Mission Accomplished: Instructional Leadership on a Shoestring Budget

by Dr. Bryan Drost

In our modern age of school accountability, the most important job of the school administrator is instructional leadership.  Yet, leading a staff through instructional shift is no easy task.  Insert a shoestring budget where there is no money for instructional coaches and limited funds for professional learning, and you have at times what some in my district have referred to as an insurmountable challenge.

This has been my life as an administrator for the past year. As Director of Educational Services (read that as jack of all trades, even though my contract says Curriculum and Instruction, Human Resources, Technology, and Professional Development) for a small district in northeast Ohio, my focus this year has been to help our staff identify and apply the instructional shifts that are necessary to help meet the standards in language arts and math with fidelity. As there is only one of me, my goal was to teach our principals to be coaches on the instructional shifts as well as hire a literacy and/or math coach to help ensure that our teachers could integrate the shifts into their daily lessons.

Sounded like a great plan: request denied as the money tree hadn’t been fertilized again this past year.

Given this obstacle and the importance of developing our staff’s understanding so they implement the instructional shifts, I created a style of professional development, that internally, I referred to as the “Elite.”  This model is applicable to pretty much any “project” that you might have (I can say that I have replicated it with two other initiatives that I didn’t think I could pay for this year either).

Here’s what I did:  I developed a presentation for my principals on instructional shifts and did some activities with them to help them understand what they looked like, sounded like, and felt like in the classroom.  Next, I sent them off to learn what it was like to be an instructional coach at a local professional development conference.  During this training, we studied Hall & Simeral’s book, Building Teachers’ Capacity for Success (2008). The intent behind this was to help them understand how to support their teachers as we were asking them to change their instructional habits.

Next, I asked my principals to identify teachers at each of their various grade level bands that met the following criteria: those that completely get the instructional shifts and are applying them (translation = 1), those that have glimmers of it (about 4), those that could easily learn given enough time and support (five), and those that we need to get up to speed yesterday (a bunch).

From there, I built a cross-representational group (I always believe in keeping your naysayers close by and put a high performer or too on there so I didn’t commit myself).  Next, I worked intensively with this team on two pull-out days in relationship to the shifts and then brought in a consultant from our county to have them do some co-teaching within their classrooms, so that they could be guided while implementing the shifts within the classroom (again there is only one of me).  These Elite teachers grew in their understanding of the shifts tremendously since we started, can now incorporate the shifts into most lessons, and self-reflect on the process. For me, this entire process has only cost me sub-money and two boxes of donuts (because we have to be real, nobody wants to meet at 7:00 A.M. and be developed on some other crazy initiative that the CD has put into place that will “go away next year”).   

Now for the twist and to ensure that it doesn’t go away: next year, my Elite teachers will do a presentation for staff on our professional development day explaining what they’ve learned and the “services” that they can provide to teachers during the school year (translation = no cost and I just saved myself at least $1000 on getting a speaker for the day).  Their services are as follows: each of my Elite receive two “release days,” where they can work with other teachers in their classrooms, helping to plan as well as helping to work through lessons that meet the shifts and that help support our students and teachers in meeting Ohio’s Learning Standards.  I did a demo of the process this year to make sure this would work with two Elite, and staff have latched onto them, as they like the fact that the “expert” is right down the hall from them. Mission accomplished: instructional leadership on a shoestring budget.

Although this blog entry paints a rosy picture, everything wasn’t completely kosher as change is difficult.  We had one staff member drop out of the group, one staff member who was upset that they were not asked to join the group, and another staff member who didn’t feel comfortable supporting her peers. In hindsight, I probably should have done an application process for the group and then encouraged those who didn’t apply who I felt were crucial to its success to apply.  Given the amount of learning that the Elite have put in, I also wish that I had been able to find a way to secure some type of college credit for them.  

I can say that despite the messiness, our staff is improving in their understanding of the shifts and my budget line isn’t bleeding red (although June 30 is right around the corner and I have about 10 purchase requisitions yet to sign off on). I do believe that by addressing professional learning in this way, we are building capacity amongst the staff, which is helping to foster the change process.  This capacity will lead to further instructional growth for our students; it is a change process that will stick as it is coming directly from our staff within our ways and means.