Leaders of Relationship Building: Listening is a part of leading

[Note to readers: This column is part of an ongoing series for Iowa ASCD’sThe Source e-newsletter.]

Leaders of Relationship Building: Listening is a part of leading

What does it mean to be a curriculum lead? This is the fifth column in a series for Iowa administrators, teacher leaders and anyone else interested in enhancing curriculum leadership. So far, we’ve discussed the work of curriculum, instruction, and assessment; data analysis, processes, and professional development. This week, we’ll be taking a closer look at what it means to be a leader of relationship building. Future columns will consider the remaining facets of curriculum leadership: performance, operations, and change.

According to the functions of our work, curriculum leads, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Listening matters! One way of thinking about this is that administrators ought to be the least vocal educators in the room. Sure, the central office and principals comes with a TON of positional authority, but this doesn’t mean administrators ought to be flexing their muscles with top-down conversations at every meeting. I am not suggesting grass-roots, plan-every detail during the meeting based upon a vote leadership is required either. In fact, I was advised early in my administrative career that time is limited, therefore it is more efficient to critique than create in most meetings. Some of the most effective administrators I have observed come to a meeting with a tentative plan for moving forward and ask those in attendance to provide their input. During the meeting, the team often revises, re-orders or re-prioritizes the next steps. Other times, administrators bring more than one option for the team to consider and seeks their input on the most feasible option. In both cases, listening to others is a high priority.

At one leadership team meeting comprised of administrators and teacher leaders at Solon, I brought what I thought was a timely plan for our upcoming professional learning day. Per the usual protocol, I asked the leadership team to provide additional guidance: “What were we missing?” and “What do teachers need right now?” As it turns out, the initial plan I presented was not in tune at all with the leadership team’s thinking, so we ended up scrapping the whole thing and starting from a blank slate! This was not very efficient at all! In fact, it took a lot more time to clean up the mess I had created through extra work following the planning meeting. On a good note, the team ended up facilitating a much better professional learning day. In addition, I was told by several teachers that administration earned even more trust with those in the planning meeting, because of the way the situation was handled.

Instructional coaches and others in curriculum leadership roles might model this practice, too, by asking a plethora of questions at planning meetings or in reflective conversations following classroom observations. For those of us who have completed Iowa evaluator approval coursework, ORID (PDF) questions is a possible framework to consider in conversations with colleagues in a meeting. Objective questions such as “Where does this next step fit into our district strategic plan?” can help a team stay focused on the right work. Reflective questions might sound something like: “How do we feel yesterday’s professional learning went?” Interpretive questions could include “What things could we do next week to increase teachers’ understanding of the writing workshop framework?” and “What other ways could we assess the sheltered instruction lessons we observed this morning?” Finally, curriculum leaders might use decisional questions such as “What supports do we need to continue to work on these areas of concern?” to encourage a group towards action. All of these questions are designed to facilitate conversation rather than monopolize it!

Our role as curriculum leaders is also to remember these wise words from Susan Scott (2004), author of Fierce Conversations, “the conversation is the relationship.” When we engage in dialogue with fellow educators, we can develop others’ ability to lead or we can micromanage them. As members of many teams, committees, and task forces, we can aim for collaboration whenever possible or we can be the first to be frustrated. When doing it right, our colleagues should describe our conversations are more often encouraging than demanding. Jim Knight (2015), author of Better Conversations, suggests authenticity and good communication work hand in hand. In other words, our aim should be to “walk the talk” of listening. If our end goal is to seek input frequently and do nothing with it, our motives will quickly be exposed. Knight (2015) encourages educators to know what we believe in and act consistently with those beliefs. May we strive to be known as leaders that listen and seek the input from those around us.

In closing, curriculum leaders who value relationship building seek first to understand and then to be understood, all the while understanding the conversation is the relationship.

Resources to further learning as a leader of relationship building:

Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Our Life One Conversation at a Time, by Susan Scott (2004, Berkley)

The Art of Coaching, by Elena Aguilar (2013, Jossey-Bass)

QBQ! The Question Behind the Question: Practicing Personal Accountability at Work and in Life, by John G. Miller (2004, TarcherPerigee)

Better Conversations, by Jim Knight (2015, Corwin)

Leaders of Professional Development: Moving towards a process rather than event

[Note to readers: This column is part of an ongoing series for Iowa ASCD’s The Source e-newsletter.]

Leaders of Professional Development: Moving towards a process rather than event

What does it mean to be a curriculum lead?  This is the fourth column in a series for Iowa administrators, teacher leaders and anyone else interested in enhancing curriculum leadership.  So far, we’ve discussed the work of curriculum, instruction, and assessment; data analysis; and processes.  This week, we’ll be taking a closer look at what it means to be a leader of professional development.  Future columns will consider the remaining facets of curriculum leadership: relationship building, performance, operations, and change.

According to the functions of our work, “Curriculum leads model, expect, monitor, and evaluate continuous learning of all students and staff members.”  Modeling matters!  Central office administrators ought to be modeling curriculum leadership with principals through frequent and collaborative classroom walkthroughs.  Principals and instructional coaches, too, should carve out time to model curriculum leadership by being in classrooms and providing feedback to teachers.  Most importantly, these walkthroughs should inform upcoming professional learning.  In my experience as a district administrator, a team of principals, teacher leaders, and central office personnel visited classrooms at least twice per year.  The most impactful observations were purposefully scheduled one month prior to a full day of professional learning, for the purpose of influencing the details of the professional development day.  Similarly, PLC or data team leaders might visit colleague’s classrooms a week prior to an upcoming common formative assessment, in order to better understand the different pedagogical approaches taking place across a grade level or content area.

Our role as curriculum leaders is also to monitor and evaluate the impact of professional learning.  As I travel the state visiting with current and future school leaders, I often hear about professional learning as an event rather than a process.  Events look something like this: Group of staff attend Mr. Big-Name-Speaker at regional workshop or district brings in Ms. Book-Author to do a workshop for all teachers.  Following the professional learning event, those with positional authority do not articulate any expectations or timeline.  In other words, it’s up to individual teacher discretion to determine the next steps and impact, if any, the professional learning time will have on students in the classroom.  Furthermore, with such a scattering of professional learning, teachers may be wondering where they should be prioritizing their time in order to work towards district goals.  Meanwhile, the district has invested taxpayer funds and staff have depleted their limited time away from students which may or may not yield any long-term improvement.  As such, curriculum leaders owe it to our colleagues to assist in identifying at least one new learning/behavior resulting from professional learning opportunities, and provide ongoing support for this new idea to enhance student success.  In buildings and districts with a strong vision for professional learning as a process, every opportunity for new staff learning is carefully planned, building upon the previous learning opportunity, student learning needs, and district goals.  A quick and efficient approach might be sending a professional learning follow-up survey soliciting participant perspectives such as their biggest take away, lingering questions, and suggestions for needed implementation supports.  When a leadership team summarizes this feedback, sends it to staff, and carefully plans the next professional learning supports using this information, not only will teachers appreciate their voices being heard, but also see curriculum leaders making plans to connect new learning with previous learning.

In closing, curriculum leaders who value improving professional learning in a school district invest their time to ensure it is a process rather than event.  This function requires leaders visit classrooms and systemically follow-up on each staff professional learning opportunity in order to purposefully model and monitor continuous improvement.

Resources to further learning as a leader of professional development:

  • The Principal as Curriculum Leader, 4th edition, by Allan A. Glatthorn, Jerry M. Jailall, and Julie K. Jailall (2017, Corwin)
  • Evaluating Professional Development, by Thomas R. Guskey (2000, Corwin)
  • Professional Development That Sticks: How do I create meaningful learning experiences for educators?, by Fred Ende (2016, ASCD).

Leaders of Processes: Making Every Professional Learning Opportunity Count

[Note to readers: This column was published in a September 2018 edition of Iowa ASCD’s The Source e-newsletter.]

Leaders of Processes: Making Every Professional Learning Opportunity Count

Last school year, I challenged readers to join Iowa ASCD by digging deeper into what it means to be a curriculum lead.  According to our organization, the functions of our work as a curriculum lead include being leaders of…

  • Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment
  • Data Analysis
  • Processes
  • Professional Development
  • Relationship Building
  • Performance
  • Operations, and
  • Change

In the first column, I posed some key questions and shared my own experiences related to being a leader of curriculum, instruction and assessment.  Curriculum leads are constantly painting the picture of a shared vision for the integration of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, all the while trying to keep up with changing state standards and assessments (ready or not, here we come, Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress!)  In the second column, we considered how curriculum leads “assure all educators’ ability to use data to inform, implement, monitor, and evaluate results-based decisions” through tools such as innovation configuration maps.

The curriculum leadership journey continues in 2018-19!  This week, we’ll be taking a closer look at what it means to be a leader of processes.  “Curriculum leads establish and monitor common practices and procedures to assure alignment and achievement of initiatives and plans with district and building goals.”  Perhaps the most tangible example of this function in action is the teaming structure of a building or district.  Whether data teams, collaborative learning teams or achievement teams are the structure of choice, the common goal is to create a community of adult learners who are focused on ensuring students learn at high levels.  Curriculum leaders can and should play a key role in these teaming structures.  Rather than merely requiring agendas and minutes from each team, curriculum leads might map out differentiated deliverables throughout an academic year.  For example, elementary teams could share a summary of the data used to identify students in need of reading intervention on a monthly basis.  A secondary science team working through the Next Generation Science Standards likely has a list of revised units and assessments which would serve as evidence of collaboration time well utilized.

Moving beyond “pockets of excellence” should be a common talking point for curriculum leads embracing their role as leaders of processes.  Dr. Thomas Guskey (2000) suggests school leaders consider five critical levels of evaluation: participants’ reactions, participants’ learning, organization support and change, participants use of new knowledge and skills, and student learning outcomes.  While professional learning alone that directly affects students learning may be viewed as the holy grail because it is often a costly and time-consuming process to isolate and track down the necessary information, this does not mean schools should give up evaluating professional learning efforts all together.  As a leader of processes, curriculum leaders take the time to plan desired student learning outcomes and then work backwards to identify adult knowledge/skills to be acquired, organizational supports, and related learning activities.  Following each professional learning opportunity, participant reactions and levels of learning might be captured through a tool such as Google Forms or SurveyMonkey.  In addition, classroom observations should be scheduled to note the degree to which participants are applying newly acquired skills.  For example, at my former school district, principals and instructional coaches scheduled classroom observations to follow-up on a multiple year reading-in-the-content area initiative.  Using information from these observations and participant reactions captured via Google Forms, we were able to plan future professional learning opportunities that targeted areas of fine tuning.

In closing, curriculum leaders who value improving processes in a school district invest their time in structures to ensure each professional learning opportunity counts.  This function requires a leaders to think of change as a process rather than an event, such that each professional learning opportunity builds on the previous one, using multiple sources of data in the planning process.

Resources to further learning as leader of processes:

  • Evaluating Professional Development, by Thomas R. Guskey (2000, Corwin)
  • The Data Teams Experience: A Guide for Effective Meetings, by Angela Peery (2014, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
  • Learning by Doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities (3rd Edition), by Richard DuFour, Rebecca DuFour, Robert Eaker, Thomas Many, and Mike Mattos (2016, Solution Tree)

Leaders of Data Analysis: More than Crunching Numbers

(Note to readers: This is part three in a series of columns written about Iowa ASCD’s current focus on supporting curriculum leadership across the state.)

In the last column, I proposed curriculum leads consider getting their feet wet and engaging teachers in a collaborative process to understand the nexus between standards, instruction and assessment in all content areas. This week, we’ll be taking a closer look at what it means to be a leader of data analysis.

According to our organization, curriculum leads “assure all educators’ ability to use data to inform, implement, monitor, and evaluate results-based decisions.” At first glance, this function may seem like it’s all about spreadsheets, databases, crunching numbers and creating elaborate reports filled with pie charts. Sure, there’s a time and a place for disaggregating data to reveal gaps across subgroups.   Without a doubt, curriculum leads should be providing assessment and other data in formats staff, parents and community members can easily understand. Our job is to use data to inform others. It is equally as important to “tell the story” about the data for the purpose of generating a solution or next steps than it is to merely crunch the numbers. Let’s be clear: our positions do not require an advanced degree in statistics or mathematics! Our ability to communicate through written language will directly impact our capacity to be leaders of data analysis. Here’s an example. Consider FAST (an early literacy assessment) scores in an elementary building indicating only 65% of students had met grade level benchmarks. If, during the previous school year, 45% of students had met benchmark, this year’s scores would be a huge celebration! On the contrary, comparing this data to the state’s healthy indicators for differentiated accountability (80% or more meeting benchmark is the universal target), the numbers may seem bleak. Clearly communicating these contextual comparisons can be helpful in sharing progress and next steps to stakeholders.

We live in an era with more than enough educational data to fill weeks of endless number crunching. As a former high school math teacher, I naturally bend towards looking at the numbers in isolation rather than figuring out if there’s a bigger picture to consider. Instead, our job is to look at the data in its context, and ask (ourselves and others) compelling questions, such as “Is there anything else we need to know about these data points?” An example of this in my life happened last year when we noted a small drop in Iowa Assessment scores in several grades. It would have been easy to suggest our instruction or curriculum materials needed a boost, however after a closer look, we realized the areas we could most notably improve upon would require us teaching to the test rather than the grade-level standards (which is not something we were willing to do). Investigating the context around these data points lead us to a completely different next step.

Using data to monitor and evaluate is important, too. At a recent AEA curriculum directors’ meeting, a few of us discussed program evaluation and the struggles that go along with effectively and efficiently evaluating various programs in our districts. Realizing program evaluation data does not always need to solely involve test scores was a helpful reminder. For example, my district uses several self-audits and continuums to identify our current level of implementation. We have a continuum to assess each team’s current progress towards our professional learning philosophy (i.e. power standard development, common assessments, data analysis, and action planning) that has informed professional learning and team goal setting during the past several years. Asking questions such as “To what degree are we implementing this practice with fidelity” may be a precursor to concluding the degree to which an initiative or classroom practice is impacting the expected outcomes.

In closing, curriculum leaders are relentlessly building capacity in the school system to use data as a driver of informing, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating results and corresponding decisions. This function does not require advanced training in spreadsheets or mathematics! Leading data analysis does involve summarizing and formatting data in a meaningful way that will allow others to draw conclusions from the information in order to address a specific problem or challenge.

Resources to further learning as a leader of data analysis:

  • Partnering with Parents to ask the Right Questions by Luz Santana, Dan Rothstein, and Agnes Bain (2016, ASCD)
  • Root Cause Analysis: The Core of Problem Solving and Corrective Action by Duke Okes (2009, ASQ Quality Press)
  • Data Analysis for Continuous School Improvement, 4th Edition by Victoria Bernhardt (2017, Routledge)

What does it mean to be a leader of curriculum, instruction, and assessment?

[Note to readers: This column was printed in a November 2017 edition of Iowa ASCD’s The Source e-newsletter.]

What does it mean to be a leader of curriculum, instruction, and assessment?

Not too long ago, I challenged readers to join Iowa ASCD this school year by digging deeper into what it means to be a curriculum lead.  According to our organization, the functions of our work as a curriculum lead include being leaders of…

  • Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment
  • Data Analysis
  • Processes
  • Professional Development
  • Relationship Building
  • Performance
  • Operations, and
  • Change.

In this column, I’d like to describe my experiences leading curriculum, instruction, and assessment, several key questions curriculum leads might ask themselves, and a few resources to further learning in this function.  Throughout the year, future columns will be dedicated to the remaining curriculum leadership functions.  Whether you are a principal also serving in a curriculum leadership role, a full-time central office administrator, or an aspiring teacher leader, I hope this information will be helpful to you in growing your curriculum leadership capacity.

“Effective curriculum leaders must assure that there is a laser-like focus on the alignment of curriculum, instruction, and assessment with identified district-wide standards and benchmarks at every grade level.”  When I was a classroom teacher in the early 2000s, the role of the curriculum director was to assemble a team of teachers and task them with creating a list of the standards and benchmarks for a given content area.  Too often, we grabbed the standards document from a neighboring school district, made a few tweaks and called it our own.  We probably rushed through the standards identification process because we were more concerned about selecting the next textbook series.  With any luck, the materials we recommended for purchase might have some degree of alignment with the standards we documented earlier in the year!

Enter the Iowa Core Curriculum Essential Concepts and Skills in the first decade of the 21st century. Finally! Iowa became the last state in the country to adopt state standards.  Gone are the days of selecting our own standards.  From the outside, selecting textbooks and accompanying materials seems like it should be an easier task now that we have state and national standards.  Not so fast. I often tell the teachers in my district, “there’s no such thing as the Iowa Core police!”  In other words, just because a publisher uses a “standards-aligned” sticker doesn’t mean that we as curriculum leaders should accept it as face value.  I recommend that curriculum and materials committees consider using tools such as the “Publishers Criteria for the Common Core Standards for Mathematics” (available at achievethecore.org) as a starting point when screening sample materials.

Using these tools, curriculum committees might ask questions such as, “Are there any chapters or units that appear in our standards documents?”  You may be surprised to see chapters and sections that publishers carried over from previous editions of the text without any consideration to the grade-level standards.  Curriculum committees might also consider investigating the level of cognitive complexity the materials assume students should be learning the standards.  Resources on IowaCore.gov note some standards’ alignment with Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.  A well-designed set of materials should consider a wide range of questions and activities within Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.

Finally, curriculum leaders must be concerned with how the standards are assessed in classrooms across the district, beyond vendor-provided tests.  Solution Tree authors and speakers Rick and Becky Dufour have written extensively on the need for teams of teachers to develop common assessments based upon power/priority standards.  Curriculum leads might consider providing these teams with protocols and processes for developing power/priority standards, such as the ones written in books by Larry Ainsworth.  Using these most important standards, teachers should be allocated significant time during the contract day to create common assessments for the purpose of informing classroom instruction.  When two or more teachers analyze data from these assessments, effective teaching strategies can be shared and students in need of additional assistance can be identified for supplemental support.

In closing, curriculum leaders are constantly painting the picture of a shared vision for the integration of curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  Because it seems state standards are constantly under revision (Hello, ELA, science and social studies standards as of late!), our work in this area will never be done.  Relying on neighboring district documents and publisher labels may be an easy way out, however a viable alternative exists.  I hope you will consider getting your feet wet and engaging teachers in a collaborative process to understand the nexus between standards, instruction and assessment in all content areas.  Through this deep dive, we can develop the collective capacity of the organization to assure that all students are successful.

Resources to further learning as a leader of curriculum, instruction, and assessment:

  • Leading Curriculum Development by Jon Wiles (2009, Corwin Press)
  • Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning by Mike Schmoker (2011, ASCD)
  • Common Formative Assessments: How to Connect Standards-Based Instruction and Assessment by Larry Ainsworth (2006, Corwin Press)
  • Ahead of the Curve: The Power of Assessment to Transform Teaching and Learning by Douglas Reeves (2007, Solution Tree)

So, you want to become a curriculum lead?

I wrote the column below for Iowa ASCD’s “The Source,” an e-newsletter for state ASCD affiliate members.

So, you want to become a curriculum lead?

Around this time of the year, I usually receive an email or two from a teacher who is interested in transitioning to a more defined curriculum role.  Whether it’s a classroom teacher who recently completed a masters program or a veteran educator thinking about a teacher leadership role created by TLC funds, desiring to have an impact beyond the classroom can be an exciting, yet uncertain time.  In my experience and observations, several different roles exist involving curriculum leadership.  I will unpack each one in the following paragraphs.

Instructional Coaches

The specific responsibilities of an instructional coach often vary by district or building, however these educators are charged with assisting adults improve their practice as educators.  Sometimes, instructional coaches work alongside individual teachers to provide instructional feedback.  Other times instructional coaches work with groups of teachers (i.e. data teams or collaborative learning teams).  Jim Knight has a nice write-up elaborating on the role of instructional coaches.  Finally, an instructional coach job description may include more formal curriculum leadership roles within a building or district, such as serving on curriculum materials review committees.

Some instructional coaches are content-neutral (i.e. the “elementary instructional coach”) whereas others are content-specific (i.e. the “K-8 math instructional coach.”)  With an increase in teacher leadership dollars the past three years, many Iowa public schools now have funds to employ instructional coaches and other similar roles.  Iowa’s teacher leadership funds come with a few stipulations – teachers assigned to a leadership role must have at least three years of teaching experience and at least one year of experience in the school district (Source: Iowa Department of Education)

AEA Curriculum Consultants

Many area education agencies (AEAs) in Iowa employ math, reading, science, and technology consultants. These positions are content-specific and frequently require a masters degree.  AEA curriculum consultants are often assigned several school districts and provide support to individual teachers or entire departments, as agreed upon by the AEA and district.  AEA curriculum consultants also lead workshops at the agency that teachers across the AEA can participate.  Teachers who desire to make an impact beyond a single school building and enjoy making connections between and across districts may enjoy an AEA curriculum consultant role.  Pre-requisites for this role include a strong content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge and experience leading professional learning.  In addition, AEA curriculum consultants are often invited to participate on state level task forces and committees when new standards and state initiatives are rolled out in Des Moines.

Curriculum Directors/Coordinators

For the past six years, I have served as a district curriculum director for over 100 teachers and approximately 1,500 students.  In some smaller school districts, the curriculum director responsibilities may be assigned to a principal. Still other small districts, share a curriculum director.  Larger districts may employ several curriculum directors or coordinators who specialize in one or more areas (i.e. “Middle School Director of Teaching & Learning” or “Science Curriculum Coordinator”).  In my role, the curriculum director title comes with many additional responsibilities including directing the ELL, Title 1, gifted education, special education, and teacher leadership programs and overseeing the media services and technology departments.  I complete a number of state and federal reports; facilitate curriculum materials review and purchasing processes; attend meetings to keep abreast of new state and federal initiatives; manage the curriculum and teacher leadership budgets; and serve as the primary contact for Department of Education accreditation.  Often times, curriculum directors are on extended contracts requiring an PK-12 administrative endorsement, however some schools may honor a masters degree in curriculum or a related field.

Concluding Thoughts

Serving as a curriculum lead can be a rewarding experience.  Any step away from working with the same students each day/week deserves careful thought.  Hopefully, this column provides an overview of several possible curriculum leadership roles.  We’re fortunate in Iowa each public school opening must be posted on TeachIowa.gov, so we have a one stop shop for curriculum leadership openings throughout the year.  Are you wondering if your experiences might be preparing you for a curriculum leadership role?  It would be my pleasure to review and provide feedback on your resume.  Happy job hunting!