At Farmington Public Schools in central Connecticut, administrators and principals find both the time and mental space to create, support and sustain a seismic shift in how teachers teach and students learn. From kindergarten through high school, teachers actively engage students to become leaders of their own learning, working independently or in small groups, collaborating with their peers, and monitoring their own progress and mastery of learning targets.
They do it by embracing the philosophy and daily practices of The Breakthrough Coach, 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, demonstrated during The Breakthrough Coach Foundations Course, 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.
In their new partnership role, secretaries set the agenda for a Daily Secretary Meeting, manage and control calendars, separate urgent from non-urgent items, act as gatekeepers and often manage emails, making it possible for administrators to be in classrooms observing teachers. To a person, Farmington administrators said that adherence to a secretary-designed schedule, and the ultimate recognition that they cannot do everything themselves, transformed their priorities, giving them the time – and permission – to not only be in the classroom but to think about the bigger picture.
“The Breakthrough Coach informs my coaching principles and improvement routines,” said Superintendent Kathy Greider, who visits classrooms every Tuesday, all day. “We have a deep commitment to supporting our teachers as they implement innovative practices aligned to our Vision of the Graduate. If we see something that’s not going so well, we can course-correct right away in collaboration with our outstanding teachers and students. We regularly engage in instructional rounds with teachers, administrators and students, which provides real feed-back. We’re always adjusting —identifying needs and successes.”
“It causes you to step back, to step outside yourself and think about how you’re really spending your time, what’s productive, what’s nonproductive, who should be doing which tasks, and what are the tasks that can only be done by me,” said Assistant Superintendent Kimberly Wynne.
Wynne, who visits classrooms at least one day each week, credits the training she and her secretary received from The Breakthrough Coach. “It has given me permission to block off time in my weekly schedule, which is the best way for me to know what teachers are thinking and whether we really do have student-directed learning. Our job is to provide them with time and new ideas, to keep nurturing innovation, and to be clear that we’re asking a lot—it doesn’t all have to be done tomorrow.”
Implementation alters routines and the administrator-secretary partnership may need time to make those changes and determine which of The Breakthrough Coach Fundamental Practices™ work best for them.
“Turning over tasks to my secretary, who supports two administrators, required a big learning curve,” said Wynne, who confessed that they do not always hold the Daily Secretary Meeting. “It was extremely hard for me to recognize that she could do it, that she could send emails and gather resources. But now when I sit down to do a task, the ground work has been done.”
High School Principal
Being in the classroom is central for Dr. William Silva, Farmington High School Principal, who sees himself as an instructional leader whose job it is to collaborate with his team. Besides formal observations, he may schedule impromptu 15-minute visits “getting the pulse of the teaching and learning hands-on. That’s my most important job, to be able to speak to teaching and learning in the building.”
For Principal Silva, who ‘religiously’ meets with his secretary at the end of every day after the final bell has rung, the most important take-away from The Breakthrough Coach was understanding the dynamics of the administrator-secretary relationship, and how it gave him permission to turn over items such as managing his schedule to his assistant.
Rather than continually updating a to-do list, Silva sees the bigger picture and does not make decisions off the cuff. “It involves breaking some bad habits,” said Silva. “I’d never turned things over before, but now I’m more comfortable delegating tasks to my secretary, knowing that because I am regularly communicating with her in Daily Meeting, tasks will be completed the right way.”
His secretary, Denise Martin, said Silva has empowered her to make decisions on her own and she feels very comfortable in that role. “He’ll often say, ‘that’s what I would have done.’ I’m a real partner and I think it’s definitely helped him to get out in the classroom more.”
Elementary School Principal
Alicia Bowman, West Woods Upper Elementary School Principal, schedules two days a week, one full day and two half-days, for visits or observations. “The benefit is that I’m not in a reactive mode with teachers or students. If I’m in my office I don’t know what’s happening in classrooms and throughout the school.”
Bowman, who has had two children while in her role as principal in Farmington, portrayed The Breakthrough Coach course as “very powerful” because of the structure and balance it brings to her work and her personal life. Bowman appreciates that she attended the training with her administrative assistant. The course leader, someone from the outside, taught them how to be an efficient and collaborative team.
“It’s important to see it working. Our superintendent thought this was important, brought it here, and is effective with her time. It made me want to commit to the approach because it promotes and supports improvement across schools.”
Teachers also benefit from The Breakthrough Coach system. “I spend a lot of time with Alicia Bowman and she is very available,” said Tara Vazquez, the science and social studies specialist. “Her assistant just knows everything. She’s in charge of her schedule. She’s helpful in finding time for me. The assistant sets up the time and is very organized.”
Elementary School Principal
Renee St. Hilaire, principal of East Farms Elementary School, visits classrooms on her own twice a week, reserving a third day for group visits with teachers and students, all clearly delineated on her calendar. With the face-to-face contact, she handles problems before they become bigger, while establishing and maintaining relationships with teachers and students.
“Everyone wants time with me and I can’t do that if I’m tied down with paperwork. I only know life as a Breakthrough Coach-trained principal and practitioner. I can’t imagine how I would have survived the first years without it. This is a hard job with a lot of things to juggle and often the most important—being out in the classrooms—can go by the wayside. The Breakthrough Coach system allows me to do what’s most important.
“Now I can do more thoughtful planning, some deep thinking, and meaningful leadership work. I don’t think I ever would have done that without The Breakthrough Coach.”