An instructor in a classroom addresses the students. “We’re going to discuss how to ask questions in a way that doesn’t sound threatening, but instead builds trust. Let’s look at some of the vocabulary we’re using now to interact with teachers and how, through word substitution, we can reshape those conversations to foster better outcomes.”
This is a typical conversation in the 21st Century Leadership Academy, part of the Community Consolidated School District 59 in Arlington Heights, Ill., just outside Chicago. Learning is happening, but this is not your usual K12 class. These are professional development sessions where the “students” are the district’s administrators. All 45 administrators—including Superintendent Art Fessler, assistant superintendents and assistant principals—are required to attend seven full-day sessions throughout the year.
Administrators also participate in two-hour meetings every Tuesday. Altogether, each administrator receives an annual 63 hours of PD focused on building the leadership skills needed for the 21st-century classroom.
The seed for the academy was planted before Fessler arrived at the district July 1, 2013. “When I was superintendent at Oaklawn schools (from 2010-13), we focused a lot of our time on training teachers on 21st-century tools,” says Fessler. “After reflecting on that, it occurred to me that we were asking our principals to give effective feedback to teachers to help them grow, but the principals didn’t have proper training to be successful doing that.”
Community Consolidated School District 59
- Schools: 14(K8)
- Students: 7,000
- Staff and faculty: 950
- Per child expenditure: $13,750
- Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 52%
- Community Consolidated School District 59
Also, after getting to know each of the district’s school leaders, Fessler concluded that there was no cohesiveness or consistency across the district in how feedback was being given to teachers. “We had administrators at 14 schools doing things 14 different ways,” he says.
Ben Grey, former CIO of Oaklawn—whom Fessler brought over to CCSD as chief innovation officer shortly after he arrived—was also concerned that CCSD’s leaders didn’t have a strong understanding of how technology was being used for learning.
“That’s when we realized that before we could have a realistic expectation that our teachers should be distinguished in technology-based learning, we needed to set the same bar for district leaders,” says Fessler.
Planning the academy
Over the summer, Fessler discussed the situation with his seven-person cabinet, which includes three assistant superintendents and Grey, among others. “I threw out this problem and said I see this gap, let’s talk about how to address it,” Fessler says. After days of planning, the leadership academy was ready to launch.
Together, the team designed a training program for administrators that would focus on three areas. Reflective practice included posing questions or challenges, then working through the answers or solutions). Two-way dialogue and discussion was critical to the learning process.
One example of a dialogue that took place is how to advise teachers on the best ways to use the four Cs—critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity—in every lesson.
“The most important part of beginning work on the four Cs, and any 21st- century skill transition is to first work through a functional definition of what the skill is,” says Grey. “There are many constructs and ideas behind a skill like critical thinking, and it’s imperative that everyone works together from the same definition as a district moves forward. Once the item is defined, then we look at how it would be incorporated into a student’s learning experience.”
The third component consisted of hands-on training with tools like Google+ Communities, Twitter, Google Docs, Padlet and Feedly that show how the focus is on learning and amplifying human potential more than on the specific functionality of any tool or device.
Scott McLeod, an expert on K12 tech leadership and a sought-after administrative trainer, was brought in to co-facilitate the PD program with Grey. Since the district co-facilitates the monthly training sessions with McLeod, it receives a reduced rate for his services in the range of around $32,000, taken from the operational budget, Fessler says.
They also focus on how to train teachers to let go of the process. “The new curriculum requires turning control of the learning process over to the students and giving them more responsibility,” Fessler says. “We are learning how to coax teachers to do a little less teaching and a little more coaching.” Backward design
To help administrators visualize the results they are striving to achieve in their PD, Grey and McLeod use a ‘backward design model,’ which encourages academy attendees to ‘think from the end,’ a concept derived from the book “Understanding By Design” by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (ASCD).
“We start every conversation with the question, ‘What are the learning outcomes we want to achieve in the classroom?,” and then determine how to get there, Fessler says. For example, to get students to be strong readers at the end of second grade, administrators examined how they could help teachers quantify that throughout instruction.
The dialogue portion of the classes is designed to let the administrators figure out the solutions themselves. “We don’t want to give people the answers, we want them to embrace and internalize the thought process, because we know it won’t be sustainable if we just tell them what to do,” Fessler says.
In this inaugural year for the academy, training sessions will focus on building a shared understanding of the work to be performed. “We have no idea what it is that they [students] will choose to do in life, and our goal is to provide them with the ability to be successful in whatever endeavor they may ultimately choose,” Grey says. “That takes a different learning focus that what is typically found in a traditional education.”
Years two and three will focus on developing what the leadership team wants the learning outcomes of the PD to be, followed by creating an assessment process to measure those results.
“We feel strongly that if we are able to develop a culture that promotes problem-solving, critical thinking and reflection coupled with targeted focused staff development,” Fessler says. “the effects will filter directly into the classroom and our students will certainly benefit.”
Lynn Russo Whylly is newsletter/copy editor.