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 second story comes from Alyson Carpenter, who is the instructional coach for Columbia Elementary School in Madison City, where she was literacy coach prior to 2011-12.
Wait a Minute…I Don’t Think I Applied for This Job!
by Alyson Carpenter
“Your contract has been transferred.” This was the gist of a letter I received on day two of the 2011-12 school year. There were lots of important acronyms on the letter: ARI, ABPC, and AMSTI. I had no idea what this meant, but it sounded scary, and my investigative skills revealed that I was the only person for miles around to receive a letter of this kind.
Thankfully, it was testing week in our school, so there was little time for a nervous breakdown, but I definitely had one planned for as soon as testing was complete!
As it turned out, I decided to be open-minded after being assured I would remain in my home school. And I soon left for an initial retreat, where I was to learn my fate along with all the other new Alabama Instructional Partners.
The 13 of us were brought together in a serene setting on Lake Martin. I personally entered the retreat worried and skeptical. I was happy in my job as a school reading coach, or so I thought at the time. My worry soon vanished though and relief began to take its place as the retreat progressed. We were immersed in the work of Jim Knight and the partnership approach to instructional coaching. It seemed this was the coaching support I had needed.
The Alabama IP’s were an almost instant family, and the energy surge we felt during the retreat was unmistakable. A coaching approach that honors teachers as true professional partners just felt right. We left our first face-to-face meeting both excited and energized about the work we would do in the months to come.
This year's journey has been full of ups and downs and a great deal of reflection. I know my IP colleagues will agree that the reflection has helped create change for the better in all of the IP schools. My own journey of reflection began almost instantly as I returned to my home school, Columbia Elementary.
Confessions of a Control Freak…
Soon after the retreat, I had the first of many AHA! moments when my principal and I were in meetings with teams to discuss the use of the Alabama Continuum for Teacher Development as a tool for teacher and team growth. One teacher made a comment that brought out an emotion I became more familiar with as my first year of instructional partnership progressed—guilt.
The teacher shared that when she reviewed the Continuum and self-assessment, she always wished she was as well-prepared as the reading coach. My first thought: What? Me? Some might have found this comment flattering, but I felt guilty and embarrassed, especially after reading Knight’s Unmistakable Impact and reflecting during our recent IP retereat on my previous coaching style. Had I taken opportunities from others in my quest to get things done?
What I learned, through discussion with teachers and my own reflection, was that -- wearing my reading coach hat -- I had in fact taken on ALL responsibility for data analysis, professional learning, and professional development in previous years. This was a job that had exhausted me but in return had allowed me to feel in control.
The comment made by the teacher cemented in my mind that I had to shift to a partnering approach and begin to view my job as a full-time quest to build the capacity of others.
Letting Go and Starting Over
I had no idea how to begin undoing the things I now saw as mistakes of the past. After speaking with my principal, we decided that our best course of action was to begin changing "the way we do business.” Teachers are often told the “new” way things are going to be and have learned not to always trust what they hear because very often things actually never change. So we said nothing, but changed our actions.
I met with our principal daily to reflect on our personal progress in the partnership approach, and this daily reflection and accountability was a critical element in our school's success in changing for the better.
Stepping down from specific team leadership roles and becoming a "floating partner," moving among faculty and promoting "open and free conversation" (as Knight frames it) was another strategy that allowed me to work with all school teams. I was immediately affirmed in this decision as I watched teams and leaders begin to grow as they assumed more leadership responsibilities themselves.
The Journey Is Never Complete
As I continue my personal shift from Reading Coach to Instructional Partner, surprising and exciting things are happening. The first and probably most surprising is I now go to work expecting to have FUN. I can let go and learn from others. I am able to enjoy the leadership and successes of others. I love my job!
Nelson Brown and Brett Chapman, administrators at Columbia, have both embraced the partnership principles and our school is thriving under this type of distributed leadership. Teachers are opening their practice, and our school culture is more collaborative. The focus on instruction is the center of everything we do, and amazing teacher leaders are now more active and visible in our school.
As I talk with my colleagues in the IP pilot program, I hear them saying many of the same things. We can forgive past mistakes and let go of guilt because we have shifted our perspective about professional growth and are no longer “telling” teachers what to think, believe, or do. We are enlisting their help and leadership in a shared vision for our schools and their future.
I know that at Columbia Elementary School, we believe this shared decision-making and teacher leadership is the vehicle that will take us to the level that Jim Knight has helped us imagine for ourselves—a true Impact School!