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Using a variety of research about learning and, more specifically, adult learning, Elevated Achievement Group developed provided a set of strategic learning practices that form the foundation of the clear and consistent actions the principal must take to support their teachers’ ownership of their learning to ensure successful implementation of the initiative.

These strategic learning practices translate into the actions of instructional leadership and it is the role of the principal to model the thinking behind the ownership and explicitly address the skills of ownership. This takes planning.

But, how does a principal do this? What do the actions of instructional leadership look like in practice? What does it sound like when a principal is being strategic in the actions they use to support their staff in the implementation of an initiative?

What follows is our conversation with a principal about his decision-making during the implementation of a hybrid learning model.

WHERE: A suburban elementary school in a diverse community

WHAT: The initiative is the implementation of a hybrid learning model that combines the effectiveness and socialization opportunities of direct teacher instruction in the classroom and the robust active learning opportunities offered through technology. The schedule for students will include working two days on campus, with alternate days working at home. Fridays will be used for intervention and reteaching support onsite, as needed.

WHO: Principal Lang, a principal for five years, three at his current location. He has already led initiatives in the implementation of an English language arts standards-based scope and sequence and a new mathematics curriculum and textbook. He also led a schoolwide initiative on developing a culture of student ownership.

HOW: Principal Lang utilized the actions of instructional leadership that take into account the strategic learning practices in curriculum, instruction, assessment, and climate.

The Actions of Instructional Leadership in Curriculum

When speaking with Principal Lang about his new initiative, he explained that he knew that when it came to the curriculum of his initiative his task was to determine and lead these actions:

  • Clarify the goals of the initiative.
  • Integrate the goals of the initiative with other expectations.
  • Decide the resources needed to implement the initiative.
  • Share this information with the staff.

He began the process by answering these questions.

What are the goals of the initiative?

PRINCIPAL LANG:

“We are implementing a hybrid learning model. This is allowing us to combine the effectiveness and socialization opportunities of the classroom with robust active learning that can be offered through technology. With a hybrid learning schedule that has fewer students in the classroom at a given time, our goal is to utilize both the classroom time and the technology time to increase interactions between students and teachers, between students and students, between students and the skills and content they are learning, and between students and outside resources.”

Once that goal had been determined, Principal Lang then had to determine the following:

What is the purpose of the initiative?

PRINCIPAL LANG:

“Our ultimate goal is to increase student engagement and learning. Our teachers work hard. But the reality of a traditional classroom is that it can be difficult to maintain a level of high engagement, to find a pace that meets student’s varying needs, and to offer the time for students to grapple with constructing meaning. And some of our teachers have fallen into the trap of ‘getting through the lesson’ rather than ‘getting through to learning.’”

“Our student engagement has declined. Our academic data is showing a stagnation as well. Plus, we know we live in a digital age. Our students are comfortable with technology and crave the opportunity to work with it more. These factors, combined with health precautions, led us to a hybrid learning approach.”

What, specifically, will the teacher be expected to implement?

What, specifically, are the success criteria for the initiative?

PRINCIPAL LANG:

“Before we rolled out the initiative, we worked on the logistics of schedules. This took a great deal of time, but we pulled together a really smart team to tackle it. Our students are not all the same and we knew we could not have a one-size-fits-all solution. We approached it as an opportunity to enhance active learning possibilities using technology, rather than dividing up the schedule by types of delivery.”

“We didn’t want to define the model too specifically, such as for every lesson the students needed two hours of in-class, with one hour of virtual learning, and then one hour of completing the assignment on the computer. This wouldn’t focus on the skills being learned. And opening this up gave us flexibility, so we weren’t setting ourselves, or our students, up for failure had we tried to fit a square into a circle. Once the team had a schedule that took into consideration the students and the courses, I knew we had to bring this to the teachers and let them know what this meant to them—what was our expectation of them.”

“We let the teachers know that the goals we had in place before had not changed. We are a school focused on developing student ownership. That work would continue. But now as we moved into a hybrid learning approach, we needed them to rethink planning. They would need to develop plans that took into consideration how they would utilize face-to-face instruction with synchronous and asynchronous instruction. We needed them to develop plans that had students actively engaged in the learning process, not just passively absorbing content.”

“This meant that teachers needed to make decisions, and be able to justify these decisions, as to how they would use a hybrid learning environment to support their students to actively construct meaning and demonstrate understanding. We have looked at lesson plans in the past through the lens of the teacher. We also tended to look at them through a class or a learning session. We now are developing plans that are through the lens of our students, as well as plans that are chunked or built into units. We needed to identify what would be the final demonstration of learning for each unit, what would be the role of the learner throughout the unit, and how we would maximize the opportunities a hybrid learning environment offers to support students in engagement and achievement.”

But Principal Lang knew that if he wanted real buy-in from his teachers, they would have to see the benefits to this work. He then had to determine:

How will the success of the initiative benefit the students?

How will the success of the initiative benefit the teachers?

PRINCIPAL LANG:

“My teachers know their content well. This initiative had to leverage and honor that strength. But it was going to take work and it would force some folks to get out of their comfort zone. I knew they had to see value in this approach. It couldn’t feel like something that was being ‘done to them.’”

“We began by talking about what would be our ideal classroom. Not surprisingly, our teachers wanted fewer students and more time with the students. We then had them share why they would want this. What would be the benefit to the students and what would be the benefit to them? They had a lot of responses, but we were able to categorize them into four buckets. They felt this would allow them to know their students better, they could differentiate more easily, they could allow the students to take a more active role, and they could go deeper with the learning.”

“We then examined some exemplar models of hybrid learning that had students engaged in meaningful and relevant learning. That fostered conceptual understanding and deep thinking. And that leveraged collaboration and communication. We discussed how these models would benefit our students and would benefit teachers regarding their ideal classrooms.”

“Our final step was to then decide what would we want our school to look and sound like by the end of the year. We created our exemplar of highly engaged students that worked together to construct meaning and that leveraged the power of technology in a hybrid environment.”

To ensure that his teachers did not feel overwhelmed, Principal Lang had to determine:

How does the initiative support the other work of the school?

PRINCIPAL LANG:

“As I mentioned earlier, we shared with the teachers that our work on developing student ownership would continue. But my saying it was not enough. I had to make certain my teachers saw how this work would only enhance what they have been doing. As we began to break down the details of the hybrid learning initiative, we aligned it to the practices we had in place.”

“We have worked toward the goal of each and every student being able to articulate what they are learning and why they are learning it, how they will learn it, how they will know they are learning and what they will do if they struggle, and what their role is in a classroom of learners. These are questions you can ask any student, at any time, on our campus and you will get a fairly strong answer. We are working to strengthen those answers. Our next level on student ownership has been for students to articulate why knowing the answers to these questions is important to their learning. This work will not only continue but will be imperative to the success of this initiative. As we hand over more ownership of learning to our students in this hybrid environment, we must support them in understanding the value and necessity of knowing the learning goals and process so they can self-direct as needed.”

To ensure that his teachers had sufficient resources and materials to successfully implement the initiative, Principal Lang had to determine:

What resources will the teacher need to effectively implement the initiative?

PRINCIPAL LANG:

“Our teachers would need several resources to be successful in this initiative. They would need models of exemplar hybrid learning units, access to colleagues for collegial planning, and technology tools and applications designed to maximize engagement.

“We had to do distance learning while schools were shut down because of COVID-19. Our staff is comfortable with the online platform and how to assign and receive work from students. They know how to deliver synchronous instruction and how to develop and push out asynchronous lessons.”

“But during that time, we were mostly trying to recreate a classroom-type lesson in a distance learning environment. This is different. Our goal in this initiative is to increase student engagement and learning. So, our teachers need to know how to plan differently—through the lens of unit outcomes and student engagement. They need training on the potential of this and how to plan for it. They need dedicated time to collaborate with their colleagues and develop these plans. And finally, they need to know what technology tools they had available to use.”

To ensure that his message was clearly articulated and understood, Principal Lang had to determine:

How will the information be shared in as many distinct ways as possible?

PRINCIPAL LANG:

“I learned a great deal when we communicated our initiative for the first time. No one got it. To put it in perspective, I remember teachers telling me that students seemed oblivious to their learning goals and plans.”

“‘But I told them!’ they would say. ‘Why are they saying they don’t know?’”

“I realized that I actually did the same thing. I even said to them, ‘But I told you! Why are you saying you didn’t know?’”

“How embarrassing. Well, by grappling with this issue, we learned that just saying something once does not mean everyone understood or even heard it. We learned that, just like with students, the teachers needed to articulate it, in their own words, and more than once. So, I now do the same thing. As I share information, I have the teachers first talk to each other to put it in their own words and then share it with all of us. This allows us to know whether or not everyone has the same message. And if not, we can clarify as needed.”

The Actions of Instructional Leadership in Instruction

After Principal Lang determined the curriculum decisions of this initiative, he then had to consider the instruction of the initiative. He knew his task was to determine and lead these actions:

  • Establish a plan for professional learning opportunities.
  • Clarify how the initiative will be supported and implemented.
  • Schedule professional learning opportunities directly related to the initiative.
  • Share this information with the staff.

He continued the process by answering these questions.

What supports will the teacher receive in order to achieve the goals of the initiative?

PRINCIPAL LANG:

“When I considered the outcome and the needs of the teachers, I knew our plan would require a range of supports. The team knew our teachers would need a deepened understanding of the potential of hybrid learning to increase student engagement and learning, the tools and time for effective planning and collaboration, training on the technology applications that would support our goals, and coaching by our experts.”

“We outlined each of these areas and developed a year-long professional learning plan. Our plan included training opportunities, instruction and technology coaching, dedicated time for planning and PLC time for data analysis and reflection.”

Once the variety of supports has been determined, Principal Lang then had to determine the following:

What is the expectation of the teacher for each provided support?

How will teachers ask for and receive additional support?

How will the teachers work together to implement the initiative?

How will the teachers have opportunities to contribute ideas to the implementation plan?

PRINCIPAL LANG:

“The teachers and staff and I backward mapped from our determined end goal and established milestones for our initiative. We then aligned each support with those milestones so each teacher could see how they would be supported for continued growth. Our expectations of the teachers were also aligned with the supports.”

“One thing that came up in our planning was the notion that teachers didn’t know how to ask for support—they didn’t want to take anyone’s time. So, we developed a growth rubric that took the components of our ideal school goal and went from non-existent to fully existent. We asked teachers to determine where they thought they were in each category. After each training, coaching, or PLC opportunity, teachers were asked to explain how the support could help them grow, what their next steps in the implementation were, and what additional support they still needed. They felt much more comfortable asking for help when the process of how to ask for support was so clear cut.”

But Principal Lang knew that he wanted to ensure focus on the initiative, so all of the supports must be related to the initiative. He wasn’t willing to pull his teachers off the task. So, he then had to determine:

What is the timeline and plan for the initiative?

When will the teachers receive support?

What are the milestone expectations for each learner?

PRINCIPAL LANG:

“The team worked with department chairs on our professional learning plan. Once we were ready to share it with the staff, we knew we had to be very thoughtful in our delivery or it could be overwhelming.”

“We began with the end in mind and reminded the teachers of where we wanted to get and how we had the entire year to get there. We also assured them that we would all monitor our progress along the way and adjust as needed. After that, we introduced the types of support that would be offered, from training, to coaching, to dedicated planning time, to PLCs for data analysis and reflection.

“We wanted them to see how it all connected and that it would be ongoing. As we looked at the plan in a calendar view, we overlaid the milestones and asked the teachers for feedback. Did they think there was enough support to meet each milestone or was there too much support in any area? We used their feedback to make some adjustments to the plan and once again reassured them that we would monitor and adjust along the way. Their success, and ultimately the student learning, was the goal.”

To ensure that his message was clearly articulated and understood, Principal Lang had to determine:

How will the information be shared in as many distinct ways as possible?

PRINCIPAL LANG:

“I never began a meeting or conversation with a teacher without quickly reviewing the basics of the initiative. I used every opportunity to remind everyone of what we agreed we were implementing and why. This allowed teachers to hear it again and again and in a variety of situations. Because teachers are getting support in a variety of ways—initial professional development, working in small groups, or one-to-one—this allowed me, the admin team, or the instructional coaches to repeat the context for the initiative, the outcome of the initiative, or the expectations of the initiative, as many times as possible.”

The Actions of Instructional Leadership in Assessment

Principal Lang’s next focus in planning was to think about the assessment of the initiative. He explained that he knew his task was to determine and lead these actions:

  • Confirm the success criteria of the initiative.
  • Establish a method for monitoring the implementation of the initiative.
  • Establish a method for continued support of implementation.
  • Share this information with the staff.

He began the process by answering these questions.

What are the success criteria of the initiative?

PRINCIPAL LANG:

“When the staff began the initiative, we determined that our goal was to increase student engagement and learning through a hybrid learning approach. We knew we could measure student learning, but the engagement part could be difficult to quantify. That is why the team worked with all teachers to create our ideal school. We had to codify what engaged learning would look and sound like in our hybrid learning environment.”

“This served two purposes. It allowed us to have clearly defined success criteria and it allowed for greater buy-in. Our teachers helped define our goal. They have a say in where we want to get. Our rubric will be used to define and measure our success.”

“We also wanted to get our students’ input. We developed a student survey to capture their feedback. We developed a series of questions that looked at engagement, ownership, the impact of face-to-face and virtual learning, collaboration, and critical thinking. We surveyed the students at the beginning of the year and will repeat it every quarter to measure the impact of our work. This will allow us to compare our student data, our observations of teachers, teacher self-reflection, and student feedback together.”

Once success criteria had been determined, Principal Lang then had to determine the following:

How will the teachers know that they have implemented the initiative at a high level?

PRINCIPAL LANG:

“Once again, we are going to take advantage of our rubric. Having the teachers actively participate in its development ensured that we had a shared understanding of success. During PLCs and individual teacher conferences, we will use the rubric and other data sets we discussed, to talk about where teachers are in their progress.”

Principal Lang knew that the monitoring must allow for growth. He then determined:

How will the teachers receive feedback regarding the progress of the implementation of the initiative?

When will teachers receive feedback regarding the progress of the implementation of the initiative?

PRINCIPAL LANG:

“Feedback is crucial. We know the research behind its impact on learning. It is not only important to the learners, our teachers, but it is important to our administration team that will be monitoring our implementation of the initiative. We know that feedback is not about observing and telling the teacher about my observations. It is about observing, sharing an observation, and then asking thoughtful questions to allow the teacher to share their thinking. The more I can utilize the observation/feedback opportunities to better understand what decisions my teachers are making and why they are making them, the better equipped I am to provide them with the right supports for continued growth.”

“I am just one part of the feedback support. Teachers will also be supported by our instructional and technology coaches. Their role will be to attend PLC meetings to provide strategies and supports. Also, they will work with teachers as needed to plan, co-teach, deliver demonstration lessons, and conduct observations. These will provide additional means for teachers to receive quality feedback on their progress.”

But Principal Lang knew that he wanted to ensure that the support was focused on individual teacher growth and that the teachers felt active in the process. So, he then had to determine:

How will each teacher identify when they are succeeding and when they are struggling?

What supports will the teachers receive if they are struggling?

How will the teacher have a say in determining their needs?

PRINCIPAL LANG:

“During our individual meetings with teachers, we will utilize our rubric to allow teachers to explain where they are, where they have grown, what supports helped them grow, where they are struggling and what additional supports they feel they may need. This self-reflection will be coupled with our observations, coach feedback, and our students’ academic and survey data. At the onset, we listened to the teachers’ feedback on our plan. At each quarter, after we collect the student survey results and benchmark data, we meet together as a faculty. We review the data and our plan. We collectively decide if we need to make any changes to the plan or if we feel we are on track.”

“Having said all of that, I do have some teachers that I am working with on individual support plans. Some of these plans were initiated by the teachers that came to me and let me know they needed more support. Some were teachers I identified and developed a plan with.”

To ensure that his message was clearly articulated and understood, Principal Lang had to determine:

How will the information be shared in as many distinct ways as possible?

PRINCIPAL LANG:

“Because much of the feedback conversations were structured around me asking questions of the teachers and their decision-making, they were used to telling me their thinking and understanding. I never jumped into a conversation without first taking a few minutes to have them set the context. I would start the one-to-one conversations by asking them to put into their own words the purpose of the initiative, the expectations of the initiative, and the value to both themselves and the students. This lets me monitor their understanding and clarify broad misunderstandings, if there were any. This was important before we then discussed the details of the work. I found that without doing this, we would be going around and around about a detail when the real issue was a broad misunderstanding and that actually we were on the same page.”

The Actions of Instructional Leadership in Climate

Principal Lang knew his next focus had to be on the climate of the initiative. His task was to determine and lead these actions:

  • Identify the role of each stakeholder in the implementation of the initiative.
  • Foster cooperation among and between stakeholders.
  • Establish a plan for collaboration.
  • Share this information with the staff.

He began the process by answering these questions.

What is the role of the teacher in the implementation of the initiative?

What is the role of the principal in the implementation of the initiative?

What is the role of the coach in the implementation of the initiative?

PRINCIPAL LANG:

“I see our three roles very clearly. The teachers’ role is two-fold. Their primary role is to implement the initiative. They are on the front line. They are the ones receiving this new learning, adapting how they plan, learning about and implementing new technology applications, and developing stronger opportunities for our students to engage with content and each other.”

“Their second role is to support each other in their PLC and department meetings. This requires them to be open about their successes and challenges and to share and support each other. This secondary role comes pretty easily to my faculty. We worked hard during our initiative on developing student ownership to build a collaborative climate. Our work will pay off now.”

“My role is to monitor and support them. This means that I, and my administrative team, must understand, with clarity, where we are heading and where each individual is in their progress toward the outcome. Our instructional coaches are the bridge between us. Their role is to work with the teachers and me to identify areas of need and support them, and to identify areas of success and help us understand how to replicate them.”

Once the roles had been determined, Principal Lang then had to determine the following:

How will the teachers be supported and encouraged to take risks in the implementation of the initiative?

PRINCIPAL LANG:

“This initiative will take our collaborative climate to a new level. This is brand new to all of us. We will not succeed if we do not take risks. We have nurtured a climate for safe and smart risk-taking. But not all teachers have had to take many risks in our previous initiatives. That will not hold true for this one. Knowing this, I need to be certain that we remind ourselves about the role of risk-taking and its impact on our learning and hence on our students’ learning. I will also need to intentionally call out and celebrate our risk-taking.”

Principal Lang knew that he could not do all of the work alone. He needed the teachers to work as a team. He then determined:

What is the purpose and value of collaborative support?

What is the role of each teacher in a collaborative opportunity?

When will teachers work together to support each other in the implementation of the initiative?

PRINCIPAL LANG:

“In our school, we use an analogy of rowing a boat. We know that we get farther and faster if we all row in the same direction and if we all row together. Rowing in different directions causes us to go in circles and get nowhere. When we don’t all row together, a few of us get incredibly tired and we don’t get very far. This is a school that has seen the benefits of collaborating.”

“We will build off our collaborative mindset during our dedicated planning and PLC times. Teachers are required to plan courses together. Teachers need to think of their standards in units and develop strong final demonstrations of learning for each unit. We also need them to think about the learning process—from initial instruction of skills to practice opportunities to an authentic application to the transference of skills.”

“Then, they need to consider which phases of the learning lend themselves best to in-class instruction, to synchronous learning, or to asynchronous learning. They need to consider how they will provide students with varied opportunities to collaborate with peers and to communicate their learning along the way. In addition, teachers will need to plan with the students’ role in learning in mind every step of the way.”

“This is work that should not be done alone. We need teachers to talk through their decisions together and justify them. We need them to work with their colleagues to bounce ideas off each other and to share successes and challenges. We have actually taken a rowboat picture that we used last year and imposed the words hybrid learning on top of it. We want to make certain we continue to row our boat in the same direction together!”

To ensure that his message was clearly articulated and understood, Principal Lang had to determine:

How will the information be shared in as many distinct ways as possible?

PRINCIPAL LANG:

“When it comes to building a professional learning climate, I realized that I needed to model everything I expected of my staff. If I expected them to share ideas, take risks, and listen to each other, I had to do the same. And I told them I was doing this. Nothing was hidden. They let me know that my transparency with communication led them to trust me and the process more.”

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The Learning Brief

In this article you learned…
  • The actions of instructional leadership in curriculum, instruction, assessment, and climate that actually increase the opportunities for learning—and increase the opportunities for ownership.
  • How a principal can model the thinking behind the ownership and explicitly address the skills of ownership.
  • What the actions of instructional leadership look and sound like when a principal is being strategic in the actions they use to support their staff in the implementation of a hybrid learning model.
Reading Time: 20 minutes

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