Student Centered Leading and Learning, Powered by The Breakthrough Coach
School and district administrators in high-performing school districts who have mastered successful instructional leadership are recognizing that very good is not good enough to prepare students to meet the challenges of the 21st century. To be great, they must overhaul and transform teaching and learning at every grade level, a monumental task given the obligations and distractions encountered from the moment they walk into a school building.
Farmington Public Schools Superintendent Kathy Greider and her team know what it takes. Hired in 2009, she was tasked with developing a five-year set of goals for the district, a central Connecticut suburb with a population of 26,000 residents, including many well-educated professionals who value both a tradition of excellence and innovative forward-thinking ideas.
In considering what its high-achieving students would need to succeed and thrive in the rapidly changing 21st century, Greider and her administrative team concluded that despite a 90% plus graduation rate and high achievement on standardized tests, the measures of success that worked in the past—content mastery alone––could not prepare students for the thinking and learning skills demanded by future employers and colleges. Students could not rely on teachers telling them what they needed to know, then memorizing it and regurgitating it back on a traditional test.
Instead, the team set its sights on transforming teaching and learning into a student-directed system where teachers partner with students to turn work over to them, while cultivating student agency and choice, so that Farmington’s students become leaders of their own learning.
“Students can no longer passively listen to lectures. They need to be actively engaged in meaningful learning tasks and content that integrate problem-solving, innovation and reasoning skills, communication and collaboration required for success in college, work and life,” Greider explained. “They need to engage in deep learning and acquire self-direction and resourcefulness within a student-centered learning approach.”
After a year of research and outreach to parents, students, the extended community and elected officials, the district’s board of education adopted Farmington’s “Vision of the Graduate.” The dramatic educational shift would affect all 4,000 students: high school, grades 9-12; middle school, grades 7-8; upper elementary school, grades 5-6; and the four elementary schools, grades K-4.
“We demonstrated that students’ education is significantly enhanced by integrating transferable thinking and learning skills into academic content and standards,” Greider said. “As a result, our self-directed students are better equipped to meet future challenges, having the skills to adjust and adapt to change.”
The necessity for new lessons and teaching methods, combined with the emphasis on innovation, experimentation, risk-taking and even failure, underscored the demand for ongoing coaching and support, including expanded professional development opportunities for staff and school leaders, during and after school and over the summer.
Managing that transformation loomed as a nearly impossible goal given the long hours, day-to-day responsibilities, routine tasks and unpredictable interruptions experienced by administrators. But Greider had a plan.
A student of The Breakthrough Coach (TBC) management philosophy and a veteran TBC practitioner since 2002, Greider recognized that when she formed a strategic administrative partnership with her secretary, she had ample time to be in classrooms addressing issues in real time.
“As a second-year principal, The Breakthrough Coach immediately resonated with me. It made all the difference in the world,” said Greider, who often had worked until midnight completing paperwork. “As a superintendent, I could see the power in the whole district implementing this innovative approach.”
As soon as she arrived in Farmington, she encouraged and supported her administrative staff and their secretaries (who also may function as office managers or administrative assistants) to participate in The Breakthrough Coach 2-Day Course. The Breakthrough Coach is an educational training and consulting firm that specializes in teaching school administrators how to get out of their offices and into classrooms to observe classroom instruction for two full days every week. The Breakthrough Coach’s philosophy is simple:
Schools produce breakthrough results in student outcomes when administrators spend two full days each week in classrooms training, developing and coaching teachers;
In order for administrators to spend two full days each week in classrooms, they must train and empower their secretaries to run the front office.
The Breakthrough Coach Fundamentals
THE SCHOOL LEADER IN CLASSROOMS
“We were expecting a reinvented instructional model aligned to our Vision of the Graduate to be implemented, with new expectations for students. We definitely needed to be in classrooms providing feedback, support and coaching in partnership with our faculty and students,” Greider said. She faithfully goes into classrooms every Tuesday, all day, affirming her commitment to The Breakthrough Coach Fundamental Practices™ and serving as a model for administrators and principals.
“Teachers and students appreciate that the superintendent is willing to spend time in their classrooms, so I truly know where their successes and challenges lie,” she said. “Students are eager to share what they are learning, why it’s important, and how they know whether they are producing exemplary work that is not only meaningful to them but makes an impact on our local and world community.”
Greider, in collaboration with district leaders, supports administrators and teachers to set improvement goals, engage in improvement routines, and practice The Breakthrough Coach Fundamentals™ to fulfill Farmington’s Vision of the Graduate. They then design their work schedules to reflect this commitment.
Administrators calendar up to two specific days every week, eight weeks out, for observing teaching and learning in classrooms. This routine of dedicating up to two full days a week in classrooms keeps them focused on coaching and supporting teachers, viewing instruction, and providing ongoing and actionable feedback. The other days in the eight-week cycle are dedicated “Office Days” when meetings, phone calls, paperwork, and administrative projects are scheduled for completion.
But without their secretaries maintaining strict control over their calendars, administrators say that they would never leave their offices due to the demands of the position.
THE SECRETARY AS STRATEGIC PARTNER
The Breakthrough Coach teaches administrators and secretaries specific practices and routines that enable administrators to both grow their secretaries’ leadership capabilities, and to delegate the bulk of day-to-day operational tasks to them. This process, in turn, frees administrators to coach, monitor and support teachers. In addition to managing school leaders’ calendars, Breakthrough Coach-trained secretaries defend against unscheduled, time-consuming interruptions, prioritize immediate and future tasks and, depending on the willingness of the administrator, manage and respond to emails.
Farmington administrators and secretaries credit this special partnership for the sense of accomplishment in their jobs. “It’s just how we operate,” said Mary Paganini, Greider’s administrative assistant. “We meet every day, typically early in the morning, to conduct what The Breakthrough Coach calls ‘The Daily Secretary Meeting.’ This practice of communicating regularly, plus the organizational piece, allows me to accomplish what I need to do in the day. I can work independently. It makes me feel like a more valuable player. We are partners.”
Today, Farmington’s comprehensive vision permeates the district from the board of education to the central office, into the classrooms and the students. It is embedded in the curriculum and aligned with budget requests, observations, evaluations and professional development. “You have to be self-directed, you have to persist, you have to problem-solve, you have to communicate,” said math and literacy specialist, Michelle Peterson. “That’s the future and that’s what we’re getting kids ready to do. That is the way of the world, and as teachers we have to get on board.”
Never satisfied with the status quo, the Farmington faculty continually examine and revise their approach to evaluate teaching and learning. Their efforts show dramatic success for both student performance and district rankings. U.S. News and World Report, the Washington Post, and Newsweek all named Farmington High School as one of the top Connecticut high schools. Education Week listed it as the only school district in Connecticut “Worth Visiting.” Farmington implemented the College Work and Readiness Assessment, which determined that Farmington’s 10th graders out-performed 12th graders nationally. “By every measure, Farmington strives to lead the way in Connecticut and beyond,” Greider said.
“Because state mastery tests now measure critical thinking, districts that just teach content are missing what this assessment is calling for students to do,” said Assistant Superintendent Wynne. Farmington’s student growth levels from year to year are impressive on these assessments and place Farmington as one of the top performing school districts on Connecticut’s accountability system both in absolute achievement and student growth.
As one gauge, the percentage of Farmington students who meet or exceed expected achievement levels regularly outperform the state average in English/Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics assessment tests, as demonstrated in 2017: Grade 4 ELA (82% vs 54%), Math (85% vs 50%). Grade 6 ELA (83% vs 54%), Math (73% vs 44%). Grade 8 ELA (77% vs 54%), Math (76% vs 42%). Eleventh grade SAT scores showed similar results: ELA (88% vs. 66%), Math (67% vs 41%).
Wynne noted that acceptances in colleges have improved and colleges welcome Farmington graduates, trusting that these students will succeed. 97% of the Class of 2017 continued on to 250 colleges and universities or military service. 62% were accepted at colleges ranked most, highly or very competitive. Equally important, graduates report they are doing well in college and that the freshman year was a breeze.
“We care about our students and they feel a sense of belonging here. On the academic side, they know that their role as a student is to be innovative, to be creative, to take academic risks that take them to the next level,” Greider said. “The Breakthrough Coach gets me and all the administrators out in classrooms and hallways to connect with students and faculty, as well as to coach and support effective teaching and learning throughout the district.”