Thought Partners: A Critical Relationship for Professional Growth

by Marcia Pool Rutherford, Ed.S. & Tricia Ebner, M. Ed., NBCT

A term heard around education circles recently is that of “Thought Partners.” It’s a term used in the business world that has practical application capabilities in the education world.  Essentially, it means having a pair of listening ears sharing and challenging  your thoughts and plans about a particular topic. But while it might seem like a Thought Partner should share similar perspectives and ideas, that’s not necessarily the case.

The Thinking Collaborative, an organization committed to developing and supporting thinking and collaboration within groups, identifies three specific traits of thought partners. First, Thought Partners challenge each other’s thinking, pushing each other to consider ideas from different angles. Thought Partners can help change each other’s thinking and actions. The critical feedback can help a person see a situation differently, prompting a different way of thinking about it and even provide different actions in addressing the problem. Finally, Thought Partners can share information and spark ideas that lead to substantial change. Through the discussion and feedback Thought Partners provide to each other, both partners may ultimate make significant changes in the work they do.  

A Thought Partner isn’t necessarily a colleague with whom you work in a structure such as a team or PLC. The relationships and culture within these kinds of work collaborations don’t always allow for the honesty and critical thought required of Thought Partners.  A Thought Partner isn’t necessarily a friend in the social sense, either. Thought Partners are those to whom you turn when you want a critical eye and ear providing feedback on an idea or action. As the Family Engagement and Title I Coordinator for a digital school, Marcia Rutherford and two others were tasked to build a tiered interventions system which would impact all of our teachers and students.  Within the collaborative discussions, which took place via email, online and face to face, a relationship developed among the three that was honest, productive and motivating.  We all felt we were free to add our voice to the project even though there were contrary opinions. Moreover, our own strengths came to the forefront; we could not come to any discussion without ‘knowing our stuff’.  Difficult discussions were welcomed because we trusted the others’ opinion and knew our own craft would be improved.  We were better for it and because of it.  .  

Thought Partners are valuable resources. In our work as educators, we sometimes need a more objective ear and eye to provide perspective. When I am wrestling with an idea I’d like to try within my classroom, turning to a Thought Partner can help me better identify the strengths and weaknesses within my idea. What might initially seem like a great idea may have flaws that I hadn’t considered, but my Thought Partner, through careful listening and reflection, can raise questions that lead me to see aspects of the idea that need improvement. A Thought Partner is a sounding board. It’s also a true partnership. Not only do I ask my Thought Partner for feedback, but I also provide feedback when he or she needs it.

Think of it in this way: children working in maker spaces often rely on those around them to be Thought Partners. They will ask others for their reactions and suggestions to what they are building, all in the interests of improving the design and completing a successful project. They are using their knowledge and confidence about familiar resources to create something new, and the honest feedback from others is valued. As educators, we sometimes need a similar sounding board. By working in tandem with a Thought Partner, we have a sounding board willing to listen to our ideas and provide feedback.

There are some key principles guiding Thought Partners’ work with each other:

  1. A Thought Partner should challenge one’s thinking. He or she isn’t meant to be a cheerleader, necessarily, serving solely as confirmation that the decision you’re making is the best one. There may be times when a Thought Partner does that, but perhaps even more important are the moments when the partner shares a different perspective or raises potential issues that hadn’t been considered yet.
  2. A Thought Partnership is a true partnership. There is give and take. A Thought Partner must be willing to ask those thought-provoking, critical questions. As Thought Partners, we need to be willing to have those honest conversations.There is a mutual understanding that even though the feedback may be more negative, it is shared with the mutual goal of learning, growing, and moving forward.
  3. Thought Partners don’t necessarily have to be geographically close. Some partnerships may not meet face-to-face in the same space. It’s a relationships built around the common goal of improving practice. In fact, in some ways it may be best if the Thought Partner isn’t a colleague on the same staff or in the same district. The objectivity that comes with distance allows for a different perspective and possibly more honest discussion. Hearing how others in different parts of the country have faced similar challenges can be reassuring and inspiring.

As the 2017-18 school year unfolds, it’s worth taking a few moments to reflect on our partnerships. To whom might you turn as a potential Thought Partner?  If you have a Thought Partner, how can you continue to build and support that relationship? What discussions can you have with a potential Thought partner to begin a more collegial dialogue?  Take time to assess your needs as a teacher and identify others who share the same struggles.  Let the discussion unfold and let the relationship develop naturally.  The benefits of developing a Thought Partnership are tremendous for students and educators alike.

Assessment Literacy: What educators need to know and understand about assessments to strengthen teaching

by Dr. Bryan R. Drost

Whether we like it or not, assessment is a hot topic for everyone in education right now: how do we know students have learned? How have we formatively assessed?  Are teachers making the right instructional adjustments based on assessment for learning?  Are we asking kids the right questions?  The list goes on.  

What all of these questions bring to mind is the fact that educators, now more than ever, must have a solid understanding of assessment literacy.  Chappius et al (2011) describe assessment literacy as follows: “Assessment-literate educators…come to any assessment knowing what they are assessing, why they are doing so, how best to assess the achievement of interest, how to generate sound samples of performance, what can go wrong, and how to prevent these problems before they occur.”

As exciting as assessment literacy is to me as a psychometric, my reality as a curriculum director, principal, professor, and teacher, has been that many educators have never learned to write and use assessments in this manner. On the one hand, I don’t hold them personally responsible, as it is something that has never been taught to them. On the other hand, I do hold myself personally liable for teaching them as “how a teacher tests–the way a teacher designs tests and applies test data–can profoundly affect how well that teacher teaches” (Popham, 2003). As research has proven time and time, the connection between teaching and assessment is critical.  When this critical connection is understood, instruction improves (Drost, 2012).  

To help solve the assessment problems that were happening in my previous district, I built a professional learning community over the course of the year for my teachers.  To start with, I had teachers list all of the assessments that we were giving throughout the district as I had heard many times that we were giving too many. This helped teachers reflect on what we were actually doing and to really think about assessments in terms of formative and/or summative purposes. It also encouraged a bit of buy-in to this assessment literacy PLC as we were home to the opt-out movement in our county and several of my teachers wanted assessments gone, period.

Next, we analyzed the following three articles to give the group a knowledge base in relationship to assessment:

By exploring these articles, the team learned that it needed to be our mission if we wanted to improve instruction for our students and to continue to meet state standards that we needed to become more data literate.  

Now that minds had been primed, I worked with my teachers to understand the test development process, a process I have personally experienced at the state and national levels several times.  I focused on the idea that data is evidence of student mastery and that data is only effective if it ties back to claims—i.e. if students can answer a particular type of question correctly, an instructor can infer what a student knows or can do. I asked teachers to bring some of the assessments they had been giving and from a psychometric perspective, we began looking at the questions in terms of validity: did the assessment questions give evidence of student learning tied back to the standard?

To help support teachers in answering this rather lofty question, I utilized a template for a Table of Specifications found in Guskey’s (1997) text Implementing Mastery Learning.   After analyzing our own assessments (resource specific or teacher-created), and finding that we had a ton of gaps in relationship to student learning, we began to analyze Ohio’s released items in science and social studies in relationship to performance level descriptors and blueprints.  Ah-hah’s quickly showed up: staff members were surprised to see that questions that the state had written that were once “just too difficult for students to answer” were really truly aligned to the standards and their expectations.

Following these ah-hahs, we as an instructional staff were now ready to design assessment tasks that met the levels of understanding that students needed to demonstrate.  Utilizing Scalise’s chart on assessment question types, we back mapped assessments using a table of specifications and developed the following filters as things to look for as we wrote new questions. Each of the filters is designed to get at the overarching question of what evidence of student learning are you going to look for?

Filter 1 – Identify skills in learning sub-targets to assess

  • Have you identified all skills in learning sub-targets that represent all students included in the assessment?
  • Have you included questions/answer choices that allow students at each level to show you where they are in their mastery?
Filter 2 – Identify the level of rigor and/or Depth of Knowledge of the learning sub-targets

  • Is the degree of rigor for each skill identified by its approximate level according to Bloom’s Taxonomy and/or Depth of Knowledge?
  • Have you accounted for the content literacy standards?
  • Do you have items in place that allow them to show what they know at the right level of complexity?
Filter 3 – Determine types of assessment questions

  • Have you determined the appropriate type of assessment questions to assess skills?
Filter 4 – Additional considerations

  • Is the number of assessment items concise?
  • Will the scoring of the assessment measure the level of mastery for each learning target?
  • Is there vocabulary in the question that would impede student understanding of what is being assessed?
  • Do you have differentiated materials for students to communicate their responses?

At the end of the year, I was proud to say that we had solid assessments in language arts and math in many grade-levels that aligned to the standards.  Were they perfect?  No! Did tweaks need to happen to some of them? Definitely.  Did kids misinterpret questions – yup!  Did some teachers need to adjust instruction in relationship to their data – of course! Does the staff still have room to grow – completely! Did we strengthen our teaching as a result of this process – completely!


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.