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Leadership That Moves You Forward, Part II: Engagement, Collaboration, and Teambuilding

Elizabeth LeBlanc, Christ Harrington

Elizabeth LeBlanc & Dr. Christopher Harrington

Institute for Teaching and Leading

As we shared in our previous post on our work at the Institute for Teaching and Leading (i4tl) to understand effective leadership of personalized learning initiatives, we found profound differences in leadership between the system and site levels. The impact of building-level leaders, such as principals and assistant principals, differed both qualitatively and quantitatively from their district-level counterparts. Overall, building-level leadership actions were less closely correlated with the successful implementation of a highly customized learning environment at a programmatic level; however, building-leader actions had a higher degree of impact on teacher and student experiences within those settings reported as compared to the decisions and actions of those working at the district level. In general, district-level actions that tied to vision, planning, and alignment were most efficacious, while the most effective building-level actions had to do with engagement, collaboration, and teambuilding. The chart below shows our findings for the impact of building-level leaders:

The i4tl research team examined the results of our online questionnaire and compared them with what we learned from site visits, interviews, and stakeholder focus groups in personalized learning environments across the country. This helped us identify a series of high-leverage points for school-level leaders, which included:

  • Fostering a culture of risk-taking and innovation for teachers in the classroom
  • Involving teachers and instructional staff in the development of a shared, school-wide vision for teaching and learning (and the strategic planning of how to achieve that vision)
  • Building in time and opportunities for collaboration and idea-sharing among teachers
  • Allowing for specific opportunities for growing the mindset of teachers
  • Committing to continuous growth or improvement as a schoolwide learning community — and having accountability measures that support that commitment for all stakeholders, including teachers and students

The remainder of this Insight will look at the most impactful actions by site-level leadership. We will dive into each of these leverage points and share some examples from the schools, leaders, and teachers we spoke with.

Encouraging teachers to implement innovative processes and procedures within their classrooms

The single most effective action that building leadership took to nurture and maintain an increasingly student-centered, personalized learning environment was to encourage their teachers to implement innovative processes and procedures within their classrooms (90 percent of respondents agreed that this action impacted the learning environment to a “great” or “moderate” degree). Several principals and assistant principals articulated that this step was consciously built into their learning model; as one of them told our team, “When teachers and administrators themselves learn in a culture that fosters positive-risk taking and innovation, it helps them better understand what the learning experience will feel like for their students within such a model.”

An implementation example comes from Pequea Valley School District (PVSD) in Pennsylvania. The district’s student-centered, personalized learning program has been in existence since 2012, and it has been evolving constantly. At the heart of this commitment to continuous improvement of the district’s learning model is a collaborative effort of PVSD teachers, administrators, and school board members. According to school Superintendent Dr. Erik Orndorff, establishing a culture of trust and collaboration was a critical foundational factor in the development of the personalized learning program. “Culture development has been and still is a major area of focus for sustaining our program,” noted Orndorff. “We work on the development of trust 80 percent of the time.” A PVSD building-level administrator underscored the importance of building a culture of trust and innovation as well, saying, “The most important part is that it [our continuous innovation model] is not driven by administration… Teachers are coming to us saying we have this idea, what do you think about it, could we give it a try, and they have ownership of it, and they figure out how to make it work!”

One teacher, an 18-year veteran educator in the district, explained that leadership is a key reason why personalized learning is so successful in Pequea Valley. “It’s a different world than what used to be here. It is a shift in mindset that was gradual. It used to be all the reasons why you couldn’t do stuff, and now it is more like an encouragement to bring an idea to the table and see what we can do about it.” Teachers within the district’s customized learning program are motivated to think creatively on how to bring valuable experiences to students, and they have strong belief that their work with students on a daily basis is truly making a difference. In turn, teachers then empower students to have agency over their own learning and drive their own curricula and schedules. As a result, a districtwide culture of expectation, risk-taking, and relevance has emerged. “Students now come to us and say I want to have this internship, this experience” reported one teacher. Education is now far more relevant to the students, and they recognize the opportunities that they have in their school district.

Involving teachers in the development of a school-wide shared vision of teaching and learning

The second most impactful action that our research found by building-level leaders was the inclusion of teachers and other instructional staff in the development of the school’s vision for teaching and learning. Just over 90 percent of respondents in our study agreed that taking this action impacted their ability to implement and sustain high-quality personalized learning environments to a “great” or “moderate” degree; when teachers and instructional staff were involved with both the visioning and in the strategic planning process, the actions jointly had more impact than either one taken in isolation.

In the southwestern corner of Kentucky, Marshall County School District (MCSD) is involving school leaders and classroom teachers in collaborating on a shared vision of teaching and learning to a degree not often found. Currently the district operates on a “school within a school” learning model. For example, students and families at South Marshall Elementary School have the choice to opt for a traditional classroom setting or to have their child join one of the personalized, project-based “Discovery” classroom settings at the elementary school. Rather than teaching in grade-level classrooms, the teachers in these new classroom models team-teach in ability levels, using flexible, multi-age groupings with flexible seating and learning spaces to match. Teachers are an integral part of setting the vision, goals, and tools for implementation in these alternative classroom options. At the middle school level, the personalized model is called “Explore” and it includes blended learning experiences that incorporate habits of learning and social-emotional curriculum as well as digital content aligned with district standards. Finally, at the high school level, students can choose from “Quest” and “Career Academy” at the high school or remain with the traditional classroom experience. Currently, students and families can opt in or out of the model from year to year; the district holds information nights to help students and parents understand the differences between the personalized, competency-based environment that the Discovery, Explore, Quest and Career classrooms offer and the more traditional ones. Each school is clear that they do not privilege or push one model over another; an announcement at South Marshall Elementary School reads, “We do not believe one is better than the other, but we do believe that one is better than the other for your child.”

The Marshall County pilot began with approximately 280 students opting in to the nontraditional setting in one school; however, within three years, that number grew to over 1400. As more and more elementary students have selected the newer learning program, fewer students are choosing the traditional classroom setting; eventually, MCSD elementary schools may all be based on the personalized, competency-based learning model as the rule rather than the exception. Ms. Abby Griffy, the Instructional Supervisor for MCSD, stated, “We may always have a choice in middle or high school. We’re leaving it open-ended; it’s hard to make a strategic plan since we are leaving it to students to choose, but we strongly believe that students and families should have that choice.”

Providing opportunities for collaboration and sharing of ideas among teachers and instructional staff

The third highest-ranked action by principals and assistant principals was providing opportunities for collaboration and sharing of ideas among teachers; 88 percent of respondents rated this step as impacting their ability to implement and sustain a personalized learning environment to a “great” or “moderate” degree. Several building-level administrators reported that finding the time and tools to support teachers during the transition to their new learning model was one of their own biggest challenges, with scheduling time for collaboration between teaching teams into the school day as one of their biggest difficulties.

Located in Berks County, Pennsylvania, Governor Mifflin School District (GMSD) serves 4,100 students. Increasing the student-centered learning experience has long been a focus of the district's work. After a full year of thoughtful conversations with the district’s school board, leadership, and many of the high school teachers, the district launched their Student-Centered Learning Experience (SCLE) pilot program at the start of the 2018-19 school year. This inaugural year included 50 tenth grade students, 17 teachers, and a team of high school administrators and support staff, all of whom made the commitment to work collaboratively together to grow and shape the program. Currently, high school teachers and administrators meet every Monday as a reflection time to dialog and assess the successes and challenges in order to be able to adjust the program quickly. High School Associate Principal Tony Alvarez noted that, “We are right where we need to be in terms of our growth. Because it is a smaller group, we have the ability to react [to challenges] pretty quickly, and so we do. This particular group [in this first year of the program] are pioneers.”

So far, the collaborative approach to the design and implementation of SCLE has resulted in high levels of satisfaction for students and teachers alike. Teachers within the SCLE program employ a mix of approaches including traditional instruction, blended learning, and self-directed online learning depending on what an individual student needs or wants. Teachers and students embrace the concept of anytime, anywhere learning, which has resulted in students becoming more self-directed and developing a greater degree of agency in their learning.

Allowing for specific opportunities for growing the mindset of teachers

In our questionnaire data, 43 percent of respondents stated that this action had a “great” impact on the creation and nurturing of a deeply personalized learning environment in their school; another 43 percent credited the deliberate cultivation of growth mindset among instructional staff and teachers as having a “moderate” impact on the same. Consistent and ongoing communication strategies at the school level also positively correlated with increased growth mindset and orientation towards change for teachers.

A distant rural district, Northern Cass School District 97, is located roughly 25 miles away from Fargo., North Dakota. Northern Cass’ small size (serving approximately 650 students across grades PreK-12) makes it possibly a perfect place to deeply transform traditional education models. In fact, the instructional shift was difficult for some Northern Cass educators. When the student is not dependent on the teacher for content delivery, then the teacher’s role changes to more of a facilitator, connector, and learning coach. Adjusting to this new style of education can be a challenge.

In order to support teachers during the transition, the school district has taken advantage of a unique opportunity through North Dakota State University’s teacher leadership academy model. A program that was adapted from a model developed at Kansas State University, the leadership academy allows teachers to take on initiatives in their content area or educational setting; in lieu of traditional research papers, teachers wrote manuals or created resources to help explain the learning model to students, parents, and families. Meanwhile, the district also reworked teacher assignments. Two years ago, for example, the elementary teachers stopped being generalists (teaching all core classes to one grade level) and started to specialize, operating in content area departments rather than grade levels. The idea is that teachers will encounter students in a more broad range of ages and abilities - but only in their academic areas of expertise. Each of these targeted professional development opportunities worked to grow and shift the mindset of Northern Cass teachers and their orientation towards those changes as the new instructional model was implemented. Their hard work is paying off as the school district moves into their final implementation year as they seek to fully personalize their learning model; the overarching vision at Northern Cass includes moving to a completely proficiency-based curriculum aligned with learning standards, exchanging traditional A-F letter grades for Marzano proficiency scales, and doing away with grade level designations in favor of learning levels. Growth mindset is clearly a trait embraced at all levels of the school.

Commitment to continuous growth or improvement as a schoolwide learning community

The implementation of structures that ensured accountability for growth and success at all levels – from students to teachers to administrators – emerged as an important action step for school leaders. This action was rated by questionnaire respondents as impacting the personalized learning program by 38 percent to a “great” extent and by an additional 48 percent of respondents to a “moderate” degree. Feedback from our site visits and follow-up interviews was clear that accountability in this context worked best when it was tied directly to the school or district vision, was implemented in a way that was supportive and inclusive, and when it was part of a larger growth model for all stakeholders. Practices that were solely evaluative had a negative impact on mindset, self-efficacy, empowerment, and mindset, which we will discuss further in the final post in this series.

A district that has created an entire school model based on teacher growth and collaboration is Westminster Public Schools (WPS) in Colorado, just northwest of Denver. WPS is currently the largest district in the country to fully implement a competency-based learning system. Its newest endeavor is the opening of the Marzano Academy, a PreK-5 school, which will be expanding to include grades 6, 7, and 8, as well. The school itself will be based on the competency-based education model and the vision of a personalized education that meets the needs of all children articulated by Dr. Robert Marzano.

District officials worked directly with Marzano throughout the 2018-19 school year to write the new school into the district’s improvement plan. The John E. Flynn Marzano Academy will also serve as a lab school and training ground for teachers across the district to refine their practice within the competency-based learning model. WPS teacher Seth Abbott called the chance for teachers to work directly with Marzano “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for an educator – one that he and his colleagues could not be more excited about.

The i4tl team, in exploring building-level leadership with an eye towards which actions have the highest impact in the support or growth of personalized learning environments identified actions related to engagement, collaboration, and team-building as having the most impact on other stakeholders. There were also qualitative and quantitative differences in which actions served as effective leverage points depending on the leader's position within the system. In our final post for this series, we will look at our team’s findings around creating a culture for change: how district and building-level leaders can positively impact the empowerment, mindset, motivation, and self-efficacy of other stakeholders.

Explore the first post in this Insight series to learn more about i4tl's work:

Elizabeth LeBlanc, Christ Harrington

Elizabeth LeBlanc & Dr. Christopher Harrington

Institute for Teaching and Leading

Elizabeth S. LeBlanc is the co-founder and CEO of the Institute for Teaching and Leading. She also serves as the Director of Teaching and Learning for Taos Academy Charter School, an innovative blended learning school in northern New Mexico. Elizabeth has 15 years of experience in the design and implementation of high-quality, effective programming. With an MA in Educational Technology and Curriculum Design, Elizabeth works to coach and support teachers engaging in digital and personalized learning. Elizabeth was recently named to the NM Secretary of Education’s Teacher Advisory and was awarded the 2019 NMSTE “Making IT Happen!” award. Elizabeth has co-authored several education research projects, contributed book chapters, and written articles on brain science, whole-child instruction and blended learning.

Dr. Christopher Harrington, the founder of the Institute for Teaching and Leading, has long served on the forefront of innovative education. Currently a professor at Immaculata University, Chris specializes in assembling and inspiring great work from great teams. In his previous positions as President of eLearn Institute, Inc. and CEO of Harrington Education Associates, Dr. Harrington assisted dozens of school districts across the nation in the design and implementation of blended and online learning programs, including the nationally recognized Quakertown Community School District where he served as Director of Virtual Education Services. Chris works with multiple state and national groups in the field of education, including iNACOL and the Colorado Department of Education. Dr. Harrington recently joined the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute team as their Director.