By Susan Riddell
Study after study has found that effective teachers and principals are key to improving student learning and performance.
Putting that research to action, however, is not always easy. That’s where
Pivotal Leadership: Comprehensive Leadership Support for High Quality Teaching and Learning can help. The three-year, data-driven initiative focuses on school culture and guiding principals and teachers toward high-quality leadership practices.
“We see this opportunity as an ongoing, job-embedded process, not just a ‘drive-by’ professional development,” said Melissa Biggerstaff, leadership division director for the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative (GRREC).
Four elementary schools and one middle school in the GRREC region are participating in the first year of the program. They include Heartland (Hardin County), T.C. Cherry (Bowling Green), Hodgenville (LaRue County) and South Todd (Todd County) elementary schools and Metcalfe County Middle School.
Principals and teacher leaders from the five schools analyzed cause and effect data during a three-day data retreat last summer.
“We immediately got feedback that schools have never approached their data this deeply before, and new insights began to surface,” Biggerstaff said.
Culture assessment, professional learning communities (PLCs), formative assessments and executive coaching are the four remaining components being addressed in the first year of the program. Over the next two years, cultivating culture will replace culture assessments, and instructional rounds will be added as a data collection piece.
The (culture) assessments consist of classroom observations, interviews with all faculty, staff, some students and parents, and an anonymous survey also completed by faculty and staff.
“This is the most comprehensive support for leadership that I have seen,” said George Wilson, GRREC’s Executive Director. “The components that I have been a part of are yielding tremendous results.”
Data is collected and analyzed in three areas: professional collaboration; collegiality; and self-efficacy and determination, Biggerstaff said.
“We present the findings to the entire faculty and staff, and then we work together to develop a plan for improving or continuing to cultivate a positive culture,” she said. “We believe that every school has a culture, and every culture can be improved.”
Gayla Routt is participating in Pivotal Leadership as a teacher at Heartland Elementary School (Hardin County). She said she has benefitted from the program because it teaches a specific process to work through regarding each type of data.
“We use this process to set goals for our instruction and for our students,” Routt said. “For example, after desegregating our mathematics MAP score data, we have set a goal of improvement by 10 percent each year for the next three years. This has caused our school to take a critical look at potential mathematics programs and strategies. It has also unified us in our instruction.”
T.C. Cherry Elementary School (Bowling Green Independent) is also realizing benefits. Second-grade teacher Jenny Huskey said the data retreat was “eye opening” and the culture assessment reaffirmed that her school is on the right track.
“We have lots of pockets of good but we need to fill those gaps to make it great,” Huskey said. “The staff felt the building is safe and orderly, and there was a general consensus that our main goal is student success.”
Huskey said a few changes were made to a culture committee to create more flexibility by bringing in new people to spark new ideas as the school looks to make a strong culture even stronger.
Writing is an area of focus for T.C. Cherry, and the Pivotal Leadership team soon will be trained on ways to better teach it in all grade levels. “We feel this will give us the edge we’re looking for,” Huskey said.
The work with pivotal leadership has made both Huskey and Routt more reflective in their teaching practices. They both regularly examine what is working well in their classrooms and what needs improvement. It also has promoted leadership abilities.
“There are those who are born leaders and those who strive to work on leadership skills,” Huskey said. “T.C. Cherry is composed of both types of leaders. It is our goal for the staff to promote leadership from within their PLCs and. in turn, take those leadership abilities into the classrooms.”
Routt said she is using data to make common assessments with her grade level team.
“As a result, instruction has become more focused on the needs of the students,” Routt said. “Also, after giving the common assessment, we are better able to troubleshoot aspects of our instruction that may have been weak and share each other’s successes.”
Biggerstaff said these conversations and teamwork guarantee improvement, and she already has seen more positive changes in the first year of work than she expected. However, she knew flexibility would be necessary.
“The work looks and is implemented differently in every school,” she said. “We talk on an ongoing basis, I attend each school’s data team meetings and we let the data drive the work. If we find that there are needs other than those initially outlined in Pivotal Leadership, we address those needs. We want this to be personalized for each school.”
Pivotal Leadership is all about building capacity, Biggerstaff said, for both principals, teacher leaders and eventually every teacher within the school.
“Everything we do is about improving the practice of teachers and principals, not buying a program or looking for that ‘silver bullet’ to improvement,” Biggerstaff said. “This work is continuous and job-embedded. Other than the data retreat, which occurs in the summer, the teachers and principals are in their buildings, and we take the work to them.
“We utilize professional learning communities, planning times, and in some cases early release Fridays to get the work done,” she added. “We are willing to do whatever it takes to support their work.”
Melissa Biggerstaff, firstname.lastname@example.org, (270) 563-2113
Jenny Huskey, email@example.com, (270) 746-2230
Gayla Routt, firstname.lastname@example.org, (270) 769-8930