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 comes from Belinda McCay, the Instructional Partner at Locust Fork Elementary in Blount County.
by Belinda McCay
I was beginning another year as reading coach at Locust Fork Elementary last fall when our principal Amy Williamson asked me how I felt about joining a ALSDE pilot program called the Instructional Partners Project, supported by the Alabama Best Practices Center. It meant that my job description would change, she said, and that I would be working with teachers across all the grades and content areas -- not just reading.
Well, that was a little scary, but I knew it was the best thing for the teachers and the students, and a school that I love.
I soon learned that my new role would involve me in a 3-day retreat with people I did not know, from all over the state of Alabama. The minute I started meeting with other members of our Instructional Partners pilot group, I began to wonder if I'd made a terrible mistake. They were all well read and were talking about things that I had never heard of before.
But by the end of the first night, thanks to the supportive approach taken by the ABPC's staff and consultants, I was feeling much more comfortable and more certain that this would be a wonderful opportunity not only for myself and my professional growth but for the teachers at LFES, who I believed were ready for the kind of partnership and shared ownership in our school's success that our trainers told us was possible.
As I looked around the room at the group of teacher leaders assembled there, I realized that I had so much to learn from all of these wonderful women. By the end of the retreat, I knew that we all had developed special friendships that would continue for a lifetime.
Our Instructional Partners Learning Network
For me, the most powerful tool introduced in our IP Pilot professional development experience has been the Instructional Partners Learning Network, or as we usually call it, the Ning. (It's a private online community space built using the Ning social networking software.)
I call myself a “Ning Stalker.” I read everything that my fellow partners put in the Ning discussion. I also read all the blogs and I have on more than one occasion “stolen” ideas and documents from other partners. I also use our Ning community platform to ask for help.
For example, I was asked by a fourth grade teacher to help her teach fractions to her class. I'd been a second grade teacher for 17 years and a reading coach for one year. What do I know about fractions?! But I knew exactly where to go for help. I ran straight to my computer and pulled up the Ning and immediately received helpful ideas.
I also got an important reminder that I am not the content expert, and it's not my job to be one. That is exactly how I approached it with the teacher. We worked together as partners, with me often in the listening role, and together we developed several strategic lessons to teach fractions side by side all week.
I learned a lot from her and from my IP colleagues, thanks to our online community space, where we can go when we have time, leave our comments, and come back when we have time again to continue our conversations. We've been supported in that space, by the way, by a wonderful young teacher from Tarrant HS -- Beth Sanders -- who has not only been a terrific techie friend but a great cheerleader for our partnership work.
Honestly, I don’t know what I would do without the Ning. It has really helped me grow professionally throughout the school year.
Developing our Instructional Target
One of the things we learned about during last fall's initial Instructional Partners training was Jim Knight's important focusing idea: the schoolwide Instructional Target. Upon my return from the retreat, Mrs. Williamson and I began planning the development our an Instructional Target for Locust Fork Elementary. We focused on “Best Practices” in all content areas, using AMSTI and Content Literacy strategies. We involved our leadership team in the process and then brought it to our grade level teams.
Each grade-level team also developed their own target, deciding what was most important for their grade. This really helped with the “buy in” of all teachers, because they were all involved in the process. It also helped with the development of our school’s Current Instructional Practices and with CIP walkthroughs, because the whole school knew what we were looking for and there were no surprises throughout the school year.
The schoolwide Instructional Target also drove our professional development. We received AMSTI training and Content literacy training and we will continue this next year. Having AMSTI and the Alabama Reading Initiative to consult with throughout the year has also helped me tremendously.
Strengthening our professional partnership
After reading Jim Knight's Unmistakable impact, Mrs. Williamson and I recognized the need to begin strengthening professional relationships in our school and doing all we could to create a strong sense of shared ownership in Locust Fork Elementary's success. In a K-6 school with a wide range of age groups and instructional responsibilities, it's easy for teachers to become isolated inside their own content and grade levels. It's the responsibility of schoolwide leaders to help break down that isolation, and that's what Mrs. Williamson and I set out to do.
Locust Fork is a wonderful small school and we have terrific teachers. My focus this year was to build everybody up -- to confirm for them how terrific they are. I wanted to help them see their true potential and how powerful professional collaboration can be. If that means being the “cheerleader” every day, it's well worth the effort!
My greatest joy this year came with the emergence of one of our teachers as a true "teacher leader."
She'd been teaching for 18 years, and I think she'd come to a place where she took her talents for granted. She's a wonderful educator who does great things with her students. When we started digging into the idea of strategic teaching, she bought in immediately. She mentioned several times about how much she loved the ideas, how they cut down on discipline problems, and how strategic teaching gave her special needs students greater opportunities to be successful.
I made an effort to visit her classroom every day and reinforce all the positives I could see in the work her students were doing and the effort she was making. She would send children down to visit with me and brag about things they had written or progress they were making.
During one of our CIP walkthroughs she was doing an outstanding lesson. The students were in the floor working together to create a chart that would solve an open ended math prompt. They were using manipulatives and working together smoothly and effectively. It was the best lesson that I saw all day.
I made her a “Rocks My Socks” award and presented it to her in front of her class. She cried, I cried, and her students were hugging her like she had just won a million dollars. It was very rewarding that a small effort on my part had such an outstanding response. In fact, it was an important lesson for my own growth as an instructional partner.
Later in the school year, I invited this teacher to go to on one of ABPC's instructional round visits to an often-praised elementary school in another county. As we were making our rounds, I would elbow her and say, “Look, you do that. See, you are as good as any of these teachers!”
Later that same day she told ABPC's Cathy Gassenheimer that we had changed her life -- that she had regained her passion for teaching, thanks to this work. WOW is all I can say about that!
We will keep on growing
I am very thankful for being allowed to be part of the Instructional Partners pilot project. I have grown so much and so has my school. And we will continue to grow as the process continues and we apply best-practice principles every day in our work.
I think the shift from trying to fix teachers to a joint effort to improve our instructional practices in partnership has had the greatest impact on my school. Teachers know they are the experts and that I will support them in every way possible. They also know that I have the resources available to answer any question they might have about any subject. I am excited to see the great things that are going to continue to happen at Locust Fork Elementary, now that we are a true collaborative professional community!