Sunday, May 2, 2021

Celebrating Teachers: Challenges, Endings and New Beginnings


May 2, 2021

by Vicki Bechard, Secretary LFKS

The first week of May is traditionally dedicated to showing our appreciation for all teachers.  I think we could have two such celebrations – or may be more!  What if we started each school year off celebrating teachers?  Maybe show some love at the end of the first semester to give them an extra burst to keep it up into the second semester? 

Teachers work hard every day, every month, every year.  They care for the students (their kids) with all they have.  Teachers actually call their students “my kids,” even after they have retired (I can attest to that and some of “my kids” are ready for AARP!)  Every teacher works tirelessly regardless of the size of the system in which they work, but the smaller the school the more likely they are to juggle multiple roles to ensure that the school is successful.  By May, regardless of the year or the school, teachers are tired, but still engaged in the work of student learning.  While teachers look forward to summer break, this is hardly a part time job. 

Summers are spent reviving the spirit, learning new content or strategies, and planning for the next school year.  Last year at this time, teachers were navigating new teaching strategies while making the sudden shift to online learning.  The end of school brings plenty of distractions and activities in a “normal” year, much less one blown up by a pandemic like we’ve not experienced in three generations. So last summer felt very different as we wondered what the fall would bring.  Fast forward to 2021. 

This May, we are ending what may have been the most challenging year of anyone’s teaching career.  Some schools were able to be in front of their students all year, some brought kids back some of the time, and others didn’t bring them back to the physical classroom until the spring semester.  Regardless of the situation, the protocols to keep everyone safe cast a large shadow over what was the ‘20-21 school year, and the subsequent teaching and learning.   But much good has come from this adversity and challenge.  Let’s hope that the adults are learning right along with the kids as we reflect on how we (in schools and the rest of society) will move forward, shaping our new normal.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) became a real focus after talking about its importance for years.  Finding ways to strengthen relationships between the staff, students, and parents was a necessary priority to minimize the isolation people felt and ensure learning would take place.  We are all familiar with the old adage, “kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  This was a year that really underscored this message! 

Appreciation and gratitude became something we all could embrace.  Parents found new appreciation for teachers as they tried to juggle their own work/home lives with that of their student’s learning, often as all of the family was online for work or school.  Teachers and students realized how important the day to day in-person learning was to achieving understanding.  Even sleepy middle school and high school students were ready get up in the morning to go back to school to learn, see their friends and participate in some (albeit restricted) activities and sports. Some semblance of normal seemed like a really great aspiration!

We saw empathy and understanding improve as we addressed each stakeholder group’s challenges, i.e. connectivity issues; shared devices; navigating zoom and other online platforms without prior experience; stay-at-home fatigue; and health concerns.  Schools made many changes in their protocols, bus routes, how they fed students, how they passed in the hallways, and how classes were set up – all to keep our students and teachers safe.  We all adapted and these lessons shouldn’t be lost as the pandemic restrictions begin to lift.

What will our new normal look like?  Can we continue to appreciate each other?  Can we maintain some of the protocols we had in place so there is less illness of any kind in our buildings?  Can we continue to make concerted efforts to strengthen relationships and make all stakeholders feel valued in the educational lives of every school?   Can we carry enduring technology tools and instructional strategies we learned during the pandemic back to our brick and mortar classrooms? (Read more here) Can we STOP focusing on student “learning losses” and START focusing on how we will move forward to target individual student learning needs (gaps, if you will) and not just assume everyone fell behind?  Can we use our data to make teaching and learning more effective as we develop a culture of learning that works for everyone?  Most importantly, can we not go back to the old normal, but create a new one?

Michael Fullan, in his latest paper, “The Right Drivers for Whole System Success,” notes Covid 19 has been (and may continue to be, I might add)

“…a disruption so fundamental that it loosens and discombobulates the system in a way that creates openings for transforming the status quo. 

How can we transform our system given the opening we have been handed?  Our state’s Accreditation Process (KESA) asks us to re-imagine our school in new and better ways.  Lessons from our Covid year might be very useful in this type of future planning. 

Many have written articles (Edutopia, Education Week, Forbes, etc.) that align with Fullan’s advice:

Above all, we recommend avoiding a ‘loss of learning’ mindset that would take us back to traditional learning – to a system that we know was not working for the vast majority of students.

The lessons of SEL are still the foundation for making school (and ultimately learning) meaningful for students.  These are as simple as greeting students at the door each time they enter your school or classroom, or as complex at identifying what losses the student or his/her family experienced over the last year.  If we fall into the trap of starting school in the fall with a battery of assessments to “test them to see where they are” we will not make students excited about learning, and could easily contribute to the mindset and/or inequity that (even the best of intentions) can create by pigeonholing or labeling students in ways that might set them up to fail.  Edutopia has an interesting article that explores this topic more closely. (Read here.)

In this month of endings, let us focus on new beginnings.  Let’s appreciate the teachers (and other administrators and staff) that have gone above and beyond this year to keep our kiddos safe, engage in the important work of relationship building, and provide excellent teaching and learning.  They will continue to do this in our post-pandemic world, and deserve our daily appreciation and support.  They love our kids and care for them as if they were their own.  In my book, they are heroes just as the other many caregivers that have embraced us throughout this last year.  (Coincidentally it is also around this time of year we celebrate nurses too.)  School is a work in progress, just as our students are.  We are continually learning, tweaking, and revising what is best for kids.  There is a rainbow at the end of our Covid storm, setting us up for new beginnings, and inspiring hope for better tomorrows.

Today and every day, let us celebrate all that we are, and all that we aspire to be by saluting the backbone of the educational system, our TEACHERS!   

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

We Need a Little Christmas Right This Very Minute!


By Vicki Bechard, Secretary

Christmas music has been playing in my car for the last month or so.  I have several stations selected so I skip around a lot to only listen to songs I want to hear.  Several songs have extra meaning for me this season, but this song by Johnny Mathis may hit the spot for all of us, especially now, no matter your situation:                                                                                               

                “We Need a Little Christmas” 

…For we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute
Candles in the window
Carols at the spinet
Yes, we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute
Hasn't snowed a single flurry, but Santa dear we're in a hurry

Regardless of your religious beliefs or practices, Christmas can be celebrated by anyone.  It’s the time of year when we think of others; dress up our homes and even ourselves (think ugly Christmas sweaters J).  It’s a time to bring family and friends together – even though this year it might be via ZOOM – to reminisce and share the love.  This Christmas season comes at a time when teaching and learning are occurring in ways that may seem so detached from what we do best, and yet we find ways to make it work under extraordinary circumstances.  We are held hostage by a virus that will hopefully be under control by this time next year or before.  We are living in divisive times that grab our attention away from the beauty of the season.  So we do indeed need a little Christmas…now.

…For I've grown a little leaner
Grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder
Grown a little older
And I need a little angel
Sitting on my shoulder
Need a little Christmas now

This verse expresses just how we feel.  Our heroes are tired.  Classroom teachers that are doing their very best to stay healthy, teach their students in whatever format they are presented at any given moment, and adjust to the many regulations that come down the pike.  Administrators are tired too.  No longer just addressing the usual never-ending list of day to day management, instructional leadership, discipline, professional learning leaders, and building climate, they have now become expert contact tracers doing their part to keep those in their charge safe from a sneaky, ever intruding virus.  No decision is popular with everyone.  How do you get ahead of something that is so new to everyone and reacts differently in each person or community? 

If you step back a moment, you realize that our educators are facing personal challenges too.  They may have loved ones who are sick or have succumbed to this dreaded virus or by some other cause. They may be sick themselves. They may be juggling working from home, their own children, spotty internet in rural locations, or checking in on elderly parents and grandparents too.  Some may be bettering themselves with Master’s Degree programs – at a time they are stretched so thin – but they are still learning.  You may be like my grandson who said to me just this morning on our way to school, “Grandma, it doesn’t really feel like Christmas this year.”  He’s dealing with the loss of his mother this past summer.  I can relate.  When we meet or work with others, we don’t always know what they are going through.  One of the things I appreciate about the last 9 months is how the kindness movement has re-emerged.  As the saying goes, “In a world where you can be anything …. Be kind” because we do indeed need a little Christmas right this very minute.

For we need a little music
Need a little laughter
Need a little singing, ringing through the rafter
And we need a little snappy
Happy ever after
Need a little Christmas now

So as your semester comes to an end, and Winter Break begins, take some time to rest, relax, and renew.  Enjoy smaller celebrations this year, whether it’s the lights of Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, or even as we ring in the New Year. Stay safe.  Practice gratitude for the blessings we each have.  We at Learning Forward Kansas appreciate each one of you and the work you do every day.  Never forget that you are a blessing to so many. 

So, find a little music, seek and share laughter, and perhaps just exactly what we need ….get “a little snappy, and be happy ever after!”  Tis the season of hope, especially as the most challenging year of our lives (at least for most of us) comes to an end and a New Year begins. 

We Need a Little Christmas - NOW!


Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Iconic Leadership Lessons for Challenging Times


By Vicki Bechard, LFKS Secretary

It goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway.  2020 has been a year of disruption and discomfort; sadness and loss.  Any given year has personal and societal highs and lows but in this particular year, everything seems to be bigger, harder, and more overwhelming than most of us can remember.  With so much out of whack – even the weather – we struggle to stay positive and know what to do.  We have mourned as COVID upset our everyday lives and took lives we weren’t ready to give up.  We miss the familiarity of close contact, time worn traditions, and effective practices now set aside to fight an enemy that does more than make us sick.  Schools – both from teaching and learning perspectives - have seen so many changes in such a short amount of time, leading us to anxiously shift out of our comfort zones.  It has also been a time of opportunity as we have redesigned by necessity and at a record breaking pace. We have many heroes in our state that stepped up and led a coordinated effort to help identify the best ways forward for teaching and learning.  No one got the summer off (not that educators really do…).  As educators, we continued to learn, revise, and redesign. There now may be new ways of doing things that we might just keep doing as we go forward.  Necessity is the mother of invention or so they say…. 

In addition to wrestling with the effects of COVID, key public figures have died in both expected and unexpected ways causing us to stop and consider their impact and influence on us personally and as a society.  Most recently we mourn the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who was a champion for equal rights for women, voter integrity, and constitutional protections for all people.  There have been so many quotes attributed to her, shared by the thousands, even millions, as they celebrate her legacy and mourn her passing.  We can learn so much from the way she lived her life and the carefully chosen words she shared in court opinions, speeches, and interviews.  My favorite quote to date that Justice Ginsberg cited was about leadership. 

“Fight for what you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

Isn’t that the purist form of leadership?  Having a passion for what you want to accomplish and engaging/empowering others are what it’s all about.  Regardless of your organization or leadership role, it is no different as we face new and ever-changing challenges in our schools today.  We still are passionate about teaching and learning.  We still want others to join us in this journey of excellence.

LFKS is currently focused on how we can support school leaders of all types during these challenging times.  While conferences get changed to virtual formats  or postponed entirely, we are seeking to find ways to connect and share ideas that are useful and purposeful.  We are currently offering a new 3-part virtual conference on leadership that begins in October, and are creating a collection of useful and timely resources to be shared with educators and leaders.  Both of these projects will support the work of schools throughout the state (and beyond), providing ideas, resources, and tools to facilitate how to address local issues and challenges that school leaders face. 

Our passion in LFKS is professional learning.  We care about leaders.  We care about teachers.  We care about each one of you.  Through it all we want you to join us in our mission to ensure there is excellent teaching and learning every day.

Basketball star Kobe Bryant, who tragically left us too soon, underscored Justice Ginsberg’s idea of leading others to join you with this valuable advice:

“The most important thing is to try to inspire people so they can be great in whatever they want to do.”

Again we ask, isn’t that the purist form of teaching and leadership:  Inspiring and empowering others to ensure excellent teaching and learning every day?

Representative John Lewis, famous for his Civil Rights activism, lived a long and productive life following his passion and inspiring others.  This quote attributed to him really speaks to each of us as we go through these turbulent times,

“If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”

We can wait around for someone else to tell us what to do or we can act.   We want to keep learning and growing as educators and leaders, so we ask ourselves and our teams:

What do we want to accomplish?

What knowledge and skills do we need?  

What resources can help? 

Where can I go for ideas?

How can we use what we have differently? 

And at all times we want to remind ourselves: If not us, then who?  If not now, then when? 

The work we are doing now is hard.  There are critics and Monday morning quarterbacks second-guessing our every move.  The data and information change daily. It is hard work and at the same time, worthwhile work.  It is important that we keep going because our kids are worth it.  And as John Lewis so wisely noted: 

“Never let anyone – any person or any force – dampen, dim or diminish your light.”

For without our inner light, we cannot get through the darkness of our fatigue, sadness, challenges or obstacles. You can do it and in the process, lead others to join you in this most important work.

Please join LFKS for our Fall Virtual Leadership Conference.  (If not us, then who? )

Register today!  (If not now, then when?)



Monday, May 4, 2020


By Vicki Bechard, Secretary LFKS

The lockdown officially ended today here in Kansas as we begin Teacher Appreciation Week.  Educators smile at the irony in this and look to the silver lining that at least we are less restricted.  Soft openings are happening this week; more will be phased in over the next month.  School buildings are still closed.  Most of us are doing our part to maintain safety and sanity.  Through it all, the mail has been delivered and teachers are still teaching their kids just like always.  It’s been a challenging 4th quarter to say the least.   What can we take away from this time of challenge and change?  As we fully and officially appreciate the dedication and hard work of our teachers year round and especially at this time, let’s consider how we can be #BetterTogether.

We could dwell on all that we have missed, but I’d rather not.  Our seniors will have stories to tell at their reunions in the years to come of how COVID 19 cut short their senior year, and they won’t have the traditional graduation ceremony, at least for now.  Maybe that’s not as bad as we think.  These later-in-the-summer celebrations could be viewed as anticlimactic, but I’m hoping they might be better than ever because people will be so glad to get together.  We feel bad for the teachers that are retiring and now won’t be able to hug their students or their colleagues one last time.  Maybe those of us who aren’t retiring could suggest to those students and colleagues that they write a letter of congratulations and appreciation to that retiring teacher so it will serve as a lifetime hug if you will, that can be revisited over and over.  Appreciation and celebrations are always #BetterTogether.

#BetterTogether, or some version of this sentiment, has been included in so many commercials and articles, discussed on news shows, and seen trending online since the pandemic overtook our country.  While we were stuck at home the companies came to us.  Celebrities and sports teams joined the call to connect with all who were struggling to stay positive and stay healthy. They provided information on how to stay safe, encouraged us and reminded us over and over that we are in this together and we will get through this.  In this time of challenge, anxiety, and even fear, we look for ways to survive both physically and emotionally. When faced with personal challenge, those who reach out to others, to help and protect, often find the most peace and satisfaction.  We can’t thank enough our frontline healthcare professionals, first responders, custodial and cleaning staff, mail and delivery people, all those grocery store employees who keep those shelves stocked, and so many other “essential” jobs that we never knew were essential.  And of course we can’t thank our educators enough who are teaching online after a quick crash course, reaching out to students and families, all the while going through the same things at home like the rest of us are doing.  Our group hug for these champions must be done from a distance in our hearts for now, but it is important to thank those whose sacrifices have embodied #BetterTogether.

Learning Forward Kansas has been using the hashtag #BetterTogether for quite a while.   The fourth video in our professional learning series Inspired to Learn:  Kansas Stories focused on all the ways we are better together as educators.  During this two month homeschool-online-learning event, we find many ways where educators are collaborating to create meaningful learning, principals are checking in on staff to ensure they are doing OK, and many are finding ways to spread joy and encouragement.  We can be inspired by the intentional connections that schools and educators are making with families through food distributions, phone calls, zoom check-ins, social media posts, and packets for those who lack the necessary technology.  We can appreciate and enjoy the many videos that have emerged to make us smile as they provide that emotional connection we crave.  As an example, LFKS Board member and principal, Amy Beck’s staff at Nemaha Central Elementary and Middle School made weekly videos to share with the school community that conveyed joy and encouragement.  Click here if you want to check out what it looks like to be #BetterTogether.

As the school year comes to an official close, we wonder what the future will bring.  What can we learn from this time of sudden, mandated change?  How will these lessons of both success and challenge shape our decisions for teaching and learning when school resumes in the fall?  Will we be better prepared?  Are we asking the right questions?  To whom are we asking the questions? Are we including all stakeholders in this journey into the unknown?  LFKS is in the process of developing some tools to help with this collection of important data that will inform our decisions, frame instruction and learning, and ultimately lead to contingency plans when the virus returns (and it will return).  Through it all we can and will emerge stronger if we stay together, work together, and learn together and the result will be that we are indeed #BetterTogether.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

March Madness!!

By Vicki Bechard, LFKS Secretary

March Madness is upon us!  We have been playing the “game” of school improvement all year and those spring OVT (accreditation) visits are about to start.  It’s crunch time!  We want our results to lead to April Achievement and May Magic.   Can we feel the excitement in our halls, our classrooms, our meetings?   Is our team focused on the desired outcomes?  Have we accomplished all that we set out to do?  What do our stats (data) say?  Has our preparation put us in a place of strength as we enter these critical “contests” or face the challenges before us?  Does each player know his/her role?  Does our team (staff) believe we can succeed?  As we assess the competition for now and in the future, what will our team and our game plan look like as we take the court?

School leaders can learn from the NCAA version of March Madness.  While local newspapers may want area schools to compete against each other for “best scores, highest seeded schools, etc.,” the real challenge is competing within our own system to improve from year to year.  Just as college coaches and teams do each season, we start long before March to ensure we are prepared.  We create long range plans that include performance goals and actions which are based on the review of data, ongoing needs assessments from the previous year(s), input from people invested in the team’s performance, understanding of best practices, and a vision of where the team wants to go.  The coaches (building leaders) put the plan into action by ensuring the team is built on trust, has the best personnel in the right positions, understands the necessary knowledge and skills, and is provided ample practice time and support so that the selected strategies can be effectively implemented.  When each player believes in his/her own ability to make a difference and step up when the game is on the line; when the team has bonded, is working toward a common goal, and has learned to trust each other, then the efficacy of one becomes the collective efficacy of the team and everyone wins! 

Upper management (central office) and other invested groups (BOE, Stakeholders) have roles in the success of the team through their financial support to ensure the best resources and personnel are in place, to provide the best learning experiences for the players and coaches, and to be willing to work side by side with the team through the learning and implementation processes.  Maybe just as important are their roles as encouragers and supporters.  Cheering in the stands is a great motivator!

As the team huddles for the last time before the big game, we expect that the game plan is understood by all coaches and players, but we also expect that they realize adjustments must be made along the way.  When individual players can see what needs to happen and have the ability and permission to make those adjustments, the team can be even more successful!   When coaches micromanage and have to call every play, or are overly critical of mistakes that are bound to happen, the confidence and efficacy of their team diminishes.  When change is warranted and coaches or players fail to make adjustments, progress stalls, and the win (improvement) may slip away.  All of this requires continuous reflection and study on what works, what didn’t and what we will do about it. 

The culmination of our “season” begins with March Madness and ends with May Magic!  How is your leadership supporting the challenge of goal achievement?  How is your team competing as the action plan unfolds?  Will the kids be the winners as we “play the game” of school improvement?  Ultimately we are looking to do what works best.  As spring turns into summer, what will we do in the off season to make next year even better?  Team members come and go, and leadership turns over, but the quest to field the best team possible and be competitive in March Madness and beyond is always before us.  And because it’s school and not just one game, we can’t be satisfied with “One Shining Moment,” but we can and should celebrate this journey of many shining moments over time!

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Christmas Wish List and Playlist for Educators and Schools

By Vicki Bechard, Secretary

When you see a kid with missing front teeth at this time of year, we immediately smile and begin to hear that familiar jingle playing in our head, All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth…” At no time do you think there is something horribly wrong with the child; their missing teeth are just a reflection of the growth process they are undergoing.  The song is a fun poke at the growing pains we all go through and gives one hope that in time, once those teeth come in, things will be just fine.  Speech will become clearer, the ability to whistle will return, and eating will be easier.  No Grinch will steal their joy. It will be so much easier to wish everyone a Merry Christmas (Happy Holidays, Hanukkah, or whatever one is celebrating!)!

Music sparks our thinking and engages our emotional attachments.  We know from lots of research (here’s one source from Neuroscience News) and perhaps your own personal experience, that music is engaging and helps connect us on a deeper level.  As learners, the use or playing of music often is associated with better concentration, improved cognitive functions to create meaning, increased vocabulary and reading levels, all of which can lead to higher levels of achievement and better learning experiences.  If music can be helpful in the classroom to improve focus, meaningful connections, engagement, and overall success, why not use it in the school improvement processes we undertake?

As schools, educators, and students experience growing pains every year, we look for better ways to create a culture of learning, acceptance, and success. If we thought about every school’s Christmas wish list that would take them into the New Year, what might that look like?  Sometimes they might be looking for their “2 front teeth” – a natural part of their growth process, but other times it might be something that leads to a much bigger transformation.  To create a deeper commitment, how might we include music to touch the hearts of educators and engage their minds and work? To that end, I’m sharing my Christmas Wish List (and including a Playlist to support that list) for schools, educators and students this holiday season as they continue their improvement journey into the New Year: (disclaimer: there are MANY more songs that would work based on what you or your staff like to listen to!). 

1.       Purpose and Goals:  The Impossible Dream (The Quest) – This song speaks of the quest of goal seeking with purpose and perseverance.  When learners understand their purpose (WHY), set a goal (WHAT), and develop a plan to achieve that goal (HOW), the quest becomes their improvement journey. This quest will have detours and obstacles, but the determination to succeed will lead achieving that goal.  Climb Every Mountain (from Sound of Music as performed by Audra McDonald) – reinforces the idea that perseverance is required to achieve one’s goals even when mountains stand in your way.

2.       Believe/Efficacy:  This is Me (from The Greatest Show on Earth); Believe (Josh Groban from Polar Express). Both of these songs encourage the importance of believing in yourself and your abilities and by doing so, you will give wings to your dreams and fly.  When a group or team believes in a common goal, collective efficacy emerges and success typically follows.

3.       Collaboration & Teamwork: When We Stand Together (Nickelback) – We win when we stand together; work together; hand in hand; no one can divide us, no matter the obstacle.  While this song addresses more worldly issues, it also can be applied to the world within our schools. Collaboration and productive teaming focused on improving teaching and learning is a win for everyone! We know we are #BetterTogether and We Will Rock You! (Queen).  Consider attending the Learning Forward Kansas Annual Conference Feb. 2 & 3, 2020 in Wichita as Collective Efficacy with Jenni Donohoo will be the feature of our 2020 Vision on Collaboration and Leadership. Click here for more information or to register.

4.       Change and Growth: Everything Will Change (Gavin DeGraw) – If we are not changing and growing we are not improving.  Change happens or it needs to “before it gets too late.”  How do we do that? “Walk the talk.  Separate the men from the boys; women from the girls; tools from the toys.  Even if you’re freaking out, just relax.”  Find your purpose; take a risk; work together; persevere. Change means having to make adjustments to avoid remaining the same.  Even this funny throwback video from the Brady Bunch talks about when It’s Time to Change, it’s time to rearrange.

5.       Supportive Leadership:  Vision is a hallmark of leadership, but more importantly the cultivation of relationships, commitment of support, and willingness to stick with those whom they lead through the trials of implementation are critical to creating and maintaining a culture of learning. Leaders anchor staff and provide the glue as they work together to achieve the desired goals. We can see this theme of trust, connection, and dependable support in these songs: Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon & Garfunkel); I Won’t Let Go (Rascal Flatts); You’ll Never Walk Alone (from Carousel; Celtic Women version)

6.      Gratitude: Above all, be grateful for the leadership, staff, and community members who work tirelessly for the kids.  Be grateful for those kiddos who depend on your wisdom, caring, and guidance.  Look for the silver lining.  There is plenty of good and promise on which to focus our thoughts and actions. Louis Armstrong got it right when he encouraged us to just look around and appreciate What a Wonderful World we live in.

As the first semester comes to an end and you head into the winter break, may your heart continue to be touched and motivated to be the best you can be as educators so that your students can be their best too.  We at Learning Forward Kansas challenge you to come back after the holidays, refreshed, renewed, and recommitted to improving your instruction to impact student learning.  Let us know if we can help with that. Thank you for making a difference.  We know we are all #BetterTogether.

Happy Holidays from Learning Forward Kansas! 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

“Inspired to Learn and Other Lessons from Kansas Stories”

By Vicki Bechard, LFKS Secretary

The videos are completed.  The series, Inspired to Learn:  Kansas Stories, is ready for use.  We are proud of the product, but the journey was more than an end point. What did we learn in this process?  From the beginning this has been a learning journey filled with hope, joy, frustration, perseverance, and pride.  We have been inspired by those we interviewed, and those who were willing to let us peek into their professional learning experiences. We have been energized by the convictions and expertise of these Kansas educators. Our own learning and passion have been reignited.  The “we” in this blog represents Dayna Richardson (LFKS Executive Director) and me - partners, colleagues and friends in this journey.  A year after we intended to be done, here is a glimpse of our story…

The journey of Inspired to Learn:  Kansas Stories is much like a school year – only longer.  We began with a vision in the application process 4 years ago, and started with so much hope, excitement and energy once we received this 3 year grant just like the first day of school.  Our “classroom” was filled with unknowns, dreams that needed direction, and the desire to acquire skills and support to make those dreams a reality.

Transforming professional learning was our focus in Learning Forward Kansas as we rebooted our organization.  As LFKS reached out to educators across the state, we continued to hear, “But what does it look like in my school?”  This driving question became the trigger for LFKS to apply for the Learning Forward Affiliate Grant in 2015.  The Kansas State Board of Education approved the Standards for Professional Learning in 2012, but few schools knew about this, much less utilized the standards to improve their instructional practice.  Our vision was to do something different:  to create a video series featuring Kansas educators that could be a resource to schools and educators who were seeking to improve their professional learning experiences.  Our purpose was to facilitate their understanding so our initial plan was to create a video on each of the Standards of Professional Learning, plus one on the process of change. 

Every educator begins their school year with a vision and a plan to support that vision.  But the needs of the students often alter those plans.  Our experience with the video series was very similar.  Once we received the grant, our thoughts began to shift into a different direction based on continued discussions and observations from the field.  Educators didn’t need another resource defining the Standards for Professional Learning.  They wanted something to help them use and implement them.  After discussing our new understanding with our LFKS board, several Kansas educational leaders, and our support group from Learning Forward, we realized that we must create something that was useful, modeled effective professional learning, and helped guide educational leaders to use the Standards of Professional Learning collectively, not individually.  Silos were a thing of the past.  We soon came to realize, we are better together.

Kansas has a wide range of school sizes, strengths, and needs.  One size does not fit all for learning in the classroom, with the faculty, or from one school to the next.  What effective professional learning looks like in an urban school is vastly different than a small rural school hundreds of miles from a large city.  Regardless of the differences in resources, delivery methods, or personnel, the goal remains the same:  every educator wants to use effective instructional practices that lead to student success.  And to that end, all educators are inspired to learn, and want to know “What does that look like in my school?”

Our Work:  Inspiration, Listening, People, Collaboration, Time and Feedback (repeat 5 times)
When we listen to the learners, our instruction becomes more focused on the needs of that learner.  Sometimes what we believe to be the best way to learn may not be the best method for the learner.  With that understanding comes revision and a renewed focus on the purpose of our work.  What is the learning goal?  How will we get there?

Our first video attempt was too long and lacked clear focus.  We got some tough feedback from a supportive organization of educators.  We swallowed hard but we listened and started again.  We realized we had failed to establish the WHY and convey that what we were doing was important – not just to us – but to all Kansas educators aspiring to improve teaching and learning.  It wasn’t enough to have great sound bites from great educators; we had to weave a meaningful message of the importance of effective professional learning.  Our learners spoke to us and we listened.  Those plans we made when “school started” were put aside and reworked with a renewed focus on the learner’s needs.

Since Lois Brown Easton’s article, “The Why, How, and What of Professional Learning,” appeared in Learning Forward’s Tools for Learning Schools in 2012, we have focused on the importance of establishing the “why” in everything we do and within every learning opportunity LFKS offers.  Further study of Simon Sinek’s work (which was the basis for Easton’s article), strengthened our belief in ensuring that establishing the why is the first and most important step to effectively change one’s practice.  This understanding and the feedback we received led us to the realization that our first video attempt lacked the WHY and subsequently required a major revision. Going forward, this philosophy guided everything we did and led to how the Inspired to LearnKansas Stories video series was organized. 

Lesson plans and learning goals continue to evolve during a school year, and the same thing happened in our video experience.  Once the first video was completed, the second video seemed easier to do.  We saw that educational leaders believed that professional learning was important but too many were relying on one-size-fits-all or sit and get sessions that just weren’t engaging, meaningful or relevant.  That lead us to - What does effective professional learning look like…. in Kansas schools?  Once we conveyed this message in video two, the questions began to shift – How does this work? How do we plan?  How do we engage staff?  How do we promote collaboration that changes practice and leads to student success?  Understanding why is critical.  Clarify what is important.  But how is the vehicle that takes us from knowing to doing

As a result, the rest of the videos revolved around how effective professional learning is achieved from multiple perspectives, using a wide variety of strategies.  As a teacher would personalize learning experiences for students in his/her classroom, our focus was fine-tuned, and the video series took shape.  We needed more interviews, different questions, and more examples of effective professional learning to feature in these how videos.  Sometimes learning and progress is messy as educators will tell you.  We also felt these same growing pains.  Confusion reigned sometimes as we watched draft videos over and over causing pictures and words to seemingly swim together.  Cutting footage typically came from asking ourselves to revisit our purpose for the video we were watching.  Did this comment or picture fit? Does it help tell the story?

One of our greatest aha’s was when we went together to film in a small 1A school in south central Kansas where educators were excited about project based learning and making learning relevant and engaging.  We discovered them when they presented with their students at the KSDE conference the previous fall.  How could we use their energy?  Their passion inspired us.  Their humility was revealed in their desire to simply do what was best for kids and credit each other for their success.  How could we bottle their success to be shared with others?  To that end, our questions to them weren’t about the project based learning itself, but focused on how they made this work.  What professional learning had to happen to get it started and more importantly, sustain this work at such a high level?  What lessons could they share with others on what to do and what to avoid? How did leaders support and facilitate their work? We started to understand the importance of HOW and the need to share this with our fellow Kansas educators.

If we were to do a “walkthrough” of our “classroom” one would see engaging lessons, modeling of effective professional learning, and a variety of learning strategies (protocols) that meet learners where they are.  One would see collaboration and deep conversations around thought-provoking questions.  One would see experts discussing their beliefs, experiences, successes and challenges.  Learning would be happening before, during and after viewing the video utilizing protocols in the accompanying facilitation guides. And one would see the learners taking this information and adapting it for use in their own work.  The initiatives that schools undertake are designed to meet the needs of their students so the examples in the videos are there for consideration and not intended to be the only answer.  Our intent for this video series was to spark real professional learning, where educators turn theory into action, or as we like to say, to go from knowing to doing.

When the culture in a classroom, building or district becomes focused on growth and success for ALL, and is supported through every action, and every professional learning opportunity, students win.  Our purpose in creating these videos was to support these efforts as schools and educators evolve.  Just like educators believe that everyone can learn given the opportunity, resources and sufficient time, this video series was created in the same way. 

Our Journey Continues.  It was a 3 year grant, but it took 4 years to complete.  Life happens in the middle of our plans sometimes, and we make adjustments.  We couldn’t have done this without the willingness of Kansas educators to share their experiences on camera or let us be a part of their school’s professional learning sessions.  We also relied heavily on the support and feedback of Kansas educators that we knew well and others that we befriended during this process.  Our technical support was second to none and allowed our dream to become a reality.  But without the dream, backed by the grant received from the Learning Forward Foundation, none of this would have happened.  Again our video series journey parallels the classroom experience.  Support matters.  Resources matter.  People matter.  

Our journey comes to an end during May, much like a school year.  It has taken us from knowing to doing, and while we are happy to rest a bit, we recognize we have much more to do.  Our future work, as we look to the next school year, will benefit from the valuable lessons learned firsthand that we are #BetterTogether.  Join us as we continue Learning Forward. 

Click here to learn more about the video series.