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Understanding the Partnership Role: My Third Year Was Really the Charm

July 3, 2012 | Tags: instructional partners, partnership
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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 Allison S. Alexander, the Instructional Partner at Attalla's Etowah Middle School during 2011-12.

by Allison S. Alexander

I began my journey toward becoming a true Instructional Partner three years ago when I interviewed for the instructional specialist job at Etowah Middle School in the Attalla City Schools. I was excited and looking forward to a new experience.

My principal and assistant principal were new as well and we all had a job ahead of us coming to fully understand the newly created "instructional specialist" position. According to the job description, I was a curriculum expert, classroom supporter, learning facilitator, data coach, school leader, mentor, resource provider, catalyst for change, lead learner -- and I would "show accountability."

Our former superintendent, Ray Landers, knew the potential impact an instructional facilitator and "lead learner" could have. But it wasn't an understanding that was widely shared in those days. I worked with a sense of urgency and didn’t grasp why everyone wasn't enthusiastic about all the article studies, data meetings, job embedded professional development, and other extra work (haha).Needless to say, Year One was about growing pains!

Year Two brought a new title -- “Instructional Coach” -- and proof in the pudding! Our math scores improved 10% from grade seven to grade eight. Our special education scores also improved. The teachers could see results and were much more open to the professional development and data meetings. I (along with our language arts department) completed the CLAS Banner School Application and told our story. We were the only middle school selected in 2010! This was a wonderful accomplishment and I believe this proved the shift to more focused instructional practices was working. We had so many new things in place: data meetings, baseline assessments, department meetings, leadership team, content literacy team, AMSTI. And we were building a stronger learning climate and culture in our school, for students and for teachers.

Year Three brought another new title -- “Instructional Partner.” Mr. Landers encouraged us to participate in the Instructional Partners Pilot program with Alabama Best Practices Center. I had attended several of ABPC's Powerful Conversations workshops while working for Boaz City and was excited to be involved in this new opportunity.
The IP Pilot: My 5 biggest aha moments

My year of learning with the ABPC staff and my fellow pilot participants during 2011-12 turned out to be the charm! The shift from identifying myself as a coach to seeing myself as a partner has completely changed my outlook and approach to my role.

I've learned so much from my fellow professionals involved in the pilot. Here are my five biggest Aha moments from this past school year:

1. Partnership - Our school has many experts. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. We must share our strengths -- and strengthen our own weak areas -- by collaborating with other teachers. This can only happen when we are giving the opportunity for peer coaching.

2. Listening - Many issues are resolved by listening to the teachers. Teachers know the answers to most of their own questions. Most often, they really just need someone to listen (without judging or interrupting) and allow them to come to their own conclusions. This may seem very simple, but time is precious in every school. Taking some of that time to sit and listen has really helped me build better relationships with our teachers.
3. Ownership - All teachers must have a voice. I learned to create many opportunities (professional development workshops, surveys, informal conversations, and more) for teachers to express their views and ideas. It takes more time but it makes it easier in the long run to achieve our goals. Jim Knight's book, Unmistakable Impact, taught me to give teachers the time to critique, agree and commit to our school's Instructional Target. (This looks a lot different than the mini-Continuous Improvement Plan.) 

4. Slow and Steady  - The biggest issue I had my first year was moving too quickly. I have to remind myself that everyone in a school system -- administrators, teachers and those in roles like my own -- are involved in our own professional learning and growth, at our own pace. I no longer assume everyone is on the same page. We learn from each other daily. I understand the need to differentiate with teachers as I do with students.

5. The benefits of virtual community - ABPC created the online Instructional Partners Learning Network to support our pilot project experience, using the Ning social network software to build our private space. It is fabulous! I learned so much from my IP colleagues during the past year by sharing resources inside our Ning site. Within our IPLN community, we shared articles, samples of work we were doing in our schools, answers to questions, twitter help, and so much more. I've never had a "go to person" before, but through this online community, I always knew I could count on help from my wonderful colleagues.

ABPC also asked us to post weekly reflections (which could only be read by ABPC staff), and those regular entries also helped me stay on track as I thought "out loud" about the past week and planned for the next. Jackie Walsh, Cathy Gassenheimer, and Georgina Nelson would respond, give advice, and encourage me each time. Having a support system is so very helpful.

It's all about coming together

This past year, I learned the value of flexibility. In my role as a partner I gave PD "menus" to the faculty (with choices about ways to pursue professional growth). I became a better listener (or at least I tried through cognitive coaching). I was invited into the classrooms more. The faculty saw me as a resource and a supporter. I still work with a sense of urgency but I realize everyone operates on his or her own level of professional development.

Three years ago, I was often seen by teachers as someone looking for shortcomings in their instructional practice. The partnership approach has made me realize we are all equals who can help each other to help our students more. And I believe our teachers are coming to that viewpoint as well. The central office, our principals and assistant principals, our instructional partners and our teachers all MUST work together and understand the common goal.

I hope next year Etowah Middle will pursue peer coaching. This is the next step and the teachers are ready for this challenge. They will video and review the lesson and ask the question, “What could I change to make this more effective?” I strongly believe using the partnership approach will  open the way to continuous collaboration and have the biggest impact on student achievement.
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