Category Archives: School Leadership

Assets, Not Barriers: 5 Ways Teachers Can Connect With and Empower Families Across Language Barriers

This week, Bellwether staff share their perspectives on family and parent engagement. Follow Ahead of the Heard from now until Friday for a series of blog posts that tackle common misconceptions about engaged parents, working with multilingual families, and more. Click here to read other posts in the series thus far.

 

We know that parent engagement makes a difference. Students whose family members are involved in their education, regardless of their background or income, have better attendance, higher grades, and more rigorous course schedules.

But what if a language barrier keeps schools from fully connecting with parents and families?  English Language Learners are the fastest growing segment of the student population — in 2014, 11.8 million students spoke a language other than English at home. It’s imperative for schools and teachers to collaborate in support of students and families across languages. Not only that, but embracing and encouraging multiple languages and cultures (in the classroom) can be an educational asset. In order to get there, teachers must be willing to engage.

Christian Martínez-Canchola, photo via author

I spoke with my friend and former colleague, Christian Martínez-Canchola, about the best strategies teachers can employ to connect across language barriers. Christian currently serves as the Primary Years Programme Dean at Uplift Grand Preparatory in Dallas, Texas. As a classroom teacher, Christian led her bilingual students to outstanding outcomes — they consistently outperformed district averages by 30-point margins on district, state, and national assessments.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, Christian suggests five ways teachers — regardless of their language abilities — can engage multilingual families and communities in a partnership for student success:

  1. Establish trust: Speaking in a language you aren’t comfortable with is a vulnerable experience; building a trusting relationship with students and families should be one of a teacher’s first priorities. To foster this, Christian is a proponent of starting the year off with a bilingual parent survey. The outreach effort signals immediate investment to parents, and allows teachers an early look into their students’ lives. Questions range from basic contact information, to more personal inquiries. “I ask parents to describe their child’s strengths, their weaknesses, what they want to be when they grow up,” says Christian. “These are the people who know their children best.”
  2. Listen and then act: It can be easy for teachers and school staff to make well-intentioned assumptions even without a language barrier — when communication is challenging, the danger for misdiagnosis intensifies. Make conscious contact with parents and community members to identify needs.“There are always parents talking to one another. Leverage conversations with those key stakeholders — you may think parents would benefit most from a car seat drive, but in reality, they may need assistance calling the electric company or accessing dental care instead.”
  3. Redefine what engagement looks like: A narrow definition of family engagement can lead otherwise interested parents to count themselves out. Says Christian, “the parents who typically volunteer in classrooms can afford the time. For most parents though, that’s a privilege. I found that there was this misconception that parents had to physically be in the school to help, when that wasn’t the case at all.” Family members, regardless of language, can assist teachers in other ways. Classroom support can happen at home, from cutting out math manipulatives to assembling packets and leveled books. Christian adds: “Parents want to be involved. Even something small, like sending home classroom materials to be cut out, allows them to have a role in the success of their kids.”
  4. Prioritize intentionality and structure: Home visits and back-to-school nights can provide opportunities to establish trust and build partnerships. At the same time, Christian stresses the importance of planning these interactions and of not allowing them to be too ad-hoc. “If they’re intentional, [home visits] can be really impactful, but they lose all power when flimsily done,” she says. “I like when they’re structured, when schools or even outside agencies provide [teachers with] training on their actual impact and the logistical needs a bilingual home visit requires.”
  5. Empower teachers with existing resources: Districts and school leaders can connect their teaching staff with free and low-cost tools to make translation easier. Many large districts, including District of Columbia Public Schools, New York City Department of Education, and Dallas Independent School District, have translation hotlines, where teachers can reach interpreters and teams dedicated to translating documents. In addition, the Google Translate app has text translation for over 100 languages, and can translate bilingual conversations for 32 others. While not a true replacement for face-to-face translation, these tools can serve as a point of entry.


Christian’s work is fueled by a fervent desire to exemplify the strength and power of her students and their families. As one of the few Latinx and bilingual school leaders in her network, Christian says she is passionate about building a pipeline of educators who both reflect the communities that they serve and driving transformational, sustainable change. We can borrow lessons from her work empowering teachers to connect across lines of differences in the pursuit of positive outcomes for all children.

How Teacher Turnover Hurt Improvement Efforts in These Minnesota Schools

This is first in a series of blog posts and resources to offer lessons and reflections for school leaders, district officials, and education policymakers using data and stories from the McKnight Foundation Pathway Schools Initiative. The series is supported by a grant from the McKnight Foundation.

As students come back to school this fall, many will find teachers and principals they’ve never seen before. About 16 percent of teachers leave the profession or change schools every year, and that number is even higher in high-poverty schools, urban schools, and low-performing schools.

How does teacher turnover affect students and schools? The research is not always clear. Several studies in urban districts show a general negative association between turnover and student achievement. One study found negative teacher turnover effects spread even to students with veteran teachers, suggesting turnover can impact schoolwide achievement and morale. But a certain amount of turnover is inevitable, and in some cases, staff changes can improve student scores by exiting ineffective teachers or allowing teachers to take on new leadership roles in schools.

The experience of the Pathway Schools Initiative, a seven-year effort to improve third grade literacy in seven Minnesota elementary schools, sheds further light on how turnover can hurt the momentum of school improvement efforts. With the support of the McKnight Foundation, schools participating in the initiative worked with the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute (UEI) to implement PreK-3rd improvement efforts.

All seven Pathway schools were urban (located in the Twin Cities metropolitan area), relatively low performing, and predominantly low-income. But rates of teacher turnover varied widely between schools and from year to year. The graph below shows the differences in PreK-3rd grade teacher turnover among four participating schools over a two-year period.

Ultimately, schools in the Initiative struggled to make significant progress in improving PreK-3rd grade instruction and literacy outcomes. An independent evaluation conducted by SRI International identified teacher turnover as one of the major challenges, among many, facing schools in their professional development and instructional change efforts. Evaluators also found some cases where newly hired teachers were associated with lower student performance, but results were inconsistent by school and by year.[1] Overall, professional development was a huge component of the initiative, and when large numbers of teachers left, that institutional knowledge and investment left too. As one teacher told evaluators, “We’ve had so much turnover among the staff that we’re reinventing the wheel every year.”

Data collected by SRI International, from SRI 2016-17 Pathway Schools Initiative Annual Report. Note: Data were not available in this time period for every school in the Initiative.

School improvement efforts like the Pathway Schools Initiative, which focused on assessment, instruction, and professional development, need a certain level of stability to succeed. But chronic educator turnover in high-need schools should not be viewed as an inevitable reality. In blogs to come in this series, we’ll continue digging into data and stories from these schools to look at the impacts of teacher and leader turnover and examine potential action steps schools, districts, and states can take to ensure turnover is not a roadblock to school improvement.

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[1] Schmidt, R.A., Chen, W., Torre, D., Woodworth, K., and Golan, S. (2017, April). The Role of Student and School Characteristics in Predicting Early Literacy Gains. Poster Presentation at the annual conference of the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), Austin, TX, and Pathway Schools Initiative Phase 1 Case Study

Executive Coaching is a Key Ingredient of Strong Leadership — Not a Luxury

As a leader, how often have you been in a position where you had to start something new — whether it was a new role or a new project — and you knew you had to bring your leadership A-game in order to empower your team to achieve a challenging task?

As we, ourselves, stepped into new roles — Lora as Chief Talent Officer at Cleveland Metropolitan School District and Paul as Dean of Students at Achievement First Crown Heights Middle School — we found ourselves in this position. We had our sights set on success, held a vision we felt passionate about, and benefitted from a highly skilled team around us, but we knew that we would only meet our goals if our entire team was invested in that vision. We quickly learned that while having a vision is easy, bringing the team along can be really tricky.

In our experience, there are several factors that make it hard for leaders to achieve their goals or lead major reform efforts:

  • Lack of candid feedback: In most organizations — and for entirely valid reasons (e.g., fear of retaliation for providing critical feedback, bad experiences with prior bosses, unconscious biases and race dynamics, etc.)  — folks don’t often give leaders candid feedback. Indeed, the more a leader is struggling, the less likely they are to receive frequent critical feedback.
  • Difficulty gaining perspective: It can be hard to understand the interpersonal dynamics that are constantly changing while you’re in the thick of day-to-day existence. Amidst a blur of meetings, deadlines, and reports, it’s challenging to get a bird’s eye view and understand the dynamics that are truly at play.
  • Blind spots: Every one of us — leaders especially — has blind spots. By definition, these are invisible to us. It’s hard to just self-reflect your way into finding your flaws. Leaders who don’t receive candid feedback often find themselves dismayed to see their flaws mirrored back to them in their team.
  • It’s hard to row alone: Even if you get great feedback and have fantastic self-awareness, who is going to help coach you to make that change? Who will hold you accountable? Who can you thought partner with?

While these challenges are real, each of us found one invaluable tool that helped our ability to grow as leaders: executive coaching. Weekly executive coaching from a trusted adviser helped Paul see how his “let’s get things done” approach disempowered and alienated some of his teammates. Since Paul still viewed himself in the role of “doer,” he did not give his team enough autonomy to lead their own work and instead stifled their energy and creativity. For Lora, coaching helped her navigate relationships and build trust with peers by listening more, asking for support instead of expecting it, and spending time in one-on-one relationship building. For both of us, coaching helped us to be stronger leaders and to empower our team to produce stronger outcomes.

Now that we sit on the other side of the table as consultants who help coach leaders, we see firsthand the advantages of external coaches. Here are some of the most important things to consider if you’re hiring a coach:

  • Ease of perspective: Just as it’s easier to see the flaws in your in-laws’ family, identifying the dysfunctions in an organization is significantly easier when you haven’t lived in that environment. Likewise, an external perspective can be just as helpful in identifying unseen strengths that can be further leveraged. When searching for a coach, look for someone who can provide a fresh perspective on your work.
  • Freedom: As external coaches, we have no “stake in the game” in terms of office politics or interpersonal relationships. This freedom allows us to voice the uncomfortable truths that are difficult for internal teammates to share and to focus solely on the development of a leader, not the advancement of any internal agenda. Beware of coaches who don’t share uncomfortable feedback with you.
  • Trust: Because leaders often report to a boss who must both coach AND evaluate them, it can be hard to develop a rapport of trust. As external consultants with no evaluative role, it’s easier for us to build a rapport of trust with leaders because their development is the only thing we have in mind. What’s most important when searching for a coach is making sure they are someone you can deeply trust.
  • Pattern recognition: Through our work with multiple leaders and organizations, it’s easy to develop an eye for patterns that repeat themselves time and again. In searching for a coach, look for someone who has worked in similar contexts or faced similar challenges as you. Their experience will allow them to spot patterns more easily.

If you find yourself in a situation similar to ours — taking on a new challenge that will require you to be a better leader — we encourage you to consider what’s riding on your success. In our experience, external coaches can be a tremendous resource in helping you to overcome some structural challenges to becoming a stronger leader and an extremely worthwhile investment, both for you and your organization.

Our closing question to you is this: what are you willing to do to become a better leader?

Three Takeaways from the Arizona Correctional Educators’ Symposium

Last week, I spent a day with hundreds of teachers who work in Arizona’s prisons, jails, and juvenile justice facilities talking about the ways they can best support their students and continue to improve the ways that their systems operate. After presenting at the Arizona Correctional Educators’ Symposium, an annual convening and professional development event for teachers in secure schools from across the state, I found myself thinking about three key takeaways:

As in all education systems, needlessly complex bureaucracy interferes with effective teaching

Like conventional public education, most correctional education is managed by state agencies and sometimes delegated or contracted to other providers. Correctional education, however, has no consistent governance framework. Where most states have a state office of education that oversees local education agencies (LEAs), education in secure facilities is managed in nearly every conceivable way. For example, a state justice agency might have its own education division that is a complete system unto itself. Or the justice agency might have a state statutory obligation to delegate the education programming to an LEA. Or the state may determine that the geographic school district is obligated to provide education services to all secure facilities within its boundaries.

The most complicated systems to navigate are the ones in which kids cross agency lines as they move through the adjudication process. Arizona is one of those states. As kids move from arrest to confinement to reentry, they’ll likely attend several different schools managed by different agencies or offices. This means that education programming is often imperfectly aligned over the long term and that kids risk missing essential skills instruction or losing out on accrued credit hours. For teachers, they’re doing their best to meet the needs of the kids who show up each day in their classrooms, but they often don’t know who that will be (or how long they’ll stay).

The people who work in these schools are hungry for relevant professional development

I lost track of how many times a teacher told me how grateful they were to have the opportunity to get professional development from people who understand the constraints that they work within. These aren’t the kinds of restrictions that you might assume: teachers are far more frustrated by the loss of instructional time from frequent interruptions than they are about student misbehavior.

Today, most education training is focused on conventional community-based schools, and it doesn’t feel relevant for teachers in secure facilities. And most of the training that’s designed with them in mind is safety and compliance-focused; there’s very little offered to help them improve their practice as educators.

Teachers everywhere do the best they can in the circumstances that they’re in

I am always so incredibly impressed with the commitment and resilience of teachers who work in justice facilities. I spoke with a group over lunch who laughed that the response “But that doesn’t make sense!” should be the unofficial guiding theme of the policies that regulate their work. For example, Dante’s The Inferno is banned in school libraries, but the collective work of The Divine Comedy isn’t; Teachers hold statutory special education responsibilities under federal law for students disabilities but often only find out about a change in a student’s education program after a student has been moved out of their classroom; and teachers run their classrooms at the mercy of the secure care staff who have full discretion to pull students out of class or even to close school for the entire day.

But you know what I never heard at the symposium? I never heard a group of teachers complain about their students. Teachers that I talked to hold so much hope and optimism for the potential of their students, and despite many institutional incentives to become complacent, they still bring their best effort to their classrooms every day.

Anything But Equal Pay: How American Teachers Get a Raw Deal

Want a positive financial return on your degree? Try electrical engineering or computer programming. Maybe advertising, or even drama. But don’t become a teacher.

Michigan State University’s annual report on starting salaries by college major show the average middle school math and science education major can expect to earn around $38,706 upon graduation. Pre-k and kindergarten teachers take the bottom spot, at $35,626. While it isn’t terribly surprising to see a chemical engineering major starting around $61,125, even music/drama/visual arts majors beat out teachers, averaging $40,681.

Michigan State University Recruiting Trends 2016-17

But it gets worse: When compared to similarly educated workers in other developed nations, American teachers are exceptionally underpaid.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Education at a Glance 2016

In developed countries, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the average middle school teacher makes around 85 percent of what other college-educated workers earn. But in the United States, teachers fare even worse. In 2014, the average American middle school teacher earned just 69 percent of what her similarly educated peers made. This gap is disheartening, to say the least, and doesn’t speak particularly well of national priorities.

These gaps are even worse for the 76 percent of American teachers who are female. Most strikingly, we know that when women enter male-dominated fields, average salaries drop. We know that despite making up the majority of the teacher workforce, and thus often the principal and superintendent hiring pool, women are less likely to become school administrators. We know that it is especially bad out here for women of color. We’ve debunked argument after argument used to explain away low educator wages, arguments which cite everything from summer vacations and pension benefits to innate altruism and family flexibility.

We need to pay teachers more, because we need to pay women more.  We know that high-quality teachers have lasting, positive effects on their students’ future earnings.

All that said, this discussion is nuanced. Teacher accountability and professional development matter while we must reexamine abysmal starting salaries, I’m not suggesting we simply raise wages and then stand back and wait for greatness. But I am suggesting that we consistently devalue the work women do, and when considering Equal Pay Day, we should start with teachers.

Read my colleague Marnie’s Equal Pay Day post here.