How does being forward focused differ from future focused? What is the difference in plans for improvement and plans for change? When should we be exploring, “How do we get a little better than last year?” When should we be asking, “Where do we need to go and how can we get there?” Maria Hoover, Director of Educational Services for the Capital Area Intermediate Unit in PA shares insights from exploring these questions with 24 diverse school districts.
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Steve: 00:37 Future focused leadership. Our guest today, Maria Hoover, responded to a blog that I had posted on coaching, teaching, and learning like an innovator and an entrepreneur. When I connected with her, she described the learning she was doing with superintendents and curriculum directors around future focused leadership. I asked her if she would join us and share some of that thinking, and I’m excited to say that she did. Maria is the director of Educational services for the Capital Area Intermediate Unit in Pennsylvania. Welcome, Maria.
Maria: 01:17 Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Steve: 01:20 I’m wondering if you’d start by telling listeners a little bit about the intermediate unit structure that exists in Pennsylvania and
the role that you have at the IU.
Maria: 01:30 Sure. So I work for the Capital Area IU, which is located right outside of Harrisburg, right outside the capital. And we are a educational service provider. So part of our structure is our student services side, which is directly educating and providing services to students and then the part that I am leading is our educational services department and professional services. And this largely consists of training, consultation, providing professional development support to school districts, support to individual teams and teachers, and then also supporting the IU. Our IU spans 24 school districts in central Pennsylvania. So we are in support of all of those school districts’ specific needs along with any of the initiatives coming out of our Department of education to make sure that we’re communicating and being transparent in what initiatives and mandates are coming out of there as well.
Steve: 02:33 And the the size of those districts and the settings of those districts – similar or is there quite a change?
Maria: 02:41 Huge, huge – it runs the gamut. So it includes some urban settings, some large urban settings, some very small rural settings, and then suburban settings in between. We have some really large suburban schools that span a huge area and then we have some smaller suburban schools that go anywhere from the end of Lancaster County all the way past Shippensburg.
Steve: 03:10 So what led to the decision that had you approach school leaders with the topic of future focused leadership?
Maria: 03:19 So, coming out of the pandemic, we had school districts that were kind of all over the map in terms of coming back into the brick and mortar setting. And so, we noticed at that time also that there was a shift in the workforce, and we had a lot of new leaders coming on. And you heard so much in schools and districts, we wanna get back to the way things were. What’s the normal? We need to get back to normal. And that kind of spawned some questions on what is normal? And what is the new normal? And we’re never going back to what was. We can only move forward because so much changed in our construct and our infrastructures and our personnel and our way of thinking during pandemic, that there’s no way to go back to what was.
Maria: 04:17 So, I had read an article and my my executive director had also read the same article that Dr. Ray McNulty out of the Successful Practices Network, had written for the superintendent publication. And we read it and it talked about future focused leadership and looking at the future, stabilizing the present so that she could start looking at the future. So we reached out to him and asked if he would be willing to speak to our superintendents, and we had a retreat with our superintendents, and he came and did some very practical work with them around being future focused and shifting that mindset to stop trying to perfect the past and actually think about what we’re doing in the future for our kids.
Steve: 05:02 When you mentioned working with him, I went to do a little of of my own research and I found a short video clip that I listened to. And it struck me when he talked about the difference between being forward focused, which is what a lot of our school leaders had been and compared forward focused to future focused. Would you talk about that a little?
Maria: 05:35 Sure. So forward focused means that you’re still trying to work within what was. So you’re moving forward from what was. Future focused is getting out in front of the issues or the potential changes, and actually being deliberate and planning for them and looking at what needs to be in place, who needs to be in place, how it directly affects student learning, and then plan for that. If you’re forward focused, you’re looking at what’s in front of you and you’re trying to take that incremental step forward. There’s a place for that but I think the trap then becomes, you get stuck in that and you never get to say, here’s the future of education, or here’s the future of our region and we haven’t planned for that at all. Forward focus is a lot more reactive.
Steve: 06:34 When I heard that term, it took me to a phrase that I’ve used in the past of the difference of focusing on improvement and focusing on change.
Steve: 06:46 And that part of the decision making process is what is it that we wanna improve and what is it that we wanna change? So I tell folks that there’s some school improvement plans that I wouldn’t be interested in serving on.
Maria: 07:09 Right.
Steve: 07:09 If you told me you wanted me to be on the plan for improving teacher evaluation, I’d probably pass, because in my mind, if you wanted to look at a different way of providing teachers feedback that would cause growth, I’d be very interested in that. But if the plan was to take the existing what’s happening in teacher evaluation and make it better, I believe we can make it better but it’s probably not where we wanna spend our time and energy.
Maria: 07:43 Yeah. What I found to be really interesting, there were two things that stuck out in my mind that just are imprinted in my mind. One was the quote, “the future is present, it’s just not evenly distributed.” So if you can think it, it’s already happening somewhere. It just hasn’t gotten to you yet necessarily. That I think struck superintendents really, really hard. I remember that conversation. And the other thing was a series of cartoons from 1962, The Jetsons.
Maria: 08:14 And he put up this cartoon of the fact that I think it was Mr. Spacely talking to George Jetson. George is at home, and Mr. Spacely is talking to him on a computer, and he’s like there’s the home office in 1962. There was an exercise class that one of the Jetsons was doing. And I was like, okay, there’s online classes. They did video calls back and forth, and they even went to the doctor online so it was like telemedicine. It’s like, that was 1962, so it already existed in someone’s mind somewhere. So how do we access that and keep our minds open in an ever-changing educational system, slowly as it may be, to sort of start thinking like that.
Steve: 09:05 So are there some topics that have, that have been emerging that the leaders you are working with are likely to wanna focus on?
Maria: 09:16 Yeah, so we did what was called a futures wheel with the superintendents. And what we used, just so that everybody was kind of on
the same playing field, was the concept of artificial intelligence and the fact that our kids now are born with this mindset. They’re not just receiving their device for the first time, but the teachers that are teaching and the administrators that are leading did not grow up that way. So we’re learning it while we’re trying to educate an entire generation of kiddos who haven’t. So one of the conversations we had was about artificial intelligence and Gen Z. And we talked about the fact that there are programs out there that will write your papers for you. Just put the prompt in and it’ll spit out exactly what you want. We talked about art contests where you can just describe the art you wanna do, and it produces an art piece for you. Is that cheating? Is it not? What are we doing to prepare our systems and our teachers to be able to be o either be okay with that or put different adaptations in place so that you can – you know, you don’t wanna take away a resource from a kid. And we talked about the fact that calculators became that for so long. “They can’t use the calculator, they can’t use a calculator.” And it’s like, there’s more than calculators out there at this point.
Maria: 10:48 So that was one thing that we talked about. We talked about you know, in a social studies class or a history class, when you’re doing current events, current events are skewed to have formulas for you to access the current event in the perspective that you want see that current event. So what does that look like when you’re teaching? So those kind of things are conversations we’ve had. We did a futures wheel on staffing, because staffing is a huge issue right now, and people are not going into the field and how are we telling our story? And what do we need to do to tell our story in a way that is appealing to people to want to be part of this work? So those are some of the things that have kind of stemmed out of that.
Steve: 11:37 Wow. I’m wondering how do you see this study impacting those of us who are in the field to be supporting educators? What are the services that the traditional IU, the universities that work with educators, the consultants like myself, how do you see this changing our roles?
Maria: 12:09 So we’re starting to see that change now, whereas a couple years ago, we could offer a training and we didn’t have enough space to get people into the space that we had for that training. Now, it is so hard to get people out of buildings. The non-existent pool for substitutes, is impacted, staffing is impacted, there’s so many things that impact the day-to-day that it’s something that we have to problem solve, and we need to figure out a better way to reach people and we too can’t get stuck in that traditional sense. So we have gone through a couple exercises here and continue to do that through our leadership development on what does that look like? Are we gonna get more people? We noticed one of my supervisors for training and consultation said, I’m now doing networks before the school day, not after.
Maria: 13:10 And once you get to that, end of the day, it lights out. But if I can get some people in beforehand, and she’s doing everything virtually and her attendance is really high. And it’s practical strategies, I think some of it is, sometimes in these roles we kind of get lost in theory. And it’s really interesting to us, but the people who we are serving need practical strategies that they can turn around right away and actually see impact on students. So I think that everything goes back to the work on rigor and relevance. Like we as consultants, as people who are supporting districts, have to look at relevancy first and then have to look at how it’s gonna impact right away. And if there’s not a direct impact right away, then it might be a discussion, but it can’t lead the work that’s actually happening. There has to be work that comes out of it.
Steve: 14:09 It’s interesting – when Covid hit, right at the time that it happened, I was scheduled to to go to Bangkok and do a four day training for instructional coaches from the overseas school network. And so they contacted me and said, that’s not gonna happen. We’ll push it off to the fall. And then rather shortly I got a call saying, well, that’s not gonna happen either so come up with something. Well, at the time, I had some online modules that had some of the materials so I put together a package where people had a one-on-one call with me. Coming out of that call, we decided which of the online modules they would they would work through. The online modules had facilitation, and then I had follow up calls with people during a three month period where they were working through that. And when we got to the end and did the reflection feedback at the end, I realized that I was pretty sure that people had learned more than had we ended up in the four days together in Bangkok. And I said to people, that wasn’t an easy thing for a guy who’s spent his whole career doing the four days in in Bangkok to speak to.
Maria: 15:46 Right.
Steve: 15:47 But it has led me to come back now and put those one-on-one follow ups with people into almost all the trainings that I’m offering. And I hear that in what you’re saying, that it’s that immediacy and immediacy to my spot.
Maria: 16:06 Right. And the relevancy to what I do. And I think, to your point, the large group meetings have their place, but really, what people are looking for is that one-on-one connection. Like, I’m connecting to you and I can help you. I believe that right now, a lot of the coaching models and the mentoring models are taking off because it’s getting with a small group or getting with one person and walking them through what needs to happen or what could happen or the possibilities. I actually just recently have scheduled one-on-ones with all the curriculum directors or assistant superintendents depending on the structure in the region, just to sit and listen to what it is that they need so that we can really tailor some things to the need in the district versus what we think they might be interested in.
Steve: 17:11 Yeah. Just yesterday I got a call from a school that I’ve that I’ve never worked with and they were looking for someone who would come in for one day and take their science teachers through a curriculum prioritization process.
Steve: 17:34 And in a little bit of a chat, I said, let me put a twist on this . And the twist that I came back with is my spending time with their science lead person upfront for a session or two, my zooming into a couple of meetings, and then helping them map out a facilitated day of what they would do to make that happen and then my follow up online as they get into the next school year and they’re implementing. So for the same cost of what they would’ve looked at to have me spend that day there with them, I think they’re gonna end up with them having a whole lot more ownership and the growth coming out of it much greater than working in that historical process. But the tendency was, they went back to do what we’ve always done, and it was that moment to stop and look at it through a different lens.
Maria: 18:41 Yeah. Agreed. Agreed.
Steve: 18:44 I’m wondering if there’s common challenges that the leaders you’re working with have have identified as you had these conversations?
Maria: 18:55 Yeah. I think some of the common challenges that you see across the board right now, and even from where I was prior, staffing is definitely up there. Student attendance after the pandemic is definitely something I think everybody has in common. Because we had students home, some of them for one or two years, and now to come back to a full day has been very much of a transition for them. There are a lot of student behaviors that we haven’t seen in the past across the board that we’re seeing in higher volume. And then just the whole concept of students achieving and growing. There’s always that conversation that happens where there’s some districts, some students in general will achieve, they’ll hit those marks and then there are large groups of growth that you have to take into consideration. And then kind of depending on how it’s reported and what it looks like, your success is measured that way.
Maria: 20:10 So I think that they have that in common, where they’re all kind of going toward that same goal, but there’s so many different pathways to get there. The other thing that I do know that I hear a lot of is about our career and college ready standards and really starting to take a close look and this is another thing that we kind of have been doing with the future’s wheel with career ready standards, and what are we doing to prepare kids for careers, and how do we get them into a pathway for a career? How do we expose them to careers that are out there? We continue to have to plan for our students to be successful in careers that may not exist yet. And so there’s that knowledge of the educator, again, who may or may not know all the different pathways that are out there and may or may not know of all the different careers that are options based on their own experiences or based on where they are in their world, how they walk through the world.
Maria: 21:13 And then there are kids who are coming up with their own careers very young, and they’re very successful. So there’s a lot of conversation around that. And is college the only way to go? Is that what we’re preparing our kids for? Or can we prepare them for careers where they’re gonna be wildly successful, they’re gonna get their hands on it really early. I took a trip to Penn Tech College in Williamsport, and we were looking at all of the VR options within their courses. And so that day I got to put on VR goggles and Weld for the first time in my life. It did not go well.
Maria: 21:56 I would definitely need to practice that. I got to do all the vitals of a patient through VR, with all the instruments.
There’s so much out there. We were doing all this virtual reality in terms of architecture, and I’m thinking to myself, my goodness, the, the possibilities are endless. Like, do our kids know about these opportunities? Or is there a preconceived notion of what it is? There’s so much. I think about the program in, I believe it’s in Myrtle Beach with aeronautical maintenance and the opportunity that’s there to have a partnership with Boeing and get kids hands on. Like, there’s so many things. It’s crazy. We had Dr. Justin Aglio come from the Readiness Institute of Penn State to talk to our curriculum directors and he talked about the Hope Project where kids can write letters, their hopes and dreams, and they put it on the space shuttle and land them on the moon and leave them on the moon. So your hopes and dreams are legitimately, literally in space. So there’s so much opportunity and being able to streamline that as an IU to streamline that communication and that education so that opportunities aren’t missed, I think is where we have to really put a lot of our energy.
Steve: 23:27 Yeah. As I was listening to you go through that that whole list, we can’t get there doing a better job of what we’re doing.
Maria: 23:36 Right.
Steve: 23:37 It really does mean that we need to be doing something different.
Maria: 23:40 Mm-Hmm.
Steve: 23:43 Well, you’ve got my juices flowing. Thank you for reinforcing that. What’s the best way that that listeners might be able to touch base with you if they have a question about any of the things that you mentioned?
Maria: 23:57 Sure. I am on LinkedIn under Maria Hoover and my email at the IU is email@example.com.
Steve: 24:10 Alright. We will put that in the lead-in to the to the podcast.
Maria: 24:14 Absolutely. And I look forward to the conversation. This is something I’m really passionate about.
Steve: 24:21 It shows, it shows. Thank you so much.
Maria: 24:25 All right. Thanks so much.
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