator of Career and Technical Education, adjusted how we approach our work. We moved from a siloed system of individual roles that each had a specialty to a support role of working with the school leadership teams on a weekly basis at the school sites on every aspect of our work. We added something we call school supports wherein each member of our team partners with a few schools to help connect all our work and align it towards the levers that will create a true shift of culture to empower teachers and learners to try new things and take risks through authentic, learner driven practices. We planned to be there for about two hours each week meeting, doing classroom walk-throughs together to share bright spots of learner driven practice and looking at areas where it needs to grow. It was a great opportunity to develop deeper relationships between a school based leadership team and one member of our Leadership and Learning team. As a team, we learned how to differentiate coaching between schools and heard from learners at each school site to know what was working well for them and what needed to be improved. Getting specific feedback from leaders at eighteen schools helped us as a team to plan professional development and our leadership days to align them to really push the right work, but with the right support. If open lines of communication, strong relationships built on trust, opportunities to share ideas and reflect, a common goal, and time for skill development makes a great sports team, it can certainly help to make strong schools.

It worked pretty well in the first year, and we certainly learned a lot. We added a summer professional development series for our leaders based on what they shared they needed, adjusted the format for our monthly leadership team meetings to go deeper on a few key messages instead of a variety of topics, and added some elements to our district-wide professional development to better meet the needs of teachers.

We also learned that our format for school improvement plans needed improvement (pun intended), so we adjusted our playbook again.  This year the school improvement plans are made up of short term markers aligned to a continuous improvement cycle with concrete action steps and a purposeful professional development for teachers and leaders.  The plans are intended to be discussed regularly with the staff at each site to be sure they have input and adjusted after reflection many times throughout the year. Our monthly leadership meetings have become times to review parts of those plans in small groups with other schools, share progress and get feedback from others school leaders, which is also reviewed during the school support meetings with the district partner.  

Good sports coaches adjust the plan over and over again while remaining focussed on the goal. They push people in ways that make them better. Michael Jordan said, “A coach is someone that sees beyond your limits and guides you to greatness.” Valuing the time we have together to make it meaningful, working on feedback, checking our egos, and fighting for the right work through differentiated leadership is hopefully pushing us all to embrace change and take risks with and for our learners. We have seen some amazing bright spots over the last few years with instructional practice across our district that is learner driven. We will continue to look for ways to grow that to scale so we have wall to wall, bell to bell, empowered classrooms, schools and learners. It is our hope that listening to what everyone wants us to know, continuing to reflect and adjust our practice is a good step in coaching up a championship for our entire district and guiding our learners to greatness.

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