Guest author Craig J. Wisniewski is the Dean of Instruction at YES Prep Public Schools in Kingwood, Texas. Throughout his career in education, he has served as a teacher, instructional coach, adminstrator, and more. His experiences transitioning from the classroom to coaching to administration provide a unique insight into some of the challenges facing educators who are seeking to grow and improve, and we are excited to share his post!

“Leadership is the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work.”
-Seth Godin, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us

One of the dominating educational conversations over the past ten years has focused on Carol Dweck’s work around developing a growth mindset. Districts, schools, and classroom teachers have sought ways to develop students’ growth mindsets and instill in students the benefits of risk-taking and seeing mistakes as a natural part of the learning process. Ironically, district and school leaders have not taken the opportunity to internalize this type of learning to grow as leaders in developing the educators they lead.

Over ten years ago, I transitioned out of the classroom into an instructional coaching role to have an impact on a larger number of students than the hundred or so students I taught each year. Before transitioning out of the classroom, I was fortunate to have collaborated with the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning (KU-CRL) to successfully utilize strategies and routines via the Strategic Instruction Model (SIM) to increase student achievement. Through this collaboration, I became knowledgeable about Jim Knight’s work on utilizing a partnership approach to improving instruction. In my role as an instructional coach, I utilized the Partnership Principles to develop relationships and to ensure teachers viewed themselves as partners in the work.

I eventually started to increase my conversational skill set via Knight’s conversational beliefs and habits. In no way, shape, or form am I an expert, professionally or personally, in developing relationships and having effective conversations, but teacher feedback has consistently acknowledged how my approach greatly differed from those of their evaluators. In most cases, their evaluators were viewed as people who ascribe to a checklist mentality when observing without acknowledging the teacher’s skill set or the makeup of the classroom.

A year ago, I decided to transition out of an instructional coaching role and into an administrative role where I would be required to evaluate teachers. During one interview, I was asked to participate in a mock evaluation session after an observation. I remember as if it was yesterday – after ten minutes of collaborating with a teacher, time was called and the hiring committee transitioned into providing me with glows and grows. Positive feedback focused on areas such as my use of questioning techniques, my use of data, presenting a strategy for the teacher to use, etc. However, the hiring committee unanimously agreed that if I was to be hired, I would need to be more assertive in directing a teacher what he or she needed to improve on and how. I almost became deflated at that point – it became evident that once again I would find myself in a district which ascribed to that top-down, checklist mindset which adversely affected teachers and student achievement. In staying true to myself, I decided to briefly explain how I was a student of Knight’s work and ascribed to the Partnership Principles to develop relationships with the goal of increasing student achievement. I thanked them for their time and left knowing that I would not receive a follow up call. Surprisingly, within a week, I was offered the position which I gladly accepted.

I had lots of concerns and questions for myself and the teachers who I would be expected to evaluate. How would teachers react when I try to partner with them in the decision-making process to increase student achievement? Would they be open to change? During our first all staff professional development session, I had an opportunity to meet with the teachers I would be evaluating as a group. Almost immediately there seemed to be a sense of relief in the way I described how I planned to lead them and some actually thanked me before leaving. At that point, I wasn’t sure why, but it became clear over the next few weeks and months. 

I was gently reminded that after all observations (informal or formal) administrators were expected to write action steps to describe areas where teachers needed to improve. I kept my promise and collaborated with teachers in reflecting on their lessons and creating shared action steps. In many instances, I utilized video observations as a learning tool. As I developed partnerships with my teachers in supporting their growth and increasing student achievement, it became apparent that I wasn’t aligned with the traditional model and expectations of the position.

When the school year ended a few weeks ago, teachers participated in end of year meetings to discuss their final evaluations, a district survey, and a reflection survey I developed in order to receive feedback. In both the meeting and surveys, teachers praised my type of leadership and several strongly suggested to the school director that other evaluators should utilize my approach. Additionally, all my teachers reported feeling supported as partners in the work this year as opposed to what they described as a previous system in which “an administrator would usually just come in “x” number of times a year to check boxes”. More importantly, as a result of our partnership, their students’ achievement grew as a result of their own growth as teachers.

I have been in education for almost twenty years now in five different states, and the one constant in each of those experiences was how administrators operated – using the evaluation system as a checklist to hold teachers accountable. As Seth Godin writes in Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, “Leadership is the art of giving people a platform for spreading ideas that work.” If we are all committed to increasing student achievement, then as leaders we need to empower our teachers via a partnership approach in which their skill set and knowledge about their students is valued, they have a choice in the instructional decisions to best support student achievement, and we provide an opportunity for teachers to be reflective on the effects of their instructional decisions.

It is my hope that my reflection serves as a testament how administrators can be instructional coaches/leaders without ascribing to the traditional top-down approach. Doing so will undoubtedly retain teachers, increase student achievement, and move the needle on education in our country.