Dr. Christina Podraza, assistant principal and former instructional coach in Illinois, explains the benefits of innovation on new teaching practices and how to hit the ground running with your coaches and teacher leaders.
ver the past decade, innovation has become one of the more popular buzzwords in education. Thought by many as a path to make students successful or "future ready," innovative teaching practices are highly sought after by leadership at all levels. The problem is, when many educators hear the word "innovation," images of technological grandeur and unimaginable teaching strategies are often conjured up, instead of something that can be as simple as a small shift in practice.
George Couros, author of The Innovator's Mindset, defines innovation as "something that is new and better." I love this definition because it recognizes that innovation isn't changing things just for the sake of change. If something is to be innovative, it needs to be not only new but better for students. In order for innovation to thrive in our schools we have to build school environments that foster idea generation, collaboration, reflection, and risk-taking without fear of repudiation if something doesn't go as planned.
So where does the role of a coach come in? To strategically enhance these key elements.
Laying the Foundation: Assessing Needs and Trends
It starts with foundational best practices for anyone in a school: build relationships, be present, and get to know those you serve. In this way a coach finds out the needs, interests, and strengths of both students and staff. Not only does this lay the foundation of a great relationship built on trust, it also gives the coach an idea of current practice around the building. If we want "new and better" practices to flourish then we have to first be experts in the great work that is currently happening with students and build from there.
One of the things that I did as a learning support coach was meet with every teacher both at the beginning of each school year and halfway through. We would discuss what they loved most about teaching, areas they were interested in, ideas they were working on, puzzles they just couldn't figure out, what they enjoyed most outside of school, as well as areas they might want to work with me on.
In addition to meeting with them in person, I'd send out a Survey and a Needs Assessment to get to know the staff a bit better. Over the years, these tools have been modified to meet our school's improvement plan, previous work we had done, conversations, and coaching cycles I was regularly involved in.
After my meetings, I compiled all of the information I gathered into one large document and looked for trends. From this information, I was able to personalize my coaching and create strategic groupings and partnerships based on the needs or interests of teachers, plus send them articles or videos as resources. As a result, innovative practices spread more quickly, teachers began to collaborate, and relationships built on trust flourished.
Being Vulnerable Through Modeling
An integral, and often scary, part of innovation is the possibility of failure that leads to risk-taking. In order to encourage others to take risks, we need to first model it ourselves. One way to do this is by being vulnerable and to share both your success and setbacks of a new strategy or idea you're trying out.
In my fourth year of coaching, I found a lot of teachers asking me about the difference between compliance and engagement: "What does it look like in practice?" or "How do we know if students are truly engaged or just complying?" From these conversations the "Student Engagement Inquiry Group" was born. The purpose of this group was to define student engagement versus compliance and then explore teaching practices that would enhance student engagement during lessons. Knowing that a large part of engagement is offering choice, during the first few meetings staff members explored a hyperdoc—a master document with links to various resources.
After creating a deeper understanding of student engagement, as well as teaching practices needed to support it, we (the student engagement inquiry group) created an observation template with student engagement "look-fors" when in a classroom.
Knowing that it's difficult to be judged in front of one's peers, I offered to teach and record lesson and then have the group evaluate me using our template. Afterward, we used our next meeting to evaluate how engaged the students were. This led to some great discussions and increased the learning process because teachers could focus on what the students were doing. Ultimately, the video process led our group to eventually observe and provide feedback to one another—which supported a shift in an innovative process throughout the building.
Going Further: Building Teacher Leaders
One of the greatest discoveries in my first year as a coach was that teachers who loved the work we were doing together would go back to their team and share. This would cause a ripple effect and the innovation would spread!
Coaches looking to spread innovative practices need to be adept at building up teacher leaders in their schools. Educators love learning from their peers because they're literally "in the trenches" doing the work daily with the multitude of outside factors that might affect how successful or unsuccessful an idea might be.
There are a variety of ways to build leaders of innovation in schools. Besides selecting leaders at each grade level to work with, another great way to build leadership in innovation is to ask a staff member to co-present with you at a staff meeting or professional learning day on an idea you have worked on together in their classroom. This highlights great instruction but also takes away some of the pressure a staff member feel when they have to present by themselves.
Another way to build up teacher leaders is to offer an "Edcamp"-style professional learning day where teachers can learn from their peers. Teachers can present on their own or with a peer or group. The other teachers who are not presenting get to select sessions that they would like to attend. Oftentimes this results to more learning beyond the day because teachers will continue to reach out to that staff member after the event. Check out #hawthorneignites on Twitter for some examples of how this has been successful in one of the buildings I am currently an administrator at.
Making Innovation Visible
I read a recent blog post by AJ Juliani where he talked about the importance of highlighting the instruction we want to see in our schools. As a coach, I created a biweekly newsletter that I send out to staff; in this example, I organized the newsletter into different categories, all related to the practices we wanted to see in our classrooms. Additionally, I'd provide examples of the work that I was doing with staff to spark interest in new ideas as well as show cohesion in our work. Even if someone only briefly glanced at the newsletter they could see the focus of the work being done for the year.
Social media is another great way to spread innovative practices. Tweeting, or posting to Instagram, videos and pictures of instructional practices that you see in classrooms is a simple way to make practice visible. A fantastic way to enhance this is by tagging other teachers who you think might be interested in the post.
Innovation for the sake of doing something new is meaningless and leads to frustration by others. However, once we get to know the strengths of those we serve and connect new ideas to the needs of the building, we can truly create something new and better benefits all parties!
About our Guest Blogger
Dr. Christina Podraza is an assistant principal and former instructional coach from the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. Deeply passionate about creating meaningful learning experiences that empower students, she works daily to build a positive school culture focused on growing the strengths of those around her.
Stay connected with Dr. Christina by checking out her blog!