I wrote a post on November 15, 2021 about the job I get to do. I loved that post as it captured how I really do approach my job every single day. I try to focus on what I did get done and the amazing work happening in our classrooms despite everything the world has thrown at us, especially over the last couple of years. It is not that I ignore the negative parts of the day or the week, as there have been plenty of those as well, but it has been an intention for me to focus on what I can accomplish and on small wins rather than on always trying to get to the end goal quickly.   

By November, when I wrote that post, some of our schools had found a decent groove by buckling down on their relationships with students and reconnecting as people. We added some support and services for students who were really struggling and tried our best to support each other. Then we had a series of variants and a couple of periods of incredible unpredictability for everyone. Staff were in and out, there were no substitutes, and everyone was on edge. Our district team spent a lot of time subbing for principals and classrooms, trying to do everything we could to help. We had weathered that storm, and by late January, many of our schools had again found a groove. Don’t get me wrong, it was still an exhausting, stretched-to-the-limit feeling, but many teachers and schools were finding a way despite it all. And it was not for lack of trying that some schools had not been able to get back into a routine.   

In all of that, I still didn’t stop focusing on what did get done in a day. The days just looked very different. We still had incredible work happening in our schools. I just stopped getting to see it as often. I also stopped sharing about it, which I regret. I did a lot of writing last year. I have tons of half-done posts and notes, but I stopped putting it all together and putting it out there. I read a post by Megan Lawson called Hitting Our Limits last spring, which helped me understand why. I was getting lost in the negativity, which is not like me. As an empath, I was so worried about our staff, students, and families who were struggling that I started feeling bad about publicly celebrating the great work. 

If you don’t follow Megan, you definitely should. She does a beautiful job of focusing on the human side of our work in a way that always inspires me. In that post, she reminded me that my version of being okay is documenting and publicly celebrating all the incredible moments that happen for our learners and always finding bright spots while we continue to work together to overcome challenges. 

It is always okay to not be okay. Last school year, we had many staff members who felt not okay most of the time. That was hard for me as I tried my best to be enough for everyone and nothing seemed like it was enough both at home and at work. It kept me from sharing about the small wins and little moments that some of our schools were experiencing and had me spending time trying to fill gaps. I was always pleased when I could help and stand in a gap for someone who needed it. I also was super proud of some of the huge gains I saw in authentic student-empowered classrooms across our district.  

As I started preparing for our summer leadership series and thought about our summer kick-off from last August, I realized I needed to go back and share all the moments I captured from last year. I have made a new commitment to myself for the weeks before we get to welcome students back again to look back on the year and share some of the moments of joy and the small and big wins. So, here we go! 

Each August, we kick off the school year with our entire leadership team (principals, assistant principals, instructional coaches, and district office staff). We spend time each June reflecting on the previous year and then work together all summer to develop as leaders and plan the start of the school year in August. We have been working on empowering our learners by embedding the Deeper Learning competencies in every classroom for the last several years. It has led to some beautiful presentations of learning and classroom instruction led by students as they make, build and create. We also knew that we needed to emphasize the academic standards more. The inspired work needed a direct connection to the academic standards that allow all students to demonstrate content mastery in a way that means something to them. Many of our schools have adopted Project Based Learning as the pathway to the Deeper Learning competencies. The focus on the standards pushed us beyond just doing interesting projects to actual project based learning.  

We spent that day last August in small teams of leaders who did not know one another well. They started the day by asking each other:

  • What has been your personal best Deeper Learning experience?
  • What is your “elevator speech” for equity through DL to share with staff and parents?
  • Tell about a time you felt truly included in a group. What were the factors that made you feel that sense of belonging?
  • Tell about a time you struggled and what you did to move past that moment.

They were assigned some academic standards and a location. After they got to know one another, they went off to the Zoo, a community garden, a tour of the new murals painted around our town, the State Fair, and several other locations. They had tasks to complete at the site, questions to ask other patrons, and time to reflect.  

They then spent the afternoon planning how to demonstrate how they had mastered the academic standards they were assigned and capture the experience they had at the local spot in a presentation of learning. Although it was pouring rain, the teams made the most of it. Unfortunately, one group had a very negative experience, which they also shared. As much as I would never want that to happen to anyone, it was also an opportunity to share what they learned when things went wrong. They shared what happens when you aren’t made to feel like you belong and the learning isn’t connected to standards; it can be an awful experience. The energy from all the groups all afternoon was powerful. Leaders were planning, making, and creating things that meant something to them that also displayed the standards and captured the feeling of their experience.  

The next day, they set up displays and shared what they learned. People rode stationary bikes, made t-shirts with the standards on them, set up a garden, made videos, and a ton of other creative ideas. We invited in some outside experts and spent time listening, interacting with, and giving feedback to one another. The level of in-depth conversation between leaders about the feeling they had participating in their experiences while knowing they were on a mission to complete a task and be able to share the learning with others was so beautiful.  

That is the feeling we want learners to have every day in classrooms. We want them to feel confident, included, connected to each other, and that their learning has a purpose. That day, the purpose was obvious. We modeled and had leaders experience exactly how classrooms should feel. The power of living the experience helped them to plan how to start the school year with the right opportunities to drive real learning that works. Although our year did not get off to the start we hoped it would, those moments still carried us through to help us get back on track several times this year. Our leadership team knew we were in it together for the good, the bad, and the best of the learning. We will do our kick-off again soon. I can’t wait to feel that momentum in the room again to ensure leaders know how to support teachers so they can support learners to try new things and achieve anything.   


Eliminating inequities begins with each of us; we see students as people with assets and aspirations, and it is our job to help them realize their goals and dreams. This is one of our shared equity beliefs in our school district. We start many of our meetings by making time to reflect on one of our beliefs by sharing with a colleague a time that we lived that belief versus a time we missed an opportunity to do so. The reflections are compelling moments for our leaders and teachers to think about times they have empowered our learners to become their authentic selves with our guidance and support. Our job is to help them realize their goals and dreams, which means we need to have relationships with our learners so we know who they are. We also have to create opportunities in every class, school, and grade level for students to know themselves, find their strengths, learn areas for growth and have time to explore their passions.  

We want our learners to know that our schools are designed for them to define their own trajectory and realize what’s possible for them after graduation. It is not our job to determine their pathway. Our job is to hold everyone to high standards, to push learners in conjunction with their families and other supports to develop their skills, both personally and academically, and to make space to try new things. It will mean some of our students enter the military, some enter four-year colleges, some attend technical schools, some enter the workforce, and some create their own pathways by becoming entrepreneurs. Schools should be co-designed with learners so they know how to try, how to fail, how to try again, and what options are out there to discover the ones that are right for them.  

Those are the outcomes that we are working towards. The outcome is more significant than a test score. Don’t get me wrong, test scores are also important as they can open doors for learners to enter post-secondary education and earn scholarships if that is their pathway. Test scores are also how we are publicly judged, and like it or not, that’s important. However, the most impactful outcome we are searching for is that every single learner is living life on their own terms years after graduation with the skills to achieve their goals and the skills to adapt when the goals need to change.   

I get to see some incredible samples of this every day in our schools. We have second and third graders who talk about how they spend time in class learning about their strengths, growth areas, and how they can support one another when things are challenging. We have middle school students who can talk about closing their own academic gaps because once that they have applied the skill to a real task, the work has a purpose. We have high school students who can share which standards they mastered by creating a jewelry business or a candle company. The amount of empowerment I get to hear often makes me know that we have many learners who will be ready to achieve any goal and have the perseverance to overcome any obstacle for their lifetimes.  

One of the most outstanding examples of exactly what we want for every student in our schools was articulated on an internationally followed podcast. I was invited to be a guest with two of our students on the Transformative Principal podcast to talk about our learner-centered practice. One of the students who joined me that day shared that he has his own podcast. As connecting with experts to help us grow and finding an authentic audience is an essential part of our deeper learning work, we connected with George Couros, who helped Deontay learn about producing a podcast and finding your audience. Deontay talked about how school helped him find his passions and what he plans to do after graduation. They also spent a lot of the time talking about basketball shoes as that is a huge passion for both of them.  

A few weeks later, Deontay was one of the graduation speakers from Dottke Project-Based Learning High School. In his speech, he talked about overcoming obstacles in his life and why the people around him mattered so much to his journey. It was such a beautiful representation of what we want for all learners- demonstrating speaking and writing skills, talking about exploring your passions at school, connecting to peers and adults around you, and knowing that learning takes multiple tries to get right. He shared how he has the skills, both those he learned at school and elsewhere, to overcome challenges and to know he can always learn more and try again. I shared the speech with George and then Deontay sent George an email a short while later to thank him for the time they spent together, which led to George inviting Deontay to be the first student guest on his podcast. 

In his first episode, he talked about educators who have inspired him. It was a beautiful reminder of how powerful our relationships with our learners are the key to success in school. As it was hard for him to name just one, the number of educators he named was inspiring. After watching the episode, I sent it to the teachers he mentioned to thank them for their work. We don’t do that often enough- express our gratitude for one another and celebrate the thousands of successful moments we experience every day.  

In the next episode, Deontay shared about the learning experience he has had where educators saw him for exactly who he is and brought out his strengths. He talked about finding his people, including peers and adults, who connected with him to make sure he had the tools and resources to celebrate the great moments and work through the hard ones. The most powerful part of the episode for me and one I have used in professional development and a class I get to teach at a local university is this one:

He gives advice on how school has to change for the betterment of everyone from a system designed years ago to what learners need now. It’s a message we’ve heard repeatedly, but coming from a recent graduate who had a more personalized experience in school was pretty awesome.  

Many people may think the outcome is that one of our learners got on an internationally followed podcast. While that is amazing, that is not it. The outcome we want for all our learners is that on that podcast, with no prompting about what he was going to be asked or prep work to tell him what he should say, he was able to beautifully articulate how school helped him to find his authentic self and define his own trajectory. A local public school was a place where he felt he was celebrated for his strengths and given chances to apply those to school by making podcasts for classes or building aquaponics labs. A local public school was a place where he knew what he needed to work on and felt safe to do so knowing the adults around him were there for support. A local public school was a place where he knew he belonged and was celebrated for exactly who he is and what he was becoming. He used each of those experiences to be ready to define his own pathway to success. That’s the outcome that matters most.  

The Job I Get To Do

I am in a few Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram groups for educators and educational leaders. It has been a great professional learning opportunity and a wonderful way to network with others. This year, however, the group is full of stories of the challenges we are each experiencing. We are all short-staffed, our learners have come back to school really dysregulated, and everyone is tired. We spend a lot of time talking about how to help, to recognize and support staff, and put some relief into the system. It weighs heavily on me that people are struggling.

I tend to want to fix things and quickly make them better for others. I have to be conscientious to listen closely and help others find their own solutions without jumping in to solve it for them. I still make way more suggestions than I should and push back often when I’m worried about the direction one of our school leaders is going. I spend a lot of time right now listening to and helping principals problem-solve and doing a lot of thinking and giving permission to slow down, let the students re-adjust to school, and give themselves grace to stick to what we know works even on days it does not feel like it. Getting pulled down by the challenges this year would be very easy.

I also set many goals for myself, many of which I meet and some of which I don’t. In August, I set a goal for myself to pay more attention to what does get done in a day instead of what does not and to pay attention to the bright spots that are there in so many places around me every day. Each day, there is the job I have to do, which includes state and federal reporting, responding to audit questions, preparing for required state and national standardized testing, helping to fill open teaching and support staff positions, finding substitutes…..that list could go on and on. This job does not always let me see the bright spots.

Then there is the job I get to do. Finding joy in the work is what keeps me going no matter what kind of day we are having. We’re always going to have really rough spots. We’re always going to get feedback that we don’t like. We’re always going to face funding issues. As a district with a high mobility rate, we’re always going to welcome new students and families who take a lot of support and resources to acclimate into our schools. That is the reality of the job on some days, but the reality of the job on most days is also watching the magic happen.

The magic is watching moments when learners feel proud of their work and are happy to share it with anyone who walks in the door. The magic is the moment when you get to see teachers and learners connecting to one another and driving standards-based instruction. The magic is the moment when teachers share feeling supported so they can better support their learners. My joy always comes from the moments when I get to see the magic happen with and for our learners and staff. Those are days when I’m doing the job I get to do.

The job I get to do includes holding babies at our outstanding charter school for school-age parents. The school leader fought hard to receive grants to open a childcare center, so it was one less thing a teenage parent has to worry about. Watching those young people get to focus on themselves by taking nutrition classes and yoga and focus on school by having the time each day to learn academic content and create plans for their futures, knowing that their children are cared for is a source of joy.

The job I get to do includes being in classrooms where our learners are problem-solving with each other, learning how to work in teams, and creating relationships with staff and each another. It is when an instructor takes the time to build community and relationships with each and every student. It is getting to watch a class of high school students conduct empathy interviews with each other to learn how to support one another and then hear what they have learned about themselves and others.

The job I get to do is join a panel of experts, including some representatives of the Milwaukee Bucks, while learners pitched their ideas for the Bucks to participate in Giving Tuesday. In their first few weeks of school, three groups of learners stood up on a huge stage and shared how they worked together with a team of forty students to brainstorm, iterate, work through conflict, and iterate until they had just the right idea. The learners had designed logos, made t-shirts, researched local charitable organizations, and worked together to design amazing pitches. They could answer our questions and took our feedback to heart. My favorite part of that day was hearing about what they learned about themselves and how they learned to support each other. Most of them did not know one another just a few weeks prior. Watching them come together around a common goal and figure it out was fantastic.

The job I get to do also includes listening to our leaders and teachers and helping find resources to match their needs. This is often my opportunity to ideate and iterate with a team around just the right solution to a problem. Sometimes this includes professional development plans that help our teachers and leaders shift their practice and learn new skills. Sometimes this means getting creative with staffing or staff support to fill openings. Getting to think about just the right professional development to support our staff doing fantastic work while pushing them to still grow is one of the jobs that brings me tons of joy.

The job I get to do also includes pushing myself. I read a lot, started writing this blog, joined professional networks, and present at conferences when the opportunity arises. These each help me tell the story of the incredible work we do in our district and help me hear from others who may have a resource or a way to support learners and staff that helps us take a next step. I say a phrase at work and in my life all the time, “We make the best decisions we can with the information we have at the time.” Once we have new information, we may adjust the plan. A colleague recently challenged me to add to that phrase that the decision we made with the information we had at the time was not wrong. I disagreed. Even well-informed, well-intended decisions can be the wrong ones. I push myself to acknowledge when we get it right and when we miss an opportunity to do so. I love this quote from Nelson Mandela, “I never fail…I either succeed or I learn.”

The job I get to do is incredible and also exhausting on some days, but spending some time each day finding the joy in my work makes the job I have to do doable. It also means that with intention, I will seek to understand our learners, families, and staff so I can be ready to celebrate our successes and help problem-solve the challenging moments.
This year has provided a lot of tough moments and a lot of people honestly trying their best and still feeling defeated. The job I get to do is sometimes just to listen and make space for people to feel what they are feeling while making sure they know they are valued. I get to give a lot of permission to slow down and take things one very small step at a time as the joy may be in that one moment we slow down enough to notice.

Because of a Teacher

When George Couros asked me to write a chapter for a book about a teacher who influenced me, it was really easy to choose my dad. He was just one of those people who would light up a room and see and know people in such a magical way. I knew the story of who he was, and his impact on others would resonate with people. What I didn’t quite get at the time I wrote the chapter was the impact it would have on my family and me.

My dad passed away at a very early age, so my husband and my children never had the chance to meet him. As I was writing, I took the time to share stories with them about growing up with my dad. I was surprised at how many of them I had never told my husband or my eighteen-year-old daughter ever before. We spent hours talking about him, connecting with each other, and laughing a lot. My daughter helped me edit the chapter by telling me which stories resonated in print and which ones sounded a bit weird when they didn’t have enough context.

A short while after I sent off the chapter, someone posted a picture of my dad coaching an eighth-grade basketball team in 1969 on an alumni Facebook page. It was the first time someone posted about him on the page, so the timing was incredible. People flooded the page with stories of my dad, many of which I knew, but some that I did not.

The common theme in all the stories people told was that he showed up. He showed up for students and players when they were going through hard times. He showed up for them when they needed him to open doors for them. He showed up for them when they made mistakes. He just showed up. That’s who he was. Reading all these stories when I had just spent the day talking about him and sharing him with my family flooded my mind with all kinds of new connections, wonderful memories, and thoughts.

I sent some of the screenshots as the comments were coming in on the Facebook page to George, and he said something like when you put a lot of good out into the world; good comes back to you. It hit home. I could not stop thinking about the incredible impact you can have by just being you and putting good out into the world. My dad didn’t have a plan to go out and make a difference. He just saw people for exactly who they are and brought out the best in them. He showed up every day and put as much good into the world as he could. It sounds pretty simple, but that small effort changed many people’s lives for the better.

Since Because of a Teacher was released, I have heard from family, friends, and colleagues about the influence my dad had on them and the power of seeing his story in print. I have spent a lot of time wondering if I honor the people I see each day as much as I did him by writing a bit of his story. Something my dad and I have in common is our capacity to see the good in others and to show up. I know I do that for others all the time, but do I tell them enough when they have done small things that affected me? Do I tell them enough that I notice when they just showed up? I have been trying to be more purposeful about this. I say something when I see the “little” things and tell people more regularly how I see them and the good they are putting out into the world.

It has also been overwhelming to share this with the fourteen other authors in the book. As I have read their chapters- more than once-, follow their blogs and have now read (almost) all of their books, I am still incredibly humbled to be included in this group. They are such caring, intelligent people who each shared their stories with heart. We did an online launch party, and several of the authors shared how George had gotten them started with blogging (as he also did for me) and how he has pushed them to be better (as he has done for me). He has seen so many educators for the good they put out into the world and made a point to connect some of us through this book. The gravity of watching this online community continue to lift each other up on social media and support one another has been incredible. Every article, post, and message about how, as educators, we get the chance to make the world a better place for the learners we serve and how we need to give ourselves grace to not be perfect in our attempts to do so resonates with me and reminds me a lot of my dad.

The inspiring messaging and helpful advice from this group also remind me that we are not alone in the work we do. We have others, some of whom we may never meet in person, who want people to succeed and lift up those doing great work on behalf of children every single day.

It is crucial for us to know that our work is making a difference even on days when it is really hard. That the interactions we have with one another matter and even the small ones can mean the world to someone else. We need to know that we’re all doing the best we can and are growing all the time to be better. We don’t have all the answers and won’t get it right every time. We just need to show up and put as much good out into the world as we can each day.

In the last few months, many people have told me how proud my mom and dad would be of me. I wish they were both here today to share in the joy that this story and the work I get to do each day brings me and others. I know they are proud of me, my siblings, and all our children for who we are, who we are working to become, and how we give back to each other and the world. Because of a Teacher has brought my dad’s legacy back to life almost thirty years after his passing and has allowed it to live on forever. It makes me wonder about the legacy I may create today, tomorrow or the next day that will live on for the learners I serve and for my own children.

George wrote, “All it took was one person to get me to see something (in me) that I hadn’t seen in a while, if ever.” I am forever grateful to him for seeing something in me and encouraging me to tell my dad’s story. I actively look to see that same something in our families, staff, learners, and my own family each day by slowing down, being present, listening, and sharing experiences with them. Because of a Teacher has been an incredible reminder of why that matters and how our legacies can live on simply by showing up for each other whenever we can.

What’s Possible

I work for a fantastic Superintendent, Dr. Marty Lexmond, who has done some incredible things for our district. One of the most important ones was to help us develop a strategic plan through which we established a shared vision for our whole district with specific strategies to achieve it. It was important to clearly define what we hold in common at eighteen school sites, what is a school-based decision, and what is a classroom level decision. He has shifted us to a collaborative leadership model where jobs at our district office became to help schools stay true to our vision while supporting staff through professional development and opportunities to give and receive feedback. A focus on embedding the Deeper Learning competencies: Content Mastery, Collaboration, Communication, Problem Solving, Self-Directed Learning, and Academic Mindset in every classroom is what we have decided to hold in common across all schools. It is work that comes out of the Hewlett Foundation that we have adapted to fit us. The ultimate goal is to ensure our learners drive instruction through authentic opportunities to practice their skills as many times as needed to demonstrate mastery and be ready to live life on their own terms after graduation. 

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 make sure we are implementing our strategic plan effectively. Several years ago, in our first year of our plan, we worked on various topics each month. 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, not much carried over into our schools. In the following year, we aligned each meeting to the same topic every month to be more consistent and have opportunities to practice. We would again have great meetings where everyone was committed to implementing our vision, but it still did not always carry over into schools once the meeting had ended and leaders got back into the daily routine of running a busy school.  

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 larger vision with much more time for reflection and feedback. We needed to spend time with the team from each school to strengthen our relationships with them and build the support they needed to move forward. Our individual players had many strengths in their roles, but we needed to find better ways to create connections as a team between schools and our district office staff. We needed to find the levers of what was working well at each school and make specific plans for professional development and coaching for growth areas. We had a lot of great work going on in every school, but we were not using our coaches and our teachers to help our bright spots grow as often as we should. We were missing the boat on spending the time learning each school well enough to help them identify their own strengths and take small steps to shift opportunities for growth into strengths.  

Our strategic plan is designed around assisting students to find their own pathway and ensuring all students have equitable access to opportunities to make, build, and create as a way to authentically master content in a way that meets their needs. We were pushing towards that vision with learners but were not always doing that with staff. Each school did not need to approach the work in the same exact way. We needed to support each school with the specific professional development required to help the staff in that school realize the school’s vision. The school’s vision is still aligned with our district strategic plan, but it needs to be specific to the staff, learners, and families at that school site and developed by the staff in that school. The overall goal is the same, but the pathway and support to get there for each school are different. It is personalized to the needs of that school and the feedback we get from learners, staff, and families.  

Once we identified the problem, we needed to find a possible solution. As a team, we decided to schedule a meeting with each entire administrative school team and our whole Leadership and Learning team individually for about three and a half hours. It was quite a feat to fit them all in during the first part of that first summer, but we got there in the end. We started each meeting by writing out our vision for where that whole school could be in three to five years. We found commonalities between members of our district team and the school’s administrative team, which allowed us to understand better what we were trying to do and be sure we were all on the same page. It was evident that our teams were connected to our strategic plan as elements of it came through from every school, but that each school had its own focus as well. We then wrote out the strengths of what that school was doing well, the opportunities or bright spots that we want to make sure become a consistent part of our practice through coaching, and the weaknesses that need professional development to achieve the vision. These were rich discussions that helped leaders to reflect on where they are, where they are trying to go, and what they need to get there from our district team. We could see when a school was moving too fast or when the school team was not all on the same page, which makes it really hard on teachers.  

As we always need to make sure our evidence informs our work, we looked at the evidence we had collected over the last year from an equity lens and answered some questions. For example, is our discipline data disproportionate for students of different races or identifications? How are our students with special needs doing on more traditional measures compared to students without disabilities? We do a Social Emotional Learning survey twice a year that we can disaggregate by grade level, gender, ethnicity, and disability status. Most importantly, our evidence review is what our learners told us in the survey about how they feel about school. Can they self-regulate? Do they feel curious? Have they developed a growth mindset? Do they have a trusted adult at school? Do they have a trusted adult outside of school?  

We end the long meeting by setting some short-term goals and a support plan for the school from our district team. What are the one-year markers that would best enable us to get to the five-year vision? What support does the administrative team need to best help teachers, learners, and families? These questions turned into a redesign of our school improvement plans to align with a continuous improvement cycle with concrete action steps to meet the one-year markers with purposeful professional development for teachers and leaders. The plans are intended to be discussed regularly with the staff at each site and adjusted after reflection many times throughout the year. In addition, we now use our monthly leadership meetings to review parts of the plan in small groups with other schools to share progress and get feedback from peers.  

The visioning meetings gave us a sense and a plan for continuing to grow each school’s practice as individuals while joining them through a shared district vision at the same time. It pushed us all to embrace change and take risks knowing that there would be support as we established trust and strengthened our relationships. 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, empowering Deeper Learning classrooms and schools at every school site.  

We just started our third year of doing these meetings. It has been amazing to listen to the reflections of each school team and how they have grown over the last three years. They are open about what is going well and where we can improve. The time we have invested has been well worth learning about each school site on a deeper level and hearing how we can help. We don’t do that enough in education- take time to listen, take time to process, take time to celebrate, take time to iterate ideas, and brainstorm together. Whether the big ideas we create at that moment are the right ones or not doesn’t matter. We know we’ll try, collect evidence of success, and iterate along the way to achieve our goals.    

Marty says something that resonates with me every time I hear it, “School should not be about what’s wrong; it’s about what’s possible.” These meetings have become about what’s possible for each school. We cast forward to what we can do and how we can make it happen for every learner every day. We have had a couple of these meetings so far this year. It has been incredible to see that despite everything that has been thrown at us this year, it’s still about what’s possible for our learners at every turn.  

When they are empowered!

One of the many things I have really missed in the last year is my time in schools talking to our learners. I typically spend about sixty percent of my time in classrooms with teachers and students in a “normal” year. I have missed that chance to hear about their learning and see the learner experience through their eyes. While we were still virtual, I was able to join some online classes, but it wasn’t quite the same as the connections I could make face-to-face. Now that we have been back in our physical schools for a few months, I am cautious not to go into too many classrooms in person each week as that would be tough to contact trace. I am affectionately known as “that lady” in many of our schools. I hear kids say things like, “That lady is back. Get ready; she’s going to ask you a lot of questions.” They all learn my name while I am there and then usually forget it between visits. I miss being “that lady”!

I was lucky enough to get the chance to be the substitute for one of our amazing teachers recently. It was a learning community of eighteen five and six-year-olds who were having their first day of in-person learning on the day I was there. It was the first time all year they had been together as an entire class. It was such an honor to get to welcome them and attempt to follow the beautifully written lesson plans from the teacher. As we did an opening community circle and moved in to do some opinion writing, a sense of incredible pride overwhelmed me. Although these learners had been virtual for most of the year and then hybrid for a few weeks, they had such a strong sense of community. Two students were new to the class that day, and the others were anxious to welcome them and show them the ropes. With a stranger in the room, they were comfortable sharing what they know and talking through challenges. They were excited to show what they had learned and made sure they included everyone. I watched what an empowered five or six-year-old could do and was blown away. They had a sense of belonging and a desire to work through anything. They were vocal when they got stuck and exactly what help they needed to be successful.

I sent this to the teacher at the end of the day:

Thank you for allowing me to be a guest in your beautiful learning community today. You have obviously done some amazing work to create a space where your learners feel confident and included.  

They ranked themselves, and 10 gave the class a thumbs up on the day, 6 gave themselves a thumbs medium, and 2 were at speech when we took the poll. We collected some evidence of why we really should get a thumbs-up:

  • We welcomed new friends kindly into our learning community.
  • We did a great job on our reading.
  • We did a great job on our opinion writing.
  • We listened right away when we needed to come in from recess.
  • We were flexible in our thinking as so much was new today.

I was so impressed with their ability to advocate for themselves, support each other when things got tough, and be reflective in their work. They were joyful and curious all day long and yet not afraid to challenge things at the same time. I also asked them for feedback throughout the day on how I was doing. They fired me twice in the morning but then hired me back to be the substitute again at the end of the day. All in all, a successful day!

A few weeks ago, I also had the opportunity to host an open meeting with some of our high school students. I asked them about what was going well for them this year and what else they need from school. They were as articulate and honest as the five and six-year-olds. We talked openly about how they felt about virtual and hybrid learning, where this year was challenging in and out of school, and how they felt about our curriculum. Many of them were happy to be back in school and some were anxious to know if we would have a virtual option next year because that has worked better for them. They had many positive things to say about their teachers and their opportunities in our schools.  

They also gave me some things to work on. They asked that we incorporate more Mindfulness lessons throughout the day. They do Mindfulness activities in their homerooms, but not often enough to be really useful. They asked for classes in mental wellness to find balance and better understand mental health issues. A few of the learners in the meeting are on our Hope Squad at their school and shared how powerful it is to really understand mental health needs as well as how to look out for their peers.  

I asked if they felt prepared for life after high school and, for the most part, they felt confident except in the area of financial literacy. One of our graduation requirements is to take a financial literacy course, but they didn’t feel like the course goes far enough. We will be asking students to join us in curriculum writing for the course going forward as they know exactly what they need. Many of them talked about project-based learning experiences that empower them to find their voices in school and learn what they want to do after high school.

There were about forty students in the online meeting from our three high schools who were participating in a variety of opportunities at school. Almost every student spoke up and shared something. The confidence I could hear in their responses was impressive especially given that it was a very mixed group of students with different interests, aptitudes, and school experiences. No matter where they were coming from and how successful they were by traditional measures, they were all able to speak up for real and honest things that they need from school. I will be hosting a few more before the end of the school year and will continue it next year. Hearing truly empowered learners advocate for themselves and recognize success was incredible. 

Each year, we go to our community to share what has been happening in our schools with our finances, learning, and upcoming developments in our district. Last year, I invited groups of learners to attend the sessions to speak about our work. If we are working to empower them, then they should be the ones sharing their own progress. This year, the meetings were virtual, so it was even easier to facilitate learners’ attendance to discuss their learner experience. In one presentation, a ten-year-old asked to share his screen to show the community a video game he created in math class to demonstrate his knowledge. Teachers shared videos of learners creating and making things who could articulate the standards they had mastered or the content knowledge they had gained through what they built. We saw art projects that demonstrated knowledge of literature and learners talking about using new technology tools to create podcasts to create a dystopian universe. All of the examples demonstrated rigorous learning tied to the interest of our learners. It was so powerful! 

We didn’t tell the teachers which students to choose, just that we wanted a group from elementary, intermediate, and high school at each of the three meetings. Our staff choose a wonderfully diverse group of learners. We had learners with special needs, some choosing virtual learning, learners in our advanced placement classes, and learners who have needed additional support in school. It was so incredible that no matter which student I asked, they could all share how they feel inspired and supported at school. They talked about what Deeper Learning means to them and how their learning is about trying, getting feedback, and iterating until they get an artifact that shows what they know. They were confident and articulate and so excited to present to an audience. You could hear the pride they felt in their work and themselves.  

Our empowered learners are also starting to challenge us more, which I love! They send emails to our Superintendent and I advocating for what they want to see in our schools. They come to our school board meeting and speak in open comment about how they think we should do something. Watching them feel the confidence to speak up, ask for what they need, and challenge ideas they disagree with is inspiring. We aren’t always able to grant what they are asking for when they ask for it, but they are helping us shape how we allocate some resources and write curriculum in new ways.

I love the quote from AJ Juliani, “Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.” Our learners, at all ages and learning formats, are starting to demonstrate that they are ready for anything, and that we’ve helped prepare them to do it all with confidence and grace. 

Sharing Our Passions

Something I have really missed over the last year has been gatherings at the table. I love to cook and bake for family and friends. I love long lingering meals in the backyard and big family dinners. I love family-style meals with my work family in our office. I have been thinking a lot about why I miss those so much. It the sense of community that I feel in those moments. It means something that people take the time to gather, take the time to prepare food for each other, and pause whatever else is going on to sit and listen to one another. A shared meal is a community experience that brings people together in a beautiful way. I had the honor of being invited to a bake-off with a class of third graders a few weeks ago. I couldn’t stay the whole time, but I was able to be there at the start. I watched almost fifty young people in an online session that were so excited to be there. Nearly every student had their camera on and enthusiastically asked questions, mostly all at once as third graders do when they are excited.  

Two classes started doing bake-offs together during emergency remote teaching to continue to build community no matter what the circumstances. They have continued doing shared activities around food or other common interests that are amazing. As we moved to a hybrid model, one of the teachers wanted to continue that work, so she asked if she could get bread machines for their classroom. She wrote this wonderful blog post about the experience of baking together as a community with a focus on the skills the learners are gaining through the process.  

What stuck out to me the most was how it all started. Last spring, I was watching our families post things online about how they were teaching their young children to cook, doing home repair projects, building and making things, and participating in the #epictomatochallenge with the extra time at home. We wanted to find a way to take everything our teachers, learners, and families were doing from home and tie it to their school experience. Our teachers found new passions and spent time doing the things they were already passionate about. Our learners were developing new interests or perfecting things that they were already passionate about. We wanted to find a way to live our strategic plan, empower our learners to share their interests with us, and engage some learners who were starting to disconnect.  

We have been working for the last several years on embedding the Deeper Learning competencies into every single classroom as our way to prepare our learners to live life on their own terms after graduation. The competencies focus on the skills needed for life success- content mastery, communication, problem-solving, collaboration, self-direction, and most importantly, having an academic mindset, which means feeling such a strong sense of belonging that you want to push yourself to try new things and work hard to achieve your goals. We always look for ways to move that work forward and have seen pockets of unbelievable success over the last few years. Watching the way our community united around the tomato challenge and watching what was happening at home on social media prompted us to move to a four-year-old kindergarten through twelfth-grade passion project. 

It was amazing to see the increase in school attendance, the incredible things our learners and families worked on together, and the shared experience across an entire community. We had learners gardening, making movies, participating in online challenges, doing home repair projects, cooking, learning about broadcasting, and many, many more. While our learners were investing their own interests, they were also learning to start with an idea, get feedback from the teachers and other experts, ask probing questions, iterate again and again, write lengthy reflections, use new technology tools to share their knowledge, and produce artifacts about what they had learned that they were very proud to share with an authentic audience. It is that learning experience, tied to academic standards, that we want them to have every day. Watching the momentum of that project carry over into this school year has been inspiring.  

Our staff started sending me copies of their own passion projects last spring. They were doing some new things and some things that they have always loved. Watching adults articulate their learning process with reflections while they learned how to use new technology tools to share what they had learned was fantastic. It became a shared process for learners and staff. It pushed all staff, including teachers, educational assistants, school leaders, and our facilities staff, to share parts of themselves with our learners and invite our learners to do the same. We are always looking for access points to move our Deeper Learning work forward. This became an amazing window for staff and learners to see the power of authentic, learner-driven work.  

I received a lot of feedback on the projects and the whole process and still do almost a year later. Some of the families’ feedback was that their learner needed a more structured learning method, and therefore this was not working for them. Some shared that they were worried about the level of rigor involved. Some were concerned that our teachers had not had enough training in project-based learning to ensure standards were embedded. Many families and learners thanked us for taking a step that helped their child feel empowered. One parent shared that she started the project concerned about rigor and ended up watching her child learn many new skills, build his confidence, stretch himself to do more and more, and connect to his father through common interests. She saw the academic success he experienced in many different ways by the time his first project was done.  He went on to do several more throughout the summer and fall. That learner started something at school that inspired him to connect and go deeper- so powerful.   

Staff also shared some equally thought-provoking reflections. Many of them started the process being frustrated that they were asked to make a shift during such an uncertain time but ended up inspired by what our learners could do. They started to talk about how the strategies they would use to empower our students identified as gifted and talented were the same ones they should be using with our learners identified as having special education needs. One teacher wanted to learn about digital storytelling to engage and deepen the learning for “advanced” students and discovered that she would use the same method to create innovative ways to engage reluctant readers. Another teacher shared she felt overwhelmed at the start of the project but watched her learners come alive as it moved along. She shared that one learner wanted to learn about broadcasting. This led to a new connection with the band teacher, who also knows a lot about sound engineering. He worked collaboratively with the learner and teacher to share what he knows and connected the learner to a local expert who does a professional podcast for the GreenBay Packers for an online meeting to learn more. This kind of cross-curricular, authentic learning was happening for thousands of learners across our community.  

One of our leaders, who was new to us last year, had such inspiring reflection as he was reviewing the learners’ projects and writing about them for his own blog. He chose to review the projects from one of our Advanced Placement courses.  He shared:

That is when I had my a-ha moment. It didn’t matter what student I picked. I didn’t have to think hard and critically about what students would or wouldn’t look good on the blog. They all had a helpful, reflective, communicative project that they did with fidelity. You couldn’t tell a “5” student on their exam to “1”, or an “A” student to a “B”.

This is what the vision should be not for 70 students, but 1000. This is what Central should strive for. I should be able to go into any classroom, any period, and I wouldn’t notice SPED, remedial, or different opportunities. All students would have access and output that would be equitable. It was a powerful feeling for myself.”

All feedback is important as it informs our practice.  Our goal is never to make sure every learner has the same experience. It is that we find a way for the right learning experience for each learner at every moment we can. As we create more access points for our learners to become empowered, we will find the right ones for each learner over time.  It will always mean balancing structured activities, lectures, and a more traditional approach to teaching combined with multiple ways to investigate, explore, try, fail, and try again with opportunities to share what they know and get feedback.  Finding the right balance, being patient with the time it may take, and ensuring the learners have the skills needed to create their own pathway with our support is what creates an empowered learner experience.    

The number of staff members who sent us videos, reflections, and samples of learner projects was impressive. They were so proud of their learning communities that they sent emails, posted things on social media, and have used what they had learned in planning instruction for the future. That community of bakers grew out of some of the moments we shared as a community last spring that they will remember for a lifetime. The power in that is immeasurable.  

Evaluating Ourselves

I used to hate formal observations when I was in the classroom. It wasn’t because I was worried about someone seeing what was happening in our class. I was anxious to get feedback that would help me grow, which did not usually occur. I wanted it to be more than a “dog and pony” show with a “good job” pat on the back at the end. The first year that I observed teachers, I vowed to give genuine and honest feedback that pushed the individual to grow. I used to observe over one hundred teachers in seventeen locations, so that was not always easy to do. I realized then that the process was not working as intended, given the time I had. How could I give someone honest feedback if I had not spent the time to get to know them and find out what they were working on as professionals? How could I possibly do that with so many teachers in so many locations? I shifted my process many times to try and get it right. It wasn’t until I changed who was doing the talking in these meetings that I saw a shift to real goals, personal reflection, and meaningful feedback supported by evidence. 

This year, more than ever, educators are under immense pressure. We are all trying to make education during a pandemic work for as many people as possible. This has not been an easy feat. We wanted to get virtual instruction right for our learners and opened camps for students who needed care and interaction during the day, all while I used my new minor in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to help our amazing teams make sure schools buildings were ready to reopen. We have spent so much time talking about school logistics that we need to be very intentional to still infuse the purpose of school and our strategic goals no matter the learning format. This was especially true of teacher observation this year.

There has been a push on social media to drop the teacher evaluation system this year, and some states even offered a waiver to do so due to the pressure on teachers and the education system as a whole. As our strategic plan includes continuous improvement cycles for our goals, our growth, and our learner experience, it was important to continue to participate in the Wisconsin Educator Effectiveness System and shift our focus on who was doing the evaluating.  

As part of that process, teachers set a student learning objective and a professional practice goal each year. Evaluators do a couple of short observations and a formal observation at least once a year. Every three years, educators complete a documentation log to demonstrate progress in each professional standard and receive a ranking in each one. Our districts’ evaluation system used to be tied to performance compensation, so it had become a compliance-driven process instead of an opportunity for reflection and growth. We have been working to shift that perspective for a while and listen to what our administrators and our teachers needed from us to gain value from the process.

Our administrators needed us to shorten the time it was taking, and our teachers needed to feel more support and opportunities for reflection and feedback. I went back to how I had shifted the process years ago when I evaluated so many staff in so many locations and thought a lot about the importance of modeling with and for teachers what we ask them to model in classrooms. We cannot say we are a district that is about learner-empowered, evidence-informed practice and have an evaluation system that still gives out grades like stamping an A or a C on a paper. We needed to shift to a teacher-empowered, evidence-informed evaluation system as well.

For our first informal observation, we asked each principal to schedule a short meeting with each educator. During the meeting, they shared the following prompts:

  • Tell about a time you have felt successful in your teaching this year.
  • Tell about a time you struggled. What did you do to move forward?  
  • How do you measure success in your role?

The employee then shared their personal professional practice goal, and we asked:

  • What evidence will you collect to demonstrate progress towards your goal?
  • What support do you need from me? 

It was essential to start with a positive. We tend to focus on the negative and think of our work from a deficit lens. Instead, we want people to celebrate their bright spots and use those as inspiration to grow forward. It is not that we ignore the negative. We recognize and acknowledge it and then plan to overcome it with the right support to get there.  

These meetings took under thirty minutes. In that time, we were able to connect one-on-one with each educator and hear about what was going well, where they were stuck, and how we can support them. It pushed our teachers to slow down and really reflect on their practice. We do not do that often enough. We are often so busy moving on to the next event or the next lesson that we don’t think about what just happened and how it can inform our future practice.  

This is also the experience we want learners to have in classrooms. We want them to set goals, go deep in their knowledge of how to accomplish a goal, reflect on their progress, and get feedback from others—shifting the first observation to this process allowed teachers to have that experience. We still do formal and informal observations, but those are now designed to collect evidence about the teacher’s goals for the class and themselves. It has moved the process from what’s good and what’s bad to what evidence we can both see that tells us we are making progress towards the goal.  

Our teachers have always been dedicated to professional growth. This process focussed the development around a single goal aligned to our strategic plan and the school improvement plan, which the teachers had input in developing. The focus allows us to concentrate on one element of the job to really push ourselves while continuing to do our work in other areas. It pushed us to reflect and think about our practice more regularly and seek feedback on the skills we are trying to develop.  

My superintendent and I followed the same process with our principals this year as well. It was an incredible time to hear them and connect. They shared personal stories, successes, and ways we could support them. We got to ask thought-provoking questions and learn more about them as people and leaders. We suggested professional development opportunities that may assist them or the teachers at their school site in reaching a professional goal or suggested a connection with another leader or school that was one step ahead in the work. One of our leaders reported that the “observation” was one of the best professional conversations she has ever had. She will reflect and grow independently and with her staff in all-new ways based on the experience. 

Many of our evaluators have shared that they will continue doing these check-ins with staff as the informal observations throughout the year as the value of the conversations has been immense. Teachers are reporting understanding the system better and feeling supported. Evaluation has shifted to be a process of self-reflection and growth aligned to professional development. It is no longer about right or wrong or an “I gotcha” for staff. It is about personal growth and reflection with the right push and the right support. I’m excited to see the impact our educators’ reflections can and will have on every learner we serve.  

This happened

I usually write whenever I see something amazing or am working through an issue. Writing is one of the ways I reflect on and process the day or the week. It helps me narrow my thinking, find bright spots, and create a plan to move forward. I have the start of about fifteen blog posts from the last two months that I have never finished. It took me a while to figure out exactly why. I had been wired to take one night or one weekend afternoon all to myself each week, go to a coffee shop, put in my headphones, and finish my posts. I love the time I get to think deeply about my work or my life, capture those thoughts and complete a post that I want to share with the world. I probably spend more time in the editing process than I should for a blog, but I like the sense of accomplishment when I feel like I’ve captured something important to me that can maybe help others too. This is where I got stuck.  

I was wired to think that I couldn’t finish a post without my coffee shop time all on my own. I started to pay attention to the other ways we are all wired differently given the last year.

This happened:

  • Unexpected emergency shut down
  • A summer of planning and uncertainty
  • Sick family members and friends
  • Loss of family members, friends, employees
  • Horrifying injustice across our nation 
  • Protests
  • A challenging election
  • More uncertainty
  • Planning to be a virtual school district
  • Economic issues
  • Disconnect and isolation
  • Increase in mental health issues

This is a list of things most of us would not want to see in a lifetime, much less to experience all in one year. However, we have to acknowledge that

This also happened:

  • More time with family and friends, even when it is virtual
  • New connections to people all over our nation and world
  • New babies on our teams and in our families
  • A new appreciation for teachers 
  • New connections to the families we serve
  • A narrow focus on what matters most
  • A more thoughtful approach to why we do what we do and if it should change
  • More open conversations about historical marginalization
  • Opportunities to rethink education
  • So, so, so many people going far above and beyond to support one another

While there have been really tough times, there have also been some incredible moments that have come out of the last year that we need to talk about and celebrate. 

We have to recognize that we are now wired to respond differently than we were before. Our brains rely on new supports and routines, some of which we are all anxious to unlearn and some that we all want to keep. It hit me one day when I was driving to pick something up. I looked over to see our dog sitting in the front seat next to me and my children sitting in the back. The dog has become wired to go with us everywhere we go and call shotgun on sitting in the front seat. He immediately lays in front of the door if he sees us go anywhere near shoes or keys in an effort never to get left behind, and we have adapted to him going everywhere and sitting in the front seat without really thinking about it.  

If the dog is wired differently, so are we, and so are the children we serve in schools. Since the start of the year, we had been virtual and just started welcoming students back into physical buildings last week. We have all felt anxious for the last couple of months while we tried to ensure we have the right safety measures in place and all the right technology and supplies to make this work, but that anxiety quickly turned to excitement. Teachers went from fear of how we will supervise our hallways to ideas about creating new ways to connect with learners and connect them to each other through our technology tools. Our elementary music teachers had to adjust to not being able to sing in the classroom, but they adapted. I got to watch a VERY loud but excited group of learners figure out how to follow patterns and rhythm to drum on large plastic buckets instead of singing in their music class. I saw inspired children and a very patient teacher all learning something new. 

After our first full day, most people commented on how quiet the students were but how quickly they adapted to the new safety measures and routines. Many of them were nervous and scared, but they jumped right in. They quickly got rewired to how different the school looks and how we do things in new ways. It will still take time to adjust to the interaction with each other and the staff, but I am confident they will be as active as ever by the end of the week. 

We have spent a lot of time talking as a leadership team about how to support one another as adults and learners get used to returning to physical schools over the last two months while there are still many uncertainties in the world around us. We have talked about the ways in which we are wired differently and talked openly about the trauma that many people have experienced in the last year. We also talked about the new skills we have learned and the new ways in which we all problem solve and are resilient. We shared tools and strategies to support one another and our learners with our teams of student services staff, mental health providers, and instructional coaches. We learned about all kinds of new adaptive tools that we are trying out to keep learners connected and give everyone access. We also talked about taking the time to reestablish classroom communities and reconnect to each other, giving each other a lot of grace with we unlearn and relearn and, most importantly, give lots of permission to get creative and try new things.  

Our brains have a remarkable capacity to adapt, adjust and rewire. Apparently, I can be rewired to finish a blog post somewhere other than a coffee shop. This has been such a challenging and amazing year. I am happy for some of the ways I am rewired and reflect a lot on the ones that I still need to work on. Our superintendent always reminds us that we should not focus on what’s wrong but instead look for what’s possible. I’m excited to continue to look for what’s possible next as we learn, grow, and rewire to different, and in some ways, better ways of doing things.     

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.