I’m honored and excited to share this guest post written by Dr. Marc Bertrando, Superintendent of Schools for the Garnet Valley School District. Dr. Bertrando is entering his 27th year in public education. He began his career teaching 7th through 12th grades English and Public Speaking, levels Basic through Advanced Placement Language and Composition. He served as a high school assistant principal and principal as well as an assistant superintendent before becoming the Superintendent of the Garnet Valley School District where he is entering his 5th year. Marc lives in West Chester, Pennsylvania with his wife Monique and their three school aged children.
Connecting the Work–The Why
Over the last two years our district leaders created overarching themes to scaffold and connect our collective work in maximizing student potential. The first theme was the concept of balance. Educators today are forced to balance a multitude of conflicting initiatives, roles, and responsibilities. For example, they balance the pressure to provide academic rigor with what they know is socially and emotionally appropriate for the whole child, they balance mandated assessments with the need for real time formative feedback, they balance district professional learning with legislatively directed training, they balance classroom time with being pulled out for various building and district meetings, and they balance new technologies with the ones that seemingly “just came out”. For our faculty and staff, this burgeoning list is just a small sampling of their daily push and pull.
The second theme was staying committed to the needs of our “end users”. As we grow formal and informal leaders throughout our organization, the district believes that although our primary and main focus is our students, we also have a responsibility to our adults and their needs. Creating a safe and caring environment where all members of the school community can thrive results in healthy, professionally developed educators who feel supported. These balanced educators, consequently, can devote their full attention to personalizing the education for their students.
It was the nexus of these two themes–balance and focusing on the needs of our end users–where we believed our third theme, authentic and purposeful innovation, would have the greatest impact. For our students, the district felt that it demonstrated a capacity to innovate so that our children received the most impactful practices and programs, but what about our adults? What could we do that was purposeful, authentic, and anchored in a safe and caring approach that would meet their basic professional needs.
Low Lying Fruit–The What
Like most districts, we start the school year with a large “kick off” meeting with our administration, faculty, and staff. We first gather in the high school cafeteria where everyone grabs a coffee and a bagel, rekindles old relationships and catches up with friends and colleagues. Everyone is then shepherded into the auditorium for speeches, videos, performances, games, and whatever else the superintendent and/or association presidents created. In their best form, these meetings are informative and inspiring; however, at their worst, they are anywhere from one to three hours of incessant talking, isolated data points, and bored educators.
Through the lens of our district themes, we looked for actionable ways to implement our belief systems. It was immediately after last year’s Opening Day ceremonies when we started to examine this district tradition in terms of its cost vs. benefit for our end users. Overall, our staff viewed it positively; however, including travel time for our faculty and staff to arrive from our five other schools, the opening day ceremony took up to two and half hours. After factoring the hours available during our three inservice days prior to the student school year, we found that if we subtracted lunch and the opening day ceremony, our teachers were left with only nineteen and half hours to prepare for the new school year. Keeping our themes of balance and the end user in mind, it was hypocritical to expect our teachers to perform the many responsibilities necessary to prepare for students, actively participate in building and district meetings, and engage in professional learning within a nineteen and half hour period of time.
Through our examination and after countless conversations and feedback sessions, the age old obstacle of time had emerged once again. It continued as the single greatest burden to balance and the scarcest of commodities for our educators.
Opening Day on Schoology–The How
The timing of our reflection on our opening day activities could not have been better. Our district was in year two of implementing its technology strategic plan. Among the many positive outcomes of the plan was the selection of Schoology as the district’s learning management system. Simultaneously, the district was expanding its online presence through creating its own online program as well as investigating blended learning opportunities throughout the district. Returning to our themes of balance, the focus on the end user, and authentic and purposeful innovation, our team expanded its reach from just our students to our administration, faculty, and staff.
The use of blended opportunities could give us the flexibility that would finally enhance balance by giving time to our educators. With Schoology as our vehicle, we began experimenting with blended district administration and committee meetings. Posting materials and facilitating discussion threads, we were able to reduce the number of meetings while maximizing our face-to-face time. Additionally, as a value added component, our administrators and committee members were engaging with the concept of blended learning, flipped classrooms, and the benefits of a learning management system.
Seeing success with blended opportunities for our district committee meetings, we decided to take another yet more risky step–this time with our professional development. After receiving notification of a state mandated, staff development requirement, we decided to flip a large portion of the content, which like most mandated trainings was knowledge based, and give teachers and support staff the option to go through the material online on their own time over a three week period. We incentivized the opportunity by allowing participants to flex out of the second half of the inservice day, which happened to be the Friday before Memorial Day weekend! Not only did the approach work to assist us in meeting the mandate, but it accomplished all the things that we achieved through our blended administrative and committee meetings while also establishing an ethos for the delivery method.
It was now time to take an even greater risk. Going back to our opening day ceremony, we had already begun socializing the idea of a different delivery method with our Instructional Leadership Team, Professional Learning Committee, and Technology Strategic Planning Committee. Equipped with the successes of our other blended and flipped initiatives as well as incredibly strong Technology, Human Resources, and C&I Departments, we began creating the content and troubleshooting the possibility of all 900 employees accessing an Opening Day course on Schoology. Starting with the end in mind, our objectives were consistent with our traditional model. Things like building camaraderie, promoting a sense of belonging, and reinforcing our district identity and belief systems remained non negotiables. As did celebrating district accomplishments, welcoming new hires, acknowledging our long standing employees, setting priorities for the new school year, and giving feedback on priorities from the previous year. However, through Schoology, we could also give our faculty and staff an opportunity to interface with the system, further the district’s movement toward providing professional learning through a blended approach, and most importantly, provide faculty and staff with flexibility and time.
Welcome Back!–The Model
Along with presenting the idea for changing the opening day structure to our professional learning and technology strategic planning committees, at the suggestion of the committee members, we created a short video explaining the rationale for the change and sent it to all employees prior to the end of the school year. Then, two weeks before the first inservice day, we sent an email to all of employees with the link to Schoology and the course code for opening day. Clearly, our technology department did a great deal of work to ensure that our faculty and staff were uploaded into the learning management system, but we also created a Google shared folder as a failsafe in the event individuals struggled logging in.
Even though our educators had two full weeks prior to the first inservice day to complete the course, we still maintained the two hour block of time at the beginning of the first morning traditionally reserved for opening day meetings and activities. To us, this block of time represented authentic flexibility of time and space. Teachers who completed the course prior to the first day, could then arrive at their building to meet their basic professional needs or do whatever else they needed or wanted to do professionally or personally. For those who decided to complete the course the first inservice day, they could work wherever they wanted as long as the course was completed by 10:00 a.m.
Although we provided two hours in the schedule, we wanted the course to total no more than an hour and fifteen minutes in length. This allocation matched what was traditionally scheduled for opening day activities even though it had always been a great deal longer due to travel and content. With this time structure in mind, we created five “mandatory” activities. The course profile is below:
For the first activity, we decided to stay with a traditional superintendent’s speech, albeit in a TedTalk format. This quick clip gives a sense of what it looked like: https://tinyurl.com/ybhz4jdt.
Upon completing the video, we asked faculty and staff to do the following:
Please watch GV Interactive: Opening Day Remarks, which is hyperlinked below. The video is 29:29 in length, so if you would like to chunk the content here’s a quick index of topics:
- Start to 1:12–Introduction and Agenda
- 1:13 to 7:17–Organizational Clarity
- 7:18 to 17:24–Annual Overarching Themes
- 17:25 to 18:10–Connecting the Work
- 18:11 to 25:50–District Goals
- 25:51 to 27:33–Schoology Overview
- 27:34 to 29:29–Inservice Schedule
Based on the content contained in the Annual Overarching Themes and the District Goals, please answer the following question using the comment tool: As the district looks to authentically and purposefully innovate to maximize student achievement, what are our areas of opportunity and what do you see as obstacles?
Since the Opening Day Remarks video was over 29 minutes in length, we agreed that providing an index of topics would allow our educators to more easily chunk the content and to further enhance flexibility in engaging with the content. Giving everyone an opportunity to utilize the comment function in Schoology, the question we posed was also designed to give our faculty and staff a voice in providing meaningful feedback as the district moved forward with our theme of authentic and purposeful innovation.
The presidents of our teachers and support associations also taped speeches as did our School Board President. The associations and School Board’s willingness to not only cooperate but also to embrace the new structure was vital. They provided feedback and helped to navigate potential obstacles.
One of the most powerful activities was our Welcome New Hires activity. In the past, we had new teachers’ pictures on a PowerPoint and recognized them during the meeting. For the Schoology course, our Human Resources Department filmed each new hire during the intake meetings. Our Technology Coaches, who were invaluable throughout the process, combined the clips into a five minute video. After watching the video, we asked our educators to think about their experiences as new teachers, support staffers, or administrators. We then prompted them to describe a lesson that they learned or to pass on a piece of advice that they received as “a rookie” that they thought would benefit our new hires. Once the activity was completed, we provided the insights to our new teachers at an induction meeting.
Our next “mandatory” activity was to recognize our 20, 25, and 30+ employees by posting their names in each category and asking our employees to pass on their congratulations. We then recognized them individually with small gifts on the first inservice day during our Welcome Back Social. Our social was an optional gathering for all staff at the high school where we had ice cream trucks, live music, and giveaways. It was a fun way to maintain the social and collegial aspect of opening day.
Our technology coaches, four classroom teachers on special assignment, put a considerable amount of time into the last activity. #GVFeeling was our collective attempt to inspire and motivate our faculty and staff while simultaneously expanding everyone’s knowledge and participation on Twitter. Compiling a video of district highlights, interactions, and proud moments, the video captured the essence of the safe and caring that we endeavor to provide for our students and educators. The directions were quite simple, but we felt strongly about giving all of our educators an initial experience with Twitter. Our district had already established a strong social media presence as well as using the tool for professional learning and networking. Recognizing varying needs of comfort and expertise we provided a Twitter direction/fact sheet. The assignment was structured in the following manner:
What’s Next?–Conclusions and Thoughts on Moving Forward
We were overwhelmed by the positive feedback we received. Our faculty and staff overwhelmingly saw the new format as a positive change. They loved the “found” time that the course provided and also the flexibility of engaging with the material where they felt comfortable. However, most importantly, they felt respected because the new opening day activities recognized their needs as professionals.
From an organizational perspective the structure reinforced the overarching themes of balance and focusing on the end user through authentic and purposeful innovation. Similarly, it gave our educators experience with Schoology, and for those who were not already Tweeting, a brief interaction with Twitter. As district leaders, it also gave us the opportunity to model risk taking and the desire to challenge traditional obstacles and excuses and replace them with enhanced and innovative processes.
Moving forward we plan to continue and even expand the use of blended and flipped meetings and professional learning opportunities. As we do, we are committed to authenticity and purposefulness so that when we utilize these delivery methods, they most meet the personalized needs of our students, faculty, and staff.
Hope everyone has as great start to the school year!
Thanks for reading!