In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve is joined by Bruce Preston, Danielle Palazzolo, Jane Losinger and Erin Cutillo from the Howell Township school district to discuss maximizing the impact of instructional coaching.
Get in touch with Bruce: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get in touch with Danielle: email@example.com
Get in touch with Jane: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get in touch with Erin: email@example.com
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Steve [Intro] (00:25): Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve (00:52): Responsiveness in coaching assignments. Those of you who have followed my blogs and podcast know that I have a continued interest in how to maximize the impact of instructional coaches’ work. Sometimes that takes me to study the skills that coaches have and the choices that coaches make. Other times it has me looking at how a district or building identifies a coach’s role. My interest was captured when I read an article by Bruce Preston in a Learning Professional from Learning Forward. His article was titled “Engineered to Be Agile” and we are lucky to have have Bruce join us today along with with the members of his team in Howell township. Bruce is the assistant superintendent of curriculum and personnel there. And Bruce, I’d ask if you would tell us a little bit more about yourself and introduce your team and then fill the listeners in a little bit about about Howell township.
Bruce (02:03): Absolutely. And let me start by thanking you for having us on the podcast. We’re excited to share a little bit about our story. As the assistant superintendent for curriculum and personnel, you know, I kind of quickly defined my responsibility as what’s taught, how it’s taught and who gets to teach it. It’s really been an amazing experience. I’ve been in Howell now nearly six years and it has been a phenomenal experience in large part due to the people that are here and the willingness of the people here to take risks venture into new territory. So it’s been exciting. As a district, we are a Pre-K-8 school district. We have 12 schools. They’re sister schools. So we have five K-2 primary schools that sister up with five, 3-5 elementary schools. And then they send into two middle schools in the district. And then we have a regional sending where our students go on to a separate district for their high school experience. We’re a suburban school district. We sprawl over 66 square miles here in central New Jersey. We sort of fondly say that we’re 12 schools, one community. It becomes part of our informal tagline.
Steve (03:16): So introduce us to the rest of your team there.
Bruce (03:19): Absolutely. We have today with us, Danielle Pallazolo. She is the principal of Adelphia elementary school. It’s one of our K-2 buildings. We have Jane Losinger who is our supervisor of literacy. She is also, relative today’s conversation, she was formally a reading coach in the district or a literacy coach. And we have Erin Cutillo who is one of our instructional coaches as well.
Steve (03:47):So early on in your article, a paragraph caught my attention. And I’d like to read it now and then I’d like any and all of you to jump in and give me how does this paragraph represent your life, your work within the district? I’m reading from the article, “while education has long required teachers to work in groups, professional learning communities, PLCs, teams and communities of practice to improve their practice. Teams of learning engineers go beyond these structures to examine the role of leaders, the way they draw on teacher expertise and the way resources and supports are leveraged so that professional learning meets everyone’s needs.” There’s just a ton that you snuck into to that paragraph in it and it caught my attention. So feel free to pull any piece of that and and how does it affect how you go about doing your work?
Bruce (04:49): Hearing that read back, I’m kind of surprised that the editors let it get through so long. Danielle?
Danielle (04:56): I think one of the things that we do really well is distribute the expertise so that there is collective and individual goal setting, which enables everyone to have a voice and more of a personalized experience.
Erin (05:07): And I think that personalization is a really big part of it. You know, we talk a lot about personalized learning for our students and that’s the way that students really learn the best when they’re at the center of their own learning. And I think it is no different for teachers. In the schools that I’ve been in, the professional learning has always been designed with the teachers in mind, giving them choices. So, you know, say if there are two instructional coaches, one specializes in math, one specializes in literacy, the teachers are able to choose which experience they want to have based on what their personal needs are. And then as a coach, the work that we do day to day in the classrooms is really based on what the teachers are coming to us with, what their needs are. So it really is a very personalized approach that goes beyond, you know, the walls of that PLC or just teacher learning.
Steve (05:52): So a statement that I end up repeating over over in my work is that a teaching is a team sport and therefore needs to be a public act. It kind of sounds to me like you’ve expanded that from not just teachers but to to school leaders.
Bruce (06:19): Yeah, I would agree. You know, we actually just yesterday, we had one of our monthly curriculum study series sessions. I don’t want to say meeting. If we were going to call a meeting, it’s a learning meeting and it’s, every leader in the district comes together and we go through a professional learning experience on a specific topic. And it makes to your point, it makes that work very public, right? So the building isn’t – the school house is in its own silo. The work that any one individual or any team do isn’t living in a silo. And I think that’s part of what we have been trying to do a lot of. Tear down the silos, rip down the fences and really start to span boundaries with the work that we do. Not so long ago as an example, specific to coaches, we had literacy coaches.
Bruce (07:15): Erin was a – what was the actual official title?
Erin (07:21): Title one mathematics coach. It was like, first was the no child left behind math coach and then I think it was the ESSA math coach.
Bruce (07:26): Yeah. Right, right. You know, so, right. A lot of specific titles that really penned in the work that she was doing. If you know Erin though, you can’t pen in the person. But you know, it really defines and hampers the way that we do the work. So we had math coaches and literacy coaches and an ESL coach and all these different pieces. And what we ended up doing, actually a lot of this came sort of from Jane’s idea and then our superintendent Joseph Isola. We started kicking around this idea that what we really need is just instructional coaches and all instructional coaches have a superpower. Most of them have the superpower around literacy, but they all have a superpower. How can we tap into that superpower and share that superpower across the district rather than just in one location or in one subject area. So again, it was really about ripping down silos and sharing in each other’s work.
Steve (08:27): Well, I zeroed in reading about your structure because I’m engaged in in looking at some of the research between instructional coaches being building based versus instructional coaches being district-based and kind of what the pluses and minuses were on both sides of that. And it seems that you’ve created a a unique format that crosses those, I was going to say crosses those boundaries, but maybe what you’re really doing is doing away with those boundaries. So your use of the term that the coaches are docked at a building, I found really a great metaphor. So I’m wondering, Bruce, if you could start by kind of explaining that process and then I’d like to hear from the individuals of the pluses and minuses of of the structure you’ve implemented.
Bruce (09:21): Yeah. And I think both Jane and Erin are going to be – will have a lot of great insight into that. Erin, in her previous coaching position had gone between quite a few buildings. One of them being Danielle’s building, Adelphia school. And now is with a specific sister pair of schools doing her work mostly there. The idea was that different schools need different specialties. Or, I’ll keep going with the superpower metaphor here. Different schools needed different superpowers from coaches and that’s how we sort of decided where maybe coaches were our best fit in consultation with the principals. But we also knew that at certain times certain instances coaches would be needed – those talents from those coaches would be needed maybe in another building. So it was for us it was the difficulty of trying to balance the personal relationships that are built by a coach in a specific location versus the needed skill-sets in other locations. How do we balance that? So maybe I’ll just leave it there and let let the three of you kind of tear into that.
Jane (10:30): So it really has been an evolution. When I was working as a literacy coach, I came on in 2012 and there were only three coaches in our district across the 12 schools. So when I came on board I was new to the district and we really didn’t have a structure for us as coaches to get together and compare notes to share expertise. So we had actually just like self-initiated, can we meet once a month and kind of talk about what’s going on in our buildings. So then from that, the coaching PLC really was formed and then as the value of the coach became more apparent across the district, we brought more and more coaches on board. We now have a team of 12 coaches. We meet once a month and the coaches are able to come together, share their expertise, talk about some of the experiences that they’ve had, ways of building trust, how they’re getting into classrooms and so not only are we able to kind of compare our superpowers, but we’re also able to get together and say, you know, this is really a need in my building. Would you be able to come over and share some of your particular area of expertise? And I know Erin has been in situations like that before.
Erin (11:43): I do have kind of a unique experience because I did start out working. I started working around the same time Jane did as the mathematics coach and I was the only mathematics coach, so I was kind of in my own little bubble in between three schools and just trying to be as effective as possible. But there was no coach meeting. There were not that many instructions or there weren’t any instructional coaches. It was simply the literacy coaches and then the math coach and I was my own little Island. And I’ve since come back to the position of a math coach but then been involved with the coaching meetings. And I can say, you know, that being able to have that time to collaborate with the other coaches, to learn from them because that’s really where I’ve done most of my learning as a coach is at those meetings where you can sit down and talk about experiences and talk about issues you’re having. You know, it doesn’t matter what your superpower is. It doesn’t matter what your expertise is. You’re all doing the same job, you’re all working with teachers and there are a lot of issues that are unique to what we’re doing. Maybe even unique to our district that is very, very valuable to be able to sit down and gain insight from them and you know, do these different book studies and just learn collaboratively. So that is wonderful.
Bruce (12:48): I’m curious, between Danielle and Erin, as you’re sharing that story, Erin, I’m wondering, so you have a coach that goes between you and your sister school Ardina, and you also have had the title one math coach and you still have that person. Correct? So that’s a person that’s now going between four schools. So, and you were the title one math coach. So you’ve done both of those jobs. What’s that experience like? Do you find a challenge? What’s the challenge and what’s the benefit of having a coach that moves between schools? One that’s just sister schools and one that’s divided between four and what’s the challenges as a coach in that work I wonder.
Danielle (13:35): Yeah, I think one of the things that we’ve really noticed is that we have to maximize the time that we do have the coach in the building. So we have allocated a specific day and Wednesday is the day, for example, that she is only at Adelphia school. So what we’ve come to do is plan for that day. Basically, teachers are familiar with when that coach would be available to support them. And the day is just filled with lots of opportunities for teachers and the coach to collaborate and work together. I think what has happened over time and what I’m most proud of is that there is such a trust factor between the teaching staff and the instructional coaches that come into our building in every capacity, that they welcome and want all of the health and expertise that the instructional coaches can bring to their classroom. So for us it’s been about maximizing time and just making sure that all participants are aware as to when they can expect the instructional coach to be available.
Erin (14:29): And Speaking from, you know, having been in both positions, I would say – and I can’t say which one I like more because I like very much.
All (14:37): [Laughter]
Erin (14:37): When I was in three schools, when I was the mathematics coach, it has since moved to four schools, I really loved being able to specialize in math instruction only. And that, you know, a lot of the activities that I was doing, you know, they could kind of span across the grade levels. And I felt like I really had honed my craft and become an expert in math instruction. And I felt like since I was spread so thin, which obviously is a negative, when I was there, people really reached out to me and they really needed me to help them with one specific thing. And I really, I enjoyed that element of it.
Erin (15:13): I enjoy being able to focus on one, one content area and really meet the teachers where they’re at. And another benefit from that is the buildings I was in already had a great coach and instructional coach that had already established that culture and climate. Kind of like what Danielle said. So the teachers are already comfortable going to a coach and seeking out help and those barriers have kind of already been broken down by the instructional coach. So I just jumped in and I felt like a lot of people utilize me as a resource right away. And you know, it didn’t take very long to build up that trust between myself and the teachers. But obviously, the negative was I felt like I was never in one place for very long because it was – I had Mondays at one school, Wednesdays at another school, Fridays and another school.
Erin (15:58): And then the days between I was going to meetings, you know, there was always something going on that I didn’t feel like I had a home in one of the schools. And I always felt like I could be doing more in every single school. So there was a little bit of that element where I felt like I wish that I could spend more time in every single one of the schools. There just wasn’t enough of one person to go around. Where now now being an instructional coach, I’ve opened up my horizons and now I’m doing literacy and now people are asking about science and you know, I’m learning a whole lot more and my expertise has to widen and I’m reaching out to my other coaches a lot more, you know, and collaborating a lot more with them. But I enjoy being that one person that everyone within two schools is going to. Those two sister schools. You know, I’m working really closely with the same people and I’m more of a constant figure. So developing those relationships, developing that trust has been a little easier just because I’m there for a really long time, you know, a more consistent presence in the buildings.
Steve (16:53): As I read this description, it struck me that your coaches have to create a pretty strong sense of accountability to each other. So I’ve got this expectation of of the quality of what you’re going to do when you’re working in the building where I’m at and see if I’m on with this. I would think I’d also then have a sense that the instructional coaches in that building is going to be extending and following up the work that I did while I spent time at that building. Am I accurate in describing that?
Jane (17:31): Yeah, that’s accurate. One of the other things that we’ve kind of learned along the way is that that time that Erin spoke about when the coaches are together, has really built a diverse skill-set across all the coaches. So in practice, what we’ve learned is that the coaches don’t go to each other’s buildings quite as often as we had anticipated, but they’re still building up each other’s skills when they come together. And I think what that has really emphasized for us is the value of having that trusting relationship with the coach who is docked at that building. So it’s really been incredible to see how important it is to teachers that they have really a person that they can count on, like [inaudible] her presence being there all the time. Of course we’ve done over the years a lot of learning about trust and vulnerability in those relationships between teachers and coaches. And this has really kind of been kind of hammered that home for us. That that trust is what’s really going to give us the biggest impact. And I think when we expanded the coaches to that more generalized instructional coach, it also helps teachers see that they can trust in this person as someone who is going to who’s going to help them grow professionally, not just learn a specific set of teaching practices. And that’s been really important.
Bruce (18:56): That trust spans across subject matter, right? So, you know, initially I’d go to the reading coach for reading, I’d go to the math coach for math and now what we see is we have social studies teachers. We have, you know, math teachers going to people who are formerly literacy coaches, right? We have a lot of that just changing the name, but also then that sharing of practices between coaches has built that credibility for the coaches in all the subject areas. And when I think back to the history, our superintendent shares this – whenever he talks about the coaches, he talks about the origin of it because it was really him when he had this position as the assistant superintendent who brought the coaches into the school district. He really wanted to follow a model of, for us by us. We would create the knowledge, generate the knowledge. We had the knowledge, let us generate it for ourselves and then spread it. So, but the coaching role was not, and you probably lived this early on in your experience as a coach, it was not trusted initially. Is that a fair way to sort of share it?
Jane (20:00): Yeah. There was definitely a sense that we were there to promote a specific reading program in particular that had been brought into the district. And that really was our task initially to support the implementation and rollout of a new program. So it was a learning curve for us as coaches as we went along too. You know, some of the coaches really, and myself included, our identity was really caught up in the fact that we were experts in one area. My background is in reading. My master’s is as a reading specialist. So working as a literacy coach felt very comfortable. But then when some of our coaches became instructional coaches and we said, you will need to go into math classrooms, you’ll need to go into a science classroom and you may have teachers who just need support with classroom management or collegial relationships. That really took some of our coaches out of the comfort zone. But I think in the long run, it’s made our whole team stronger.
Steve (20:54): I sensed early on as I’ve been listening that you have developed a coaching culture within the district.
Bruce (21:03): Yeah. So earlier on when this was first rolled out and you know, when Jane was first coming to it and Danielle, I think you would probably have been a vice principal at that point in your career, right? So you were living it from an administrative perspective. There was a perception that also the coaches were brought on as pseudo administrators, right? And that is such a trust breaker right there. That’s such a barrier. And I think the coaches and I think leadership of both schools in the district, this is prior to me coming into the district really worked hard at establishing that relationship of trust with teacher and coach. We are adamant, Erin would certainly attest to it. When we talk to the coaches, we tell them the one thing that you can do to get in trouble is to tell us the name of the person that you’re working with.
Bruce (21:52): We don’t want to know the teacher’s name. We don’t want to know the identity of the person that is struggling. We want to know that you’re there and helping. Right? Danielle and I have talked a little bit about this. We want to know patterns across grade levels or patterns across the school of need. And so that, you know, we can understand how to support them. But we don’t want to betray the trust by knowing the identity. And I think that has really resonated. Initially, you know, there was arguments and challenges by the teacher’s association. Why are we having a teacher within the association without a roster of students? Right? And there was a lot of pushback. That has now become a, what do you mean you’re taking our coach out of the building? Why would our coach go away? We have to have our coach. So I think that speaks to the culture of coaching that has evolved across the district. And I think that speaks to the very dedicated efforts of the coaches and the responsiveness of the school leaders and the district leaders partnering together to keep updating what makes sense for coaching in the school district.
Steve (23:03): There’s a another piece that’s been running through my mind as I’ve been listening and I talk about the difference between people working as franchise owners versus members of a team. So a teacher franchise owner is just responsible for her second grade class versus a team is responsible for all the second grade kids are the K, 1, 2 kids that make up that PLC. But when I move it to the district level, principals just – in a franchise is just responsible for his or her own building versus has a responsibility for success of kids across the system. I’m really hearing a lot of the things that you’ve done build in that sense of that sense of team. So that both as an instructional coach and as a principal my thought has to be at some extent across the success of all the kids in the district. And that we work together to make that happen rather than franchise.
I think one of the things that a shared coach offers to a building from an administrative perspective is that we are often collaborating about noticings and wonderings and trends and what’s working in different pockets within the district that they’re able to be a part of and engage in that I don’t necessarily get to know about. So that time is so powerful to me as a building leader so that I can make sure that if something’s working, then yeah, let’s adopt that practice, let’s, let’s build that into what we’re doing here as well. So that has been really powerful as a way to help me improve and increase student achievement within our school.
Steve (24:41): The coaches building a linkage among principals, is that what I’m hearing?
Erin (24:45): Correct. Yes.
Bruce (24:46): They definitely do. And then we do have, we mentioned this in the article, we also referenced it earlier, you know, we bring the principals together, not just for leadership meetings where we run through the agenda. We have those. But monthly, the entire leadership team comes together on a specific topic. We’ve started referring to them as our cycle of learning meetings that occur on a monthly basis. So we have our curriculum study series, which is our entire leadership team coming together on a professional learning topic. Jane and our math/science supervisor, Aaron Fedina are often the two that lead that work. And it has been – it’s been incredibly valuable because again, it’s about the collective group coming together and also not just hearing what the work is, but sharing their experiences within that work. We have our curriculum and instruction meetings, so all of our vice principals are also supervisors for the district.
Bruce (25:41): So our supervisors and vice principals come together monthly and there’s an agenda portion to that. But we always try to make that a learning meeting. The coaches meet monthly in their PLC, which is a learning meeting. And then the school improvement panels at this building base. And then about every other month that our learning design team meetings come together. And that’s our sort of our district wide version of the school-based school improvement panel. So yeah, we really do try to create a cohesion across the district. I want to take it one step further, right? It’s also about who we hire and how we hire. So every person for the past six years, every person that has come through the doors to be interviewed has been asked the question and now we’ve turned it into a writing sample. We need to respond to our two expectations for the entire district.
Bruce (26:31): The first expectation is that we act as a team of learning engineers who through our students make the world a better place. And the second expectation is that we’ll celebrate our work loudly and frequently to anybody that’ll listen. And they sound kind of hokey. In fact, I think Erin just kind of laughed a little bit, but you know, that’s what we’re doing. That’s our work we need to function.
Steve (26:54): I love it. I love it.
Bruce (26:54): And those are the leaders that we’re looking for. But those are the teachers that were looking for. There is a certain type of person that has to be open to that. And then those teachers go into our new staff Academy. That’s a three year process. We’re actually just going to graduate our first group. We’re really excited about that. But that’s part of that work is, we bring the coaches right into the new staff orientation so that they get to know who these individuals are that are there to help and support their work to be also to inform their work and what they need. They’re advocates for the teachers as well. So it really – as I’m walking my way backwards through that, it really has been a big collective effort to keep making sense of what we need next so that the work continues to build upon itself.
Jane (27:39): And that concept of hiring to those right people. We’ve also applied with our coaching team because as you can imagine, you know, coaches move in and out of that team into different roles. And one of the things that we’ve really tried to work hard to do is say, not who’s the best fit for our coaching team, but what do we need to strengthen our coaching team who has a skill-set that we don’t currently have that can make us all stronger? So that’s been a really important factor for us in adding people to that team.
Steve (28:07): Well folks, I’m I’m glad that that we we had this opportunity to celebrate with you in this podcast. I think you’ll you’ll enjoy listening back to to the celebration. I love the passion and enthusiasm that that all of you have shown.
Bruce (28:25): I don’t need to speak for anyone else, but we are very happy and thankful for the opportunity to come on and share our story.
All (28:31): Thank you.
Steve (28:32): Great. Thank you. Have a great day.
All (28:34): Thank you. You too.
Steve [Outro] (28:37):
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