This piece was originally written as a two-part series for Big Deal Media to share on their Teaching4Tomorrow blog. Those blogs can be seen here: Part I, Part II. Thanks Big Deal Media for sharing these thoughts!
Every district is on a journey. The incredible part of serving as a superintendent is having the privilege to help guide that journey towards what students need to be successful in school and in life. As I came to Gunter ISD seven years ago, our students and staff were highly successful (test scores, extracurricular success, college-entry, etc.) yet our students and staff and school community yearned for something more. At the same time, districts across the nation were launching technology initiatives – from BYOD to 1:1 with a multitude of devices. We were largely unable to journey down that path initially due to a number of challenges. This shaped our journey immensely.
The most significant challenge we faced was financial. From significant declines in student enrollment and property values to a reduction in state funding, we found ourselves facing financial crisis. Not only was there no funding for devices, there was little money to expand wi-fi, not to mention the additional staff needed to truly implement such an initiative. But it wasn’t just financial challenges we faced, it was academic as well – but perhaps not in the way you would think. We were very “successful” in our accountability system. Our teachers understood the test and our kids excelled; but that was accomplished largely through traditional instruction. Teachers shared their frustration that there was little time and space for innovation and inquiry because of the pressures of state assessments. To move further in a journey towards innovative learning was risky in everyone’s eyes because of the pressures of the state accountability system. Finally, there were challenges related to capacity, including insufficient infrastructure and limited personnel.
What perhaps was a perfect storm that could halt our journey became a gift in successfully launching our journey. We were given the gift of time to watch and learn how other districts moved forward, see the challenges they faced and let their learning inform our journey. It gave us the time necessary to envision where we wanted to go, to elevate our expectations and foster a culture necessary to accomplish the work, to equip our people to be successful in these innovative practices and to start thinking about how we would extend our learning into the future.
ENVISION: Our goal was to be thoughtful and strategic in our visioning process and we did so by involving hundreds in our Strategic Planning Process. We focused on five areas that we felt could move our district forward: innovative learning, preparing future-ready students, building capacity in our students and staff, ensuring social & emotional wellness and preparing for the growth as we are located in a high-growth corridor.
The thing about strategic planning is that the magic isn’t in the outcome, or the piece of paper produced; the magic is in the conversations that occur throughout the entire process. We talked with our teachers, our students, our graduates, and our community about the kinds of things they wanted our learners to be able to know and do – and their voices impacted our work immensely.
We also wanted our vision to be grounded in theory and practice. We read books like The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros and Learner-Centered Innovation by Dr. Katie Martin, which had a profound impact on our school community. We also became involved in TASA’s Future-Ready Superintendent Leadership Network and were immediately surrounded by districts who were deeply immersed in this future-ready work. Through learning experiences designed by fellow superintendents, we engaged with innovative leaders in education and business and had multiple opportunities to visit districts who were doing incredible things. This included places like:
- Sunnyvale ISD to see how they were personalizing learning and using collaborative learning spaces;
- Royse City ISD to see how they were empowering students in their digital integration process and incorporating flexible seating in their classrooms;
- Alamo Heights ISD to see how they scaled their Engaged Learning Model across the district;
- Lubbock-Cooper ISD to see how they were innovative in approaching social-emotional learning; and
- Georgetown ISD to see how they utilized a school with moving walls and shared spaces to build stronger collaboration and multidisciplinary learning into their campus.
These visits made a huge impact on our staff. One of our 3rd Grade veteran teachers noted:
Going with a group of other teachers to Royse City and Sunnyvale for a site visit was one of the most impactful experiences in my teaching career. I’ve read Teach Like a Pirate and Learner-Centered Innovation and visiting those two school districts tied it all together. Classroom environments have changed and so did mine after these experiences. Once you make a change like this, it makes you rethink all of your lesson plans, wanting them to be even more fun and engaging. That is in the back of my mind each time I create a lesson plan for my students.
As leaders, our job is to paint a picture of where we are and where we want to go and help forge a path to get there. Spending time deeply discussing our hopes and dreams for students and showing what “could be” through a visioning process helped accomplish that.
ELEVATE: If we were going to be successful in any journey towards becoming more future-ready, we needed to change our thinking around what we wanted for our students and elevate our perspective and expectations.
- We engaged in activities like John Tanner‘s Smartness Profile, where we brainstormed all the different ways that kids (and we) are smart, and then rated our level of smartness in each. This broadened our thinking to understand that “smartness” was much more than a single test score on a single day.
- We grappled with Dr. Katie Martin’s sentiments around accountability – that we can’t ignore state assessments, but we can’t let them impede the larger goals for what we want with our students.
- We formed discussion groups around Dr. Phil Schlecty‘s Images of School and had some honest conversations around where we were on the continuum of a factory-model school vs. a true learning organization.
- And we watched videos including this one from John Spencer, entitled The Shift from Engaging Students to Empowering Learners, which made us realize the bar will continue to rise: from compliance to engagement; from engagement to empowerment; from empowerment to… The future is always changing and what our students need will continue to change too!
One of the core frameworks that resonated with us was out of George Couros’ book, The Innovator’s Mindset called 8 Things to Look for in Today’s Classroom (and beautifully sketched by Sylvia Duckworth). We talk all the time about building skills like communication, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration and this simple graphic gave us a roadmap to help make those things come to life in our classrooms.
I asked our teachers “what has changed” since we embarked on this journey towards innovative learning and one tangible example is from our Pre-K teacher. She responded that for a lesson around transportation they typically include discussing different types of boats and looking at various pictures of sailboats. She commented that this past year, she extended the learning:
Every child received a marshmallow peep, a piece of foam, and a toothpick. The peep was the boat and the kiddos had to design a sail, cut it out and stick it in the peep. They had a blast trying to figure out how the shape of sail, size of sail, and where the sail on the peep was located factored into how well the peep boat kept afloat!
If we want our principals and our teachers to take risks and try innovative practices in their classroom, we have to elevate the foundation of what we deem important and foster a culture that supports staff in this transformative work.
EQUIP: This is the critical part in helping staff be successful in any instructional initiative. It is also one that a small district like ours struggles with inherently due to limited staff. We went about this function by trying to create an environment that incentivizes and motivates innovative teaching and learning and ensure that we’re not only equipping our people but also our infrastructure, processes and systems.
We incorporated multiple opportunities for choice – from summer professional development opportunities including book studies and reflecting on TED Talks (thank you Kerrville ISD for sharing that great idea) to providing incentives for teachers to earn badges for completing professional development throughout the year (an idea we adapted from Royse City ISD and Caddo Mills ISD).
We celebrated teachers in front of their students and peers and our School Board during our quarterly recognition for their efforts in providing innovative teaching and learning opportunities. And we made major investments in our infrastructure prior to rolling out our pilot of personalized devices. Our mantra was simple: it’s not about the device; it’s about how our teaching and learning changes as a result.
EXTEND: While we are still in the midst of our journey, it is important to contemplate the planning necessary and tools available to continue the journey moving forward. We are constantly analyzing where we are on the 5 Stages of Saturation, (sketched by Sylvia Duckworth). Our goal is to be at a 5, where we truly contemplate how we operated any other way. For now, we continue to build the vision and capacity in teachers and leaders across the district!
We utilized BrightBytes to establish a baseline from our students, staff and community in how we’re using 21st Century Skills in our learning and these data have helped support and guide our innovative practices. We’ve established Genius Hour programs at several of our grade levels, created STEAM courses at our middle school and have launched new courses at the secondary level to allow our students to dive deeply into their areas of interest.
We are nowhere near where we need and want to be, but we are diligently making strides in our journey to help our students be more future-ready. And these steps (envision, elevate, equip and extend) have helped us tremendously down that path!