During the past school year, we've written several times about the Alabama Instructional Partners Pilot Program, initiated by the Alabama State Department of Education with professional development support from the Alabama Best Practices Center. The essential goal of the project, which will expand this fall, is to prepare teacher leaders for roles as school-based "instructional partners" who facilitate transformative professional learning among their peers.
We've invited participants in the first-year pilot to write about how the experience impacted their own professional growth. Our latest reflection is written by Jacquelyn Flowers, the Instructional Partner at Discovery Middle in Madison City Schools.
by Jacquelyn Flowers
My path from teacher to instructional coach to a true instructional partner began three years ago, after 12 years as a high school math educator. What a journey it has been!
My first step was taken unexpectedly -- I was looking for a math position in Madison City Schools. None were available at the time but I noticed a job opening for "instructional coach." What might that be? I did what we all do these days: I googled it!
The results included a book by Jim Knight called Instructional Coaching. I read some excerpts from the book online and decided that even though I had not been trained in the Alabama Reading Initiative coaching cycle, I did have knowledge and practice of strategic teaching. I could do this.
I applied and was offered the position at Discovery Middle School, joining a group of instructional coaches hired by MCS that year to staff all our secondary schools. My first act was to order Knight's book, read every word, and share my findings with the other members of my instructional group.
My approach to my new position was simple and personal. I set out to treat people the way I would want to be treated. I knew in order to reach the teachers, I had to build relationships first. Building relationships is a strong suit for me, and I have never claimed to know more than the teachers I'm working with. Jim Knight advocates this approach, and I had adopted something of the partnership strategy in my first years as a coach. But I still needed to learn more about direction, methods, and focus -- and the Instructional Partnership Pilot, which began during my third year of coaching, would soon offer me that opportunity.
The best organizations are places where everyone has permission, or better yet, the responsibility to gather and act on quantitative and qualitative data, and to help everyone else learn what they know. (Pfeffer and Sutton, 2006)
During the summer of 2011, I was told to be at Children’s Harbor for a new pilot program about instructional partnership. I had no idea what to expect, but I soon learned that the pilot would focus on helping reading and instructional coaches from five different districts shift their practice from traditional coaching to the kind of partnering envisioned by Jim Knight.
What a concept! It fit all that I believed and it also gave me partners of my own, including coaches from outside my district. It also meant I'd be working with coaches across the K12 grade spectrum. Finally, vertical alignment with regard to coaching!
As a secondary instructional coach I already worked with adults and led professional development. (Some reading coaches in K-8 are more focused on work with students). Even so, the new instructional partnering approach was going to be a shift for me. I would soon have voice and choice about what was needed as far as professional learning in our school. My principal would become my every-day instructional partner and we would in turn partner with the teachers to move instruction forward and to ultimately impact student learning.
One of the first things we did was to identify a larger group of teacher leaders in our school and begin to distribute leadership responsibilities more broadly. This really boosted teacher morale as the responsibilities became the responsibilities of all of our professional learning community members -- not just mine or a chosen few among the faculty. We built teams of teachers to help guide our decisions about instruction and lead aspects of professional development. And we developed targets for our school, our teachers, and our students.
At Discovery Middle, the teacher's target is Student Learning:
I can move my students forward in their learning by:
1. Aligning my learning target and activities so that I am engaging students in their own learning through teaching strategically
2. Participate in internal/external Instructional Rounds and Collaborate through Peer Partnering with my Thinking Partner triad/duo to learn from one another so that I am continuously learning new and shared ways to engage my students
3. To incorporate learning from my professional development in my classroom for the betterment of student learning.
Our school’s target also focuses on the learner:
Our goal is the development of the student as an independent, self-directed lifelong learner. In other words, to help students develop as autonomous learners, with the appropriate skills, concepts, and attitudes necessary for their life’s journey.
The Instructional Partners Pilot
One of my favorite things about the Instructional Partners Pilot experience is that we came together as a team. Sometimes we were face-to-face, sometimes we communicated online, inside our Ning-based learning network. Throughout the year we were able to learn from each other, anytime and just in time.
I now have a group of partners through the IPP that I can collaborate with, trade ideas, and share what works and what does not. We support each other in our efforts on behalf of our individual schools and districts. For me, this was a powerful example of the cross-collaboration what we should - in turn - encourage among our teachers.
Another favorite thing about the IPP program is that I began to see how PCN, KLN, ABPC, Principally Speaking, ARI, AMSTI, MCS and SDE all fit together like pieces of a puzzle. I am very thankful that all of these programs have been linked together under one umbrella, and that we are developing a common vision and language throughout our state concerning coaching/partnering, teaching and learning.
We all want to impact teacher practice to ensure student learning and now we are all partnering together to make it happen. The partnership approach is so powerful and we can be an example for other states. I believe we are becoming one big happy family in the state of Alabama with regard to student learning!
A final reflection
I would like to share a quote (p. 6) from the book Unmistakable Impact by Jim Knight:
Students will not be energized, thrilled, and empowered by learning until educators are energized, thrilled, and empowered by learning. When all educators engage in humane professional learning that empowers them to embrace proven teaching methods, we can move closer to the goal of every student receiving excellent instruction in every class every day.
We have seen a big difference in our school since our teachers started participating in peer partnering and internal/external instructional rounds -- strategies we developed through our school and district partnership with the Alabama Best Practices Center. Going in each other’s classrooms and learning from one another has been so powerful for our teachers. As the students have seen us learning this way, we believe they better understand why they to need to interact and learn together.
My biggest learning from the IP pilot is that we cannot rest on having made AYP or be satisfied that we are teachers who "work at a good school." Good isn't good enough. Our school can be great if we all work together on instruction, using the partnership approach.
Last April, as I read through teacher and student reflections about the year, I could see how much we had grown as a true professional learning community. We are on the right path, and I know we will collectively and responsibly stay on this pathway to ensure student learning in our school because our community of teacher learners understands the need to be great and wants to see our students grow and learn more.
I'm thankful to ABPC and the Alabama State Department of Education for the involvement and opportunities I have had as a participant in the first Instructional Partners professional development cohort. And I'm especially thankful for all the support I have received and will continue to receive from all my IPP partners who work every day in schools. I am fired up about next year and all the possibilities we have ahead!
Finally, welcome to the IP Pilot - Cohort Two! Those of us in Cohort One are looking forward to the partnership and the betterment of teaching and learning in Alabama.