Podcast: Coaching Teachers Building Agile Classrooms - Steve Barkley

Podcast: Coaching Teachers Building Agile Classrooms

Coaching Teachers Building Agile Classrooms

Agile education coach and the founder of The Agile Mind, Jessica Cavallaro, describes why students and teachers benefit from working with Agile teaching and learning processes. Jessica shares how she works with teachers and administrators to integrate agile principles and the rewards that everyone can experience.

E-mail Jessica: jessica@the-agile-mind.com

Find Jessica’s website and resources here.

Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes!

Podcast Transcript:

[00:00:00.390] – Steve [Intro]

Welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. As instructional coaches and school leaders, you have a challenge to guide continuous teacher growth that promotes student success. This podcast looks to support you with strategies from our experienced guests and insights that I’ve gathered across many years. I’m thrilled you’re here. Thanks for listening.

[00:00:27.100] – Steve

Coaching teachers building agile classrooms. Jessica Cavallaro, an agile education coach and the founder of The Agile Mind, is joining our podcast today. Jessica’s journey into agile education was sparked by her desire to create an environment that prioritize human connections, foster student agency, and empower teachers to discover the joy and purpose in their vocation. By integrating agile principles into the fabric of teaching and learning, Jessica and her collaborators focus on new standards for excellence in education. Their work not only equips educators with the tools to manage their classrooms more effectively, but also empowers parents to actively participate in their children’s learning journeys. Jessica works to shape a future where education is collaborative, engaging, and enriching for everyone involved. Jessica, thanks so much for joining us.

[00:01:35.040] – Jessica

Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

[00:01:38.120] – Steve

I’m wondering, for starters, if you talk about those elements of the agile business environment that are being applied into schools and classrooms.

[00:01:49.680] – Jessica

Thank you for the question. When I talk to teachers and people in education, they might not have a background in what agile is. It sounds like we’re all going to get up and go stretch someplace, which would be wonderful. We’d all benefit from that, but that’s not exactly what it is. Agile is a way of working that comes out of project management and software development. And so what we saw in that industry in the early 2000s is we had that dot-com boom was we are having companies plan out their projects on a Gantt chart or what’s called a waterfall chart, where you had phase one, phase two, phase three, phase four, and they all depended upon the phase before it running perfectly on time, on schedule, and on budget. And as we know, we are all human beings and therefore imperfect, and things happen, and things get off schedule and behind, and there’s problems with our budgets. It would throw off entire projects that would become overdue with labor and things like that. We had this group of people that came together and they said, how do we work best? And how do we base our industry on the ways that humans actually work in teams?

[00:02:52.370] – Jessica

And that was through iterative cycles, high levels of reflection points, visual data boards, like Kanban boards, and communication and transparency. Basically, basing the way that we should work in teams and business, the way that human beings actually work. And so they developed the principles and values of agile based on simplicity, communication, high touch points, iterative processes. So small tasks being done quickly so that we can constantly evaluate the work and move forward instead of large tasks that take too much time, and then we can’t fix them once they’re complete. That is a wildly successful, whole industry that you can become certified in and work in project management, and you can even get your college degree in Agile or Scrum or Kanban or one of these systems. But when we look out from the education viewpoint standpoint, we can see that this is a highly adaptable way that we can bring into our schools immediately. Low cost, low maintenance, not years of professional development, not multimillion dollars of curriculum rewrites. We can take the curriculum we have, we can take the standards that we have, and we just have to shift the mindset of who is doing the work in this situation and how do we get worked on in a humane, organic way.

[00:04:14.640] – Jessica

We can change the way that our classrooms and our schools and the culture of education in America really works.

[00:04:21.720] – Steve

What did you discover about agile that aligned with your beliefs and values around teaching and learning?

[00:04:30.120] – Jessica

I found Agile during the COVID pandemic. We were shut down, and I was a pretty experimental teacher at that point. I was a history teacher. I love civics. I had worked really intensely over those those years developing ways to use my content as a way of driving skills, so leaning really heavily into design thinking and project-based learning. Then when we got locked down, I noticed my kids were still heading their learning goals, but they were and they were disconnected, and they didn’t know how to reach out to each other. We assume that our kids are highly socialized, but really the technology in their life makes them unsocialized. They don’t know how to reach out to each other. My number one goal during that period, because we didn’t know if we were going back to school or not or any of these things, was to make sure that my kids could connect with each other and collaborate and have fun and be kids. I looked down into the world and that’s where I found agile because I was like, in this moment in time, this very unique moment in time, how are adults getting worked on?

[00:05:34.520] – Jessica

How is the world still running? How are systems still functioning if we’re all sitting at home and I looked down and I said, in Agile, people are communicating, they’re giving their time, they’re processing information, they’re pulling tasks, they’re getting projects done, and they’re all over the world, and they’re working together in different time zones, in different languages, and they’re still able to communicate and get work done. I said, This is what needs to come into the classroom. What I really love about agile when I see it functioning not just in my classroom, but the classrooms of people that I work with, is that it shifts the responsibility of learning from the teacher to the students. It takes it from a push-based system where the teacher is responsible for everything – the timing, the planning, the delivering, the assessment, the teacher is constantly pushing that information towards students to a poll-based system which gives a responsibility to the students. And not only does it give the responsibility, but it helps them develop the most essential AI-proof skills that they absolutely need to function in the world.

[00:06:44.490] – Jessica

I really love watching kids be surprised when they walk into an agile classroom. When you say, “hey, we’re going to do things a little differently.” They go, “What? Wait, I’m not going to sit at my desk? Wait, you don’t have the answer?” It flips them around because they’re socialized to expect that you’re going to push the information at them and you say, no, we’re going to do things differently. Watching the wheels turn in their head is pretty amazing. Then when you show them that you’re going to respect them as a human and that you are going to watch them develop and you’re going to help them, it is a huge change in the way that your kids work in the communication, in the culture, all of those things shift. It’s a light bulb moment almost for everyone at once. I know that as teachers, we get into this for those light bulb moments, It’s clearly not for the pay. When you see everyone’s brain light up at the same time and say, “wait, we’re going to work in teams? We’re going to learn new skills? We’re going to tackle real-life problems?” The kids are really excited by it because they want to learn how to interact with each other better.

[00:07:53.450] – Jessica

They want to learn these skills. They just have not had the chance to do so in traditional education. I love coming into a classroom and making these subtle small changes that have such huge effects on teachers and students and the overall view on what a classroom can be and what learning actually looks like. That’s why I do what I do.

[00:08:19.080] – Steve

I know that you work with teachers to develop the skill sets that teachers need to implement the agile classrooms and then to coach teachers as they develop those skills. I’m wondering, with the coaches and administrators listening in on this podcast, can you label some of those skill sets that the teachers need to develop? Then what does the coaching look like that you provide to teachers?

[00:08:48.040] – Jessica

Teachers generally have these skills because we’re highly adaptable, pivotal people. When you think about what we do as opposed to most other jobs, we come into work every day and have a plan, and then our plan gets interrupted 150 times by first period. We are agile people. We just want to take that learning and put it onto our students. When I start working with teachers, we start looking at small things you can do. What are some small little pieces? We want to say, this is not a curriculum change, this is not a unit change, this is not a year change, it’s a today change. How are we going to find something small that we can change today that allows students to have choice and allow students to have agency, but there are still are guidelines. There’s still grading that needs to be done or due dates that have to be processed and things like that. And so when we go in, it’s just the mindset shift. The mindset shift is the largest part. So usually our coaching takes place over six weeks. So we don’t come in and throw confetti around and sell you a book and tell you in a two-day professional development, we’re going to solve all your problems.

[00:09:52.410] – Jessica

And then you buy the book and we leave. This is six weeks of working together, getting to know you, your teaching style, what are your standards, what is your school culture like? And then working together so that we can shift that mindset on your side and the student side so that we are here for you when you hit your speed bumps and when things go awry and talk through it. It’s all about a mindset shift and a cultural shift in your classroom and your school. It’s the idea of we’re going to have open communication, we’re going to have transparency. That’s whether you’re an administrator and you’re doing leadership planning, which you can do agile learning leadership planning for whole schools. I’ve watched huge school districts, private schools, go through this. Their strategic planning can fit on a single page after they’re done doing some agile training because they can put their ideas onto visual information boards. We call them Kanban boards. They’re able to communicate them clearly. They’re able to see where the work happens, how it gets pulled by different systems. It breaks down silos of information and then we know what’s going on across department.

[00:10:57.730] – Jessica

For an administrator, it’s huge. You get a huge view of your organization, and you can see how to streamline issues. You can see where impediments are. You can see where there’s problems. You can see where double work is happening, where communication is interrupted. When you’re talking about classrooms, it’s the same system. You’re just working with smaller people. So you put your information, what we ideally want to get to is where you can put all of your work for your unit into what’s called a backlog. And your students, you can build your student and your students can pull those tasks across their Kanban boards and get their work done to come to their solutions of their problem that they’re applying. So we teach you how to plan out your unit. We teach you how to become a facilitator. So more of saying, I don’t know, than providing answers, really doing the things that teachers love to do, which is sitting in small group instructions. Your teams are working on their problem that you’d help develop with them. And then you walk and do small group instruction and help your kids and have really genuine, authentic conversations with them instead of the same lecture five times in a row.

[00:12:11.580] – Jessica

And while all of this is happening, your students are having to work through really complicated ideas. You’re giving them the content that they must master because we’re not redoing curriculum, we’re not redoing content, we’re not getting the state to write new standards. But we’re taking those things and we’re saying, okay, how do we apply them to the real world? How do we let our kids have some application, a high level of touch points? How do we structure the system so that our students can practice AI-proof skills that will improve their lives in the future? So that’s how we take our coaches through is just by giving up little pieces, small, steady at a time, and then we get into the bigger things. Like, how do we get unit questions, which we call wide open questions, or how do we get larger and larger? But we very much start out very small because mindset shift is huge. And if we want our teachers to be happy and healthy and not stressed, we need to go through this mindset shift of what learning really looks like and who is responsible for the learning. And that’s the same for administrators as well.

[00:13:20.420] – Jessica

Administrators can’t do everything. So how do we build systems where we share this responsibility and through transparency and communication, we can get the work done.

[00:13:31.970] – Steve

I was just going to ask, what does it look like when school administrators are modeling agile with their interactions with staff?

[00:13:42.510] – Jessica

Really fantastic question. It is really fantastic to see when we have administrators come in, because one of the things that we do is we start off with a basic Kanban board is a backlog – to do, doing, and done. It’s just columns and we put tasks on them. It is, let’s put out your tasks and let’s color code them. Now let’s bring in your team and see if they agree. Now let’s talk through what’s the prioritization of these things. As you’re doing these things, you would think that this takes a long time, but when you’re visually looking at them and you’re seeing them, you’re seeing the waste in your system, and it’s pretty apparent. And so as that goes from the top level of administration, whether you’re a superintendent or a head of school, and that starts to go down the rungs, you can see that people are like, oh, look, I can be validated for the work I’m doing. People feel seen. People feel appreciated because now I’m the superintendent. I can say, oh, wow, I see that you’re doing all this work. I see you’re working beyond your 40 hours a week.

[00:14:45.020] – Jessica

I see all the responsibilities that you have. Maybe we need to flesh them out, or I see that I’m putting too much on this department. Maybe we need to untangle this a little bit. Because it’s a visual system of working and it’s high touch point, high reflection, high communication, it really helps the entire organization come into alignment a lot faster than a classic coaching situation where you would just talk through just you. Because it’s not just you. You’re a system. You’re part of a system system and you’re a system of running other human beings through systems. When we can visualize that and get a system, we color code it, we put it together, we organize, we talk through it, we meet with you, continue continuously. What’s going on here? Let’s have a touch point. Let’s have a reflection point. What happened here? How can we ask better questions? How can we communicate that better? As it comes down through the organization, it’s incredible. And not only that, when we see administrators that embrace this, it changes – I hate to keep saying the same word, it changes the culture of the school because people are more willing to communicate issues that they’re seeing or problems or suggest things, because at that point, you’re not rocking the apple cart, you’re actually improving the system because you see people are looking for improvement and change.

[00:16:04.550] – Jessica

Then when that gets down to the teacher level, it’s quite incredible because usually in a school, all the work topples downhill and who carries the work at the bottom? So when you’re able to go in as a head of school or a superintendent and pull up a teacher’s board and say, oh, my goodness, Ms. Fields has five IEP meetings, and she has to do this, and she’s running this club, and all of this on her visual information system, we need better systems. We need better protocols to lift some of this off of her. It also signals to the teachers that they have the autonomy and creativity and the space to innovate and change as well, because they’re seeing it from their superiors, and they’re seeing, again, this idea that we can make mistakes. We are not infallible. But when we work in small iterative cycles, the mistakes are not painful or costly because we’re having high touch points of reflection. We’re able to make mistakes and say, you know what? I wanted to try that idea. I thought it was brilliant. It didn’t work. Good thing we only spent a week on it. Instead of, that was a six-month initiative that just cost school district a million dollars, and now we can’t back down because we look silly.

[00:17:21.620] – Steve

Talk to folks a little bit about the work that you do through the Agile Mind organization.

[00:17:26.340] – Jessica

The Agile Mind was created with our partners at leaf.org. We work together to develop better systems of agile working and teaching for administrators and teachers. Part of what we do, again, is this ongoing coaching. We do an administrative level, we do a teacher level, and we even do student levels for students, particularly in high school, that want help setting goals and working through their processes to get them ready for higher levels of high school and college. But what we do is we will meet with our clients and discuss what their goals and priorities are and sit down and say, what is your mission? What’s the vision? What’s the values? And start to put all of that on our visual information board that we call a Kanban board. And so this can be high tech, this can be low tech. So we use Kanban Zone, which is a phenomenal service. It’s online so that you can access it anywhere. But we have school districts all over the country where we go in with painters tape and post-it notes, and we build these systems for administrators just with post-it notes on the wall.

[00:18:33.230] – Jessica

What is important to you? Let’s put it down. And by the way, the same systems work with students. So you can go high tech or low tech. This is not a multimillion dollar teardown. This is Let’s make small changes that really affect the quality of communication and culture in your school. And so we work with them over at least a six-week period. Six weeks is the minimum, where we have meetings two, three times a week. Maybe they’re 15 minutes. They can be a little longer, but we’re not looking to take up your time. I’m not consulting for hours a day. I want to meet with you. I want to get to the point. I want to see what’s on your board. I want you to express with me what’s going on. Let’s make some decisions. What are we going to try? What are our ROIs on this? And then let’s try and let’s see. And then what are our impediments? What can be streamlined? Who can be in charge of that? And move on from there. And the results are shockingly quick. This is not years and years of professional development. If I know you in five years, I hope it’s casually.

[00:19:43.300] – Jessica

We want to effect great change. Our schools need it. Our teachers are desperate. Our students need a better way of education to meet future goals. So this is all about improvement, and we do it with… it’s low risk. You can come in and do some coaching sessions with us, and it’s low risk, and you’re trying small things, but they’re going to have huge changes on the way that you operate your day-to-day school or classroom. So this is a really great way to pivot the way we think of schools. It’s really meaningful, but it’s really low cost in terms of not only monetarily, but time-wise. When you shift mindsets, it’s quite substantial. When you shift your mindset and get into this mindset of, okay, I’m going to do small iterative practices. I’m going to keep things visual. I’m going to conduct myself in a way that’s transparent and communicative to everyone else. It’s really a huge shift in your lifestyle. I’ll tell you, I use this at home. My nine and six-year-old use Kanban boards to do their tasks in the house. It changes a lot because as a parent, I’m not running around and asking them to do things.

[00:21:05.560] – Jessica

I’m not putting snacks in their backpack and tasking them with their homework and yelling. And that changes throughout any organization that you bring agile in. Your communication style changes, your culture changes, the skill development changes. You have a system of human beings that need to be respected like human beings to function at their optimal level. And when we bring that back to education, that’s where we’re going to see huge improvements in learning goals, quality of life, our teachers and students and administrators.

[00:21:39.540] – Steve

Well, thanks, Jessica. What’s the best way that listeners can follow up with you, learn more about your work or share questions with you?

[00:21:47.660] – Jessica

Well, thank you. Please send me any questions you would like. My email address is jessica@the-agile-mind.com, or you can come read our blogs and see our past podcast episodes at www.the-agile-mind.com. We have tons of resources. So even if you’re not willing to reach out yet and start a conversation, please go read and go see the different things that we’ve written about, the case studies that we’ve done, the different ways that we interact with administrators and teachers and please come introduce yourself. Say hi on LinkedIn. You can find me at Jessica Cavallaro. And ask questions. The only way to learn is by asking questions. So we’re a high touch point group. Come introduce yourself. Let us know if you have any questions or ideas, because we’re always learning, too, so I appreciate that.

[00:22:39.730] – Steve

Well, Jessica, it’s been my pleasure to have these conversations with you. I am signed up and we’ll be continuing to follow you.

[00:22:48.140] – Jessica

Oh, thank you. I appreciate. And I will be continuing to follow you.

[00:22:51.490] – Steve

And we’ll be sure to put the links to your website and email address in the podcast lead-in.

[00:22:59.210] – Jessica

Thank you so much for having me. I so appreciate it.

[00:23:04.430] – Steve [Outro]

Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn at Steve Barkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

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