One Decision Can Change a District: An Indiana Principal’s Journey

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By Dr. Jane Bartley

As we plan our professional and personal enrichment for each new school year, we naturally think about the types of collaboration and partnerships that will help us grow. For me, that partnership has been with Instructional Empowerment, and it all started with one decision: to attend IE’s annual conference, Building Expertise.

Creating an environment of professional inquiry

Years ago, as a principal in the third largest Indiana district (in Evansville), I didn’t pay much attention to the funding cycle. I soon discovered that it’s incredibly important if you’re planning significant PD.

I had control only over my school’s discretionary spending, and there was money available. My fundraisers were always successful. We also had monies derived from school pictures, gifts, and allocations from our very robust PTA. I could pay for professional development and substitute teachers. I could be intentional about sending staff to conferences and workshops that fit with our school improvement plans.

I was blessed and I didn’t take it for granted. I endeavored to create an environment of professional inquiry by attending conferences and workshops.

Transforming schools, not tweaking them

As luck would have it, there was enough money in my small budget the first year to send one person to the Building Expertise conference. I sent me. Two others from my district attended using Title I funding. Unfortunately, in my excitement about my new learning, I would forget this lesson the following year.

This experience changed me. Instead of just helping me grow professionally, it imbued me with a sense of urgency and excitement about transforming schooling instead of tweaking it around the edges.

Throughout the week, we heard again and again that traditional schooling continued to prepare our kids for life after school in a 1950’s economy. For our students to be successful in the 21st century, we had to break out of the typical teacher-centered classroom paradigm. I was jazzed.

David Sousa, Anthony Mohammad, Robert Marzano, Susan Brookhart, Dylan Wiliam, and other giants of the profession, along with Michael D. Toth and a cadre of experienced IE staff developers, created three days of energized learning among 2,000 dedicated professionals.

The conference clarified my vision for the future, realigned my thinking about productive professional PD, and reinforced my beliefs around effective instruction. Building Expertise was by far the best, most beneficial conference I had ever attended.

Changing the “bless their hearts” mindset

Back home, I set out immediately to gather district trailblazers who would thoroughly examine instruction. Our first order of business was to change our beliefs about who could learn at high levels.

To shift into new economy thinking, we had to reject the “bless their hearts” mindset that was particularly prevalent in high-needs schools. All too often, teachers had lower expectations for children living in poverty compared to their suburban peers.

I coined the phrase, “Bless their hearts,” as in, “Bless their hearts they don’t have a supportive home life, so how can I expect the same outcomes from my instruction?” Trailblazer administrators and teachers understood the implications immediately and started to shift their thinking.

I intentionally started to include the phrase, “Building expert teachers” into my vernacular. Current research tells us that the quality of teachers and their instruction has a significant impact on student achievement. High expectations are part of that concept. There is no need to wring our hands and lament over our inability to change student home life. Expert teachers are getting the job done by increasing achievement for all children, not just for students living in middle- and upper-class homes.

Use it or lose it

Once I had my “believers,” we went about looking for alignment with school improvement plans so others could send representatives to the next Building Expertise conference. To my chagrin, however, most of that money had already been encumbered and we had missed an opportunity to jump-start the district with the Building Expertise model.

In creating a shared understanding of how IE’s event was very different than the typical conference, I had forgotten about funding. In fact, as our excitement was building, we all forgot about the money.

I was able to attend that second year and brought along another interested building administrator. A few other administrators found discretionary funds and were able to attend or send teachers/coaches, as well. However, we did not have enough attendees to sufficiently bring back a message that would resonate throughout the district. Starting early and getting the funding set was now #1 on my list for the next year.

Implementing Schools for Rigor

The following year, about 40 of us attended, making it possible to develop a common language of instruction across the district.

The year after that, our attendance doubled. Several schools were looking to become Demonstration Schools for Rigor. We scheduled a group of ten administrators from Evansville to tour Palm Beach County, Florida elementary and middle schools that were one year into the journey.

That group generated lots of questions and several district administrators committed to attend Building Expertise so they could have a better understanding of what made IE’s model different from all the rest.

Questions were answered and interactions at the conference cemented the vision as I knew it would. The shift from old-economy to new-economy thinking was happening in my district.

Six Evansville schools now on the journey

In September of 2015, three schools started the hard work of shifting mindsets and building expert teachers with the help of IE. It was our hope that we would be adding three more the following year if the project was seeing results.

During the summer, two of our three principals from the first-year cohort presented at the ’17 Building Expertise conference and three more schools were added to the project for the ’17-’18 school year in August.

I have since retired after 42 years in schools, but I have not retired from my passion for learning and supporting the great work already in districts across the nation. If you have an opportunity to work with IE and create a transformation in your school or district, take it from me: this is an organization like no other, and you’ll be glad you’re a part of it.

Here are some Evansville teachers and administrators discussing the changes they’ve seen since the district partnered with IE to become Schools for Rigor: