Checking in with Instructional Specialist Michelle Morrow

Michelle Morrow is the Instructional Specialist at North Godwin Elementary School in Grand Rapids, MI and part of the 2017 Leading Educators Grand Rapids cohort.  This past July, Michelle spoke with us about her vision for school transformation after attending the 2017 Leading Educators Institute (LEI).  We checked in with Michelle to hear about her team’s experiences during the fall semester.   

LE: When we spoke with you in July, you said LEI was one of the most intense and rewarding professional opportunities of your career thus far.  What were you looking forward to as you entered the fall semester?

MM:  I was most excited to see how our team’s learning would translate into our school culture and ultimately what it would look like in the classroom.  I knew the equity sessions at LEI had a powerful impact on our team, so I was also excited to explore how having the equity lens front of mind might impact how our teacher leaders speak about the standards, their instructional practice, and our students’ learning.     

LE: What were some of your team’s specific priorities for the fall?

MM: We not only wanted to increase teacher collaboration within our school from a functional perspective but also have those collaborative conversations anchored in equity, evidence, and rigorous standards.  Our staff has the best of intentions for our students and they have worked extremely hard to open up their classrooms and collaborate with each other.  Our goal was to deepen these collaborative conversations and push ourselves to examine our instructional design and delivery through an equity lens.

LE: How did you use your team’s professional learning plans to get to that place?

MM: We began the school year with professional development where staff members challenged their biases and opened themselves up to be honest and vulnerable with each other.  This continued in the work of our cycles of professional learning (CPLs) when we narrowed in on creating lessons and units that were rigorous with the proper scaffolding so all of our students could access high standards.  Beyond our regular content learning as adults, we have also had teams practice challenging conversations with their colleagues in order to push the envelope for our school culture.  All of these experiences have helped increase collaboration to a deeper and more meaningful level.

LE: What was challenging about implementing this work?  What surprised you or others on your team?

MM: Time.  With our district having several other priorities on the table, our team had to get creative in meshing them together.  We did not want this to come off as ‘one more thing’ to do, so our team had to carve out additional time to design the CPLs as part of our districts goals.  I wouldn’t say this surprised me because of the dedication and willingness of our team, but I’m always amazed by the commitment that educators have to making changes that help their students get the most out of school.  Our team made a commitment to come to work 60 minutes early two days a week to continue our instructional work, and they also gave up their prep period  once a week to review their session facilitation.  Our team even created a website where staff participating in the CPL could have easy access to presentations and materials.  They are the hardest working bunch I know!  

LE: What has been your biggest win so far?

MM: We had more than half of our elementary staff volunteer their personal time and come to work 60 minutes early for eleven weeks to attend our first round of professional learning sessions.  Because we did not have this time built into the master schedule for this year, it is amazing to see the dedication of not only my teacher leaders, but also their peer teachers who also gave up their time to participate in instruction-focused learning.  

LE: What advice do you have for others leading similar work across the country?

MM: Keep with it!  It is tough, and the wins might feel small, but look carefully enough and you will see those little wins adding up to much bigger successes. Every tough step through the mud is a step that gets us closer to closing the equity gap.

Getting the Most Out of Coaching

Kelsey McLachlan is the Instructional Leadership Coach for Leading Educators’ New Orleans program.  Kelsey began her career as teacher in Chicago Public Schools where she taught for six years.  She also led teacher leadership development at Teach for America Greater New Orleans and was the Founding Assistant Principal at KIPP Leadership Primary.  Kelsey spoke with us about her direct work with teacher leaders to advance educational equity through rigorous classroom instruction.

LE: Tell us about your role. What does an instructional leadership coach do at Leading Educators?

KM:  To my thinking, excellent coaching is about transforming leaders so that they not only increase student achievement, but also positively affect all of those around them. My aim is to help the leaders I coach be as successful as possible at grasping opportunities to improve and reaching goals through collaboration.  I have the privilege of partnering with teams of teacher and school leaders to ensure that they are making steady progress towards student and teacher goals rooted in college and career readiness standards. Reaching these goals is the way to live and achieve our mission of equitable schools for all students, and it's my job to use all of the components of our program to do that: one-on-one coaching, group coaching, and professional learning sessions.   

LE: What are common challenges your coachees face when stepping into instructional leadership?

KM: Accountability is often a challenge for new leaders. I support people to become stronger at holding each other accountable through explicit coaching around this skill in addition to modeling it in my own interactions with them. Holding people accountable to their student and personal growth goals and being honest, or “showing them the mirror”, is a strong way to build trust. In the course of our work together, we agree on goals that impact students' lives, and I want to hold them to those goals in a supportive way. I try to become invested in their goals as if they are mine and check in on them regularly.

Motivating others to action, and teaching the skills to motivate is vital in leadership coaching. I often compare coaching both teachers and leaders to coaching Olympic athletes: you can’t run the 100 meter dash for them, you can’t practice the race for them. The teacher or leader has to drive their own performance through reflection and practice. The coach is there to share strategies and feedback to improve their performance, for example, by suggesting that they shorten their stride or pick up their pace.

LE: What have you tried to help coachees land on a clear path forward?

KM: The most important first step to moving the needle is building trust with people.  I try to deeply listen to words, of course, but also body language and gestures, so that I can hear and understand everything the person means. So that means, I need to allow time for the person to speak and then ask questions to probe their thinking more deeply. Driving people forward in reaching goals is a baseline for a coach.  However, I think one of my most important realizations from many years of coaching is this: what sets a great coach apart from a mediocre one is the ability to see the leader’s “best self” and to help them access that “self”. Getting them there might be hard work, but a strong foundation of personal growth and discovery will make success more likely.

LE: You’ve mentioned a passion for educational equity.  How does that lens influence your approach to coaching?

KM: Elena Aguilar wrote in Education Week, “Coaching with an equity lens means that we pay attention to the social and historic forces which create and maintain systems in which children are treated differently based on who they are.”  In coaching, it's imperative to keep in mind my own identity and the bias that I bring to the table.  I have to do the work of unpacking my perspective, while also listening to and lifting up biases that may live within the work that teacher leaders do.  Also, building deep content knowledge with the teacher leaders I coach allows for a focus on instruction that is rigorous for all students.

LE: I know you love New Orleans! What keeps you so invested in serving New Orleans schools?

KM: New Orleans is, in my opinion, the best city on the planet. It has so many amazing bright spots that you can only experience in the Crescent City, and I believe the people who live here are its greatest asset. Still, our city has experienced generations of inequity and we individually and collectively have so much to do to change that. It's this injustice that keeps me here to prove what’s possible to achieve with our amazing students.

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Take Action to Protect Dreamers

Like many of our peers in education (Chiefs for Change, Houston ISD, Boston Public Schools, Oklahoma City Public Schools), at least five former U.S. Secretaries of Education, and millions of Americans, we were stunned by the Trump administration's decision this week to eliminate protections for 800,000 DREAMers.  As a nationally-focused organization that works in a range of urban contexts to advance socially just teaching, we know many of the teachers and students who bring their talents and stories to the learning communities we serve are DREAMers: undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children by parents who wanted their families to join in the promises of the American Dream.  Through our direct support to school systems and teacher leaders, we work to cultivate equitable classroom environments where each student and teacher’s experiences are affirmed and celebrated so that, the moment they step foot in a classroom, their minds are  focused on working to harness their limitless potential.  Denying DREAMers the protections afforded through DACA creates inhumane chaos and directly challenges their opportunity to thrive. This decision affects us all and requires our persistent attention.

Much of the conversation since last Tuesday has focused on the qualities and contributions of DREAMers: 700,000 DACA recipients are in the workforce and pay taxes, 45 percent of DACA recipients are currently in school, 100 percent of DACA recipients have not committed a felony or other serious crime.  Yes, these facts negate baseless economic and security justifications for ending DACA, but the reality is that there’s an even more important rationale for keeping and expanding the protections of DACA: DREAMers are humans. They are our friends, our neighbors, our students, and our colleagues.   They live and work alongside us every day, adding beauty and richness to the social fabric of the only country they have ever known. Listen to some of their stories.  They have upheld their promises to meet the requirements set forth by DACA, so it is our responsibility to ensure that our nation upholds its promise to them by demanding a permanent legislative solution.  

So, as educators who work with and alongside DREAMers, what can we do?

  • Build knowledge: Several education organizations including Educators for Excellence, the American Federation of Teachers, Stand for Children, Teach For America, and the Education Trust are hosting a tele-town hall on Tuesday, September 12 to share stories, take your questions, and provide information about opportunities to support undocumented students in your classroom and beyond.  You can register here.

  • Help students and parents understand their rights: Many districts have policies in place to prevent immigration officers from entering a campus without special authorization.  Research your school or district’s policy and provide accessible materials such as these from Remezlca.  

  • Support DREAMers in renewing DACA by October 5: Individuals whose DACA expires between September and October have until October 5 to renew for 2-years.  Once a person’s DACA has expired, they will not be able to re-apply.  United We Dream provides more information here.

  • Amplify DREAMer voices:  Brave individuals like Leslie Arreanza and Jose Gonzalez are using their personal stories to challenge misconceptions and build momentum for Congressional action.  Seek out opportunities to learn from their first-hand experiences as you have conversations with those around you.

  • Contact your Congressional Representatives: Direct appeals from constituents have been a powerful force in driving congressional action this year.  Platforms such as this tool from FWD.us make it easier than ever to make your voice heard.  It takes less than 1 minute to sign the petition AND get on the phone with your representative’s office.

We commit to taking action, and we value your partnership and accountability in doing our best for our undocumented students and peers.  Will you join us?

Bonus: Watch this powerful statement from Superintendent Ricardo Carranza of Houston Independent School District.

Owning the Work of Dismantling Racism

Dear Friends of Leading Educators:

Like you, I’ve been taking some time to process the heinous acts of white supremacist terrorism in Charlottesville earlier this month. While news cycles plow forward, my thoughts are still with the people of that city and with everyone feeling the ongoing pain inflicted by persistent systems and acts of white supremacy. For many of you reading this, the events in Charlottesville were not at all surprising; for many others, they served as a wake-up call to delve more deeply into understanding white supremacy at the personal and systemic levels. No matter where each of us may be on our journeys toward understanding and ultimately disrupting the effects of systemic racism, it is important for us to individually and collectively continue to engage.  

It is with that in mind that I wrote to the Leading Educators’ staff shortly after the tragic events in Charlottesville and shared reflections from some of our teammates, each of us calling on each other to recognize the privilege and responsibility we all have to say and do something. We shared our thoughts on how the unabashed parade of hatred and bigotry we saw in Charlottesville is but a symptom of larger systemic oppression that has targeted people of color since this country’s founding. Following the example of counter-protesters who took action in the face of hate (including a great many educators), we are steadfast in our belief that we must be even more committed to owning our personal responsibility to dismantle white supremacy in our institutions - be they nonprofits like Leading Educators or the school districts from which our students and families rightfully expect excellent, bias-free education.

As CEO, I am thinking about how we as an organization move beyond simply talking about systemic racism internally and in our work with teachers, schools, and districts. First, we know we don’t have all the answers, so we are looking to our friends and colleagues for resources and reflections to spark the necessary and difficult conversations.  Here are a few from TNTP, Education First, and Facing History and Ourselves that we have found valuable. Thank you to you all.

Next, we are focusing our efforts on tangibly addressing our own institution’s systemic racism using readings like this. Informed by a cross-functional, diverse Equity Working Group, we are creating better systems to foster collaborative and inclusive approaches to our work. To ensure that we have the knowledge and skills needed to align all of our work to diversity, equity, and inclusion principles, we are engaging in cycles of professional learning about issues of equity in small groups and developing affinity groups. To be sure, we, like so many others in our sector have a long way to go as illustrated in this report from the New Schools Venture Fund and Promise 54.  

Our curriculum features teaching for social justice as a core component, and we will continue to collaborate with our partners around learning systems that maintain high expectations through a rigorous curriculum. All children can and deserve to grow without the shadow of bias limiting their opportunity to experience the joy of learning and to reach their fullest potential.

Additionally, we continue through partnership with experienced, diverse educators to adapt our programming to ensure that our work results in students learning in safe, equitable schools alongside teachers who acknowledge and control for their biases. This work by individual educators is hard but powerful, and it requires teachers to commit to walking a long, shared journey over time. In this video from our summer institute, several teachers speak to the emotional impact of this processing and the implications they see for their instructional practice moving forward. We are hopeful about the conditions we can collectively build for students to discover and harness their full potential. In order to do so, however, we must push for educators to see the necessity of their own personal growth - coupled with explicit conversations that bring about further awareness of identity and racial equity.

We know there is even more we can do, and we are inspired to take action with you.  Please take the time to share what you, your schools, and/or your organizations are doing to seek out opportunities to learn together.

With care and solidarity,

Jonas Chartock

CEO, Leading Educators

Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress/AP

Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress/AP

Q&A with Instructional Specialist Michelle Morrow

Michelle Morrow is the Instructional Specialist at North Godwin Elementary School in Grand Rapids, MI and part of the 2017 Leading Educators Grand Rapids cohort.  She attended the Leading Educators Institute (LEI) with her team in June.  Michelle spoke with us about her biggest takeaways from the week of learning and her vision for school transformation this year.

LE: What are the most urgent student needs in your school building?

MM:  Amid the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) several years ago, we have experienced growing pains at North Godwin around aligning instructional approaches to the shifts.  Given that we work with an at-risk population, the CCSS required us to significantly shift our instructional strategies in order to ensure that our students were mastering content and on track for college and career readiness.  This came with difficult transitions that we are still trying to work our way through today, particularly meeting new ideas and shifts in our teaching approaches with openness and a desire to learn.  At a time when test scores can seem heavily weighted, we are finding it difficult to frame the opportunities that come from more rigorous teaching and learning for teachers and students.  While this is a challenge, we have gradually seen our staff embrace personal development and dip their toes into the water.  Our students are collaborating more than they ever have, and they are engaging in deep, meaningful dialogue with each other, which is incredibly exciting!

LE: What do opportunities do you see to build on these successes?

MM: Students in our school need to be exposed to a curriculum and teaching practices that are directly aligned to the standards.  I feel that the focused content learning at LEI opened my team's eyes to how to make rigorous content accessible to our students.  We have learned how to create a more equitable environment for our students.

LE: Looking specifically at teacher practice, how has your thinking or approach to professional learning for teachers shifted as a result of LEI?

MM: There is so much I am excited about!  In particular, I think about finally using data to drive meaningful instructional shifts rather than getting stuck in our old pattern of looking at data, making adjustments, and never returning back to a connected plan to see if those changes actually had an impact on students.  I am excited about the laser focus of the Cycle of Professional Learning (CPL) structure and the way in which it connects professional learning aims.  Through the Leading Educator experience so far, I have learned that we have missed a large component of professional learning in the past that is needed to truly shift our practice and our thinking as adult learners.  Seeing ourselves as learners in this process is key in creating significant impact for our students.  

LE: How can we best provide support for the student and teacher goals your team is prioritizing? What do you hope to gain from being in the Leading Educators program?

MM: Leading Educators has already reignited passion for improving instructional practices among my team of teachers that attended LEI!  The learning experience was intense, but we are excited to bring the CPL process to our entire staff and use it as a tool for school transformation.  My team chose to seek out Leading Educators in the hopes of sparking new thinking and deepening our understanding of current education trends. We all have a passion for the education field and in particular urban education.  Through Leading Educators we are looking for our thinking and approaches to be challenged so we can continue to grow and impact the students we teach.

LE: What would you like others to know about your experience at LEI?

MM: LEI was one of the most intense and rewarding professional opportunities in my career thus far.  This work is not for the faint of heart!  Through the LEI experience I have realized what an incredibly challenging and difficult line of work we are in, and it has inspired me to continue to dig in and challenge myself both in content knowledge and instructional practice.

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Reigniting My Practice at the 2017 Leading Educators Institute

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Kelly Compher is a teacher leader at North Godwin Elementary School in Grand Rapids, MI and a member of the 2017 Leading Educators Grand Rapids cohort. 

This past June, I had an incredible learning experience at the third annual Leading Educators Institute (LEI) with my team from North Godwin Elementary School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. One of the most exciting experiences over the course of the five days of learning was the opportunity to reflect on how we use data to set goals for our students at North Godwin. For context, our school has been actively engaged in the process of looking at student data as the basis for setting student learning goals and developing an ambitious action plan to meet those goals.  We have a strong desire to respond to the trends we see in the data, and we have much to celebrate about our current practices. However, we have consistently faced gaps in our ability to revisit previous goals to measure progress against teacher actions in our action plan. We tend to move on to the next problem without fully resolving the current one. As a result, we continue to miss opportunities to get better as teachers.

By utilizing the Cycles of Professional Learning (CPL) approach we explored at LEI, we will be going into this next school year with a more structured, embedded process for examining our goals and identifying adjustments.  The key shift under this model will be utilizing our data to inform what we, as teachers, need to learn to achieve our goals. We have always been so focused on what students need to know to achieve their goals, that we forget to consider the instructional supports that teachers need to move their students forward.  For all of our students to be successful, we have to be purposeful about how we are working together as adults to learn and build skills.

As I look ahead, I’m excited to take all the learning we did around literacy at LEI and apply it to the CPL learning I’m designing with my colleagues. The English and language arts sessions that we attended that focused on text complexity and text dependent questions could be the missing link as to why our changes in teaching to the Common Core State Standards have not yet been as successful as we had intended.

In order for us to take advantage of this new learning fully, we will all have to show vulnerability and approach our practice with a growth mindset. Showing vulnerability is often a challenge among adult learners because it can spark uncomfortable emotions. As a teacher leader, it is my responsibility to help my colleagues work through personal barriers and misconceptions to create a safe space for learning. The Leading Educators Institute reignited my passion for teaching and inspired me to be a part of greater change. I hope to reignite and inspire my colleagues to transform their teaching as well, so that we can provide an excellent education for all of our students.