Back to School: How small changes can lead to big wins for school leaders
I’ve been an educator for 15 years, starting my eighth year as an elementary school instructional coach. But it wasn’t until I participated in the New Leaders Emerging Leaders program in my district that I realized the big power of small changes to my leadership and coaching style.
After a year of disrupted learning, our students and teachers need some big wins. This school year our main goal is to increase student achievement in math and reading through a more personalized learning approach by engaging students in content and learning that matters to them. In my role as an instructional coach at Portland Elementary, I’m tasked with making sure our teachers are ready to help students succeed.
Here are three things I learned that enhanced my leadership. All three tips moved our school teams forward during the pandemic last year. And, they can help you now as you coach teachers who are returning to their physical classrooms, some for the first time since March 2020.
First, the easiest tip: No matter how short the meeting, create a written agenda with goals. I always spent time reflecting on what I wanted to discuss with teachers before our professional learning community (PLC) gatherings and one-on-one coaching sessions, but I didn’t always write it down. That left too much room for getting off track, going down the proverbial rabbit hole, or ending our time feeling like little was accomplished.
Just the simple act of writing down an agenda and goals for the meeting led to more efficient and effective PLCs. Communicating the agenda to the team and staying true to it helps build trust. And trust helps you progress as a team much faster.
The same is true for coaching sessions. Here is a really useful coaching agenda and template from New Leaders.
Second, be intentional: Use protocols to facilitate team meetings. If there is anything I know to be true about educators, it is this: some of us have a lot to say and some of us sit back and take it all in. As a coach, it’s important to give equity of voice to all members of the team.
Using protocols really elevated my coaching practice. They added structure for more effective, efficient, and impactful conversations that involved every person sitting around the table or in the Zoom windows. While there are many protocols to choose from, the ones I often use to guide meetings include New Leaders Student Work Analysis as well as Critical Friends, I Like-I Wonder, and the Tuning Protocol. Using them allows you to engage the whole team in planning, analyzing, and giving meaningful feedback.
Third, if you can: Record yourself running a team meeting or a coaching session and reflect on the video afterward. Just like athletes reviewing a game tape after a match, watching yourself — even if it makes you feel uncomfortable — will help you improve how you facilitate discussions, answer questions, and guide the educators on your team.
My job as a coach is to give educators the tools they need to succeed and to help them trust themselves in using those tools. I reflect with them, plan with them, watch them at work, and give them feedback to help them grow. I need the same kind of feedback to succeed.
Watching the recording and scoring myself against the New Leaders rubric for Observation and Coaching helped me improve as a coach and a professional. Watch your game film over and over again, reflect on it, and refine your practice so you can be the best coach you can be.
My team, like yours, has big goals this year, as we do every year, because we know our students deserve opportunities to grow and achieve at high levels. Serving a community in which many of our students are experiencing poverty, we know the pandemic had an outsized impact on many of our families.
My focus, if I am talking to a long-time teacher or a brand-new one, is to help ensure my team feels supported and ready for the challenges that lay ahead this school year. With ongoing support from New Leaders’ mentors and coaches, I have even more tools in my leadership toolbox to help my team succeed.