The Power of Cross-District Collaboration for Instructional Coaches

December 3, 2018

Submitted by:

Danica Lewis, Fond du Lac School District, Fond du Lac, WI

Mark Flaten, School District of Waupaca, Waupaca, WI

Don Smith, Winneconne Community School District, Winneconne, WI

Greg Wolcott, Woodridge District 68, Woodridge, IL

“I loved being able to connect and build relationships with other instructional coaches. One of the most valuable parts of the conference was when we had the opportunity to research and collaborate on a topic that was applicable and pertinent to our practice.”

–Winneconne Instructional Coach

Districts are increasingly seeing the benefits of instructional coaches in the improvement of student learning and teacher professional practice. While larger districts may employ a cadre of instructional coaches, who can support each other and learn together, smaller districts may have one one or two coaches. The question for smaller districts becomes, how do you feed the learning needs of your instructional coaches so that they can feed the teachers they support?

Our four districts recently engaged in a two-day collaborative session designed to meet the unique professional learning needs of our coaches. On the first day, as the teams entered the room, they trepidatiously sat at tables, largely with the colleagues with whom they regularly work. Upon beginning our time together, we got the coaches up and moving and connecting across districts. The excitement in the room quickly grew as coaches from very different districts began to find the commonalities they shared with so many others in the room.

“The role of coach is unique. Even among the coaches in Fond du Lac, my role is unique. As we came together with coaches from other districts, I noticed how different the roles we each hold are, but recognized that the work we do is similar. We work to support teachers to grow their instructional practices with an eye on increasing student achievement.”

–Fond du Lac Instructional Coach

After a morning of sharing and conversing, largely in cross-district partnerships, coaches returned to their district teams for lunch and discussion. They shared ideas that they had gathered from their new network of instructional coaching colleagues and talked about the plans for the rest of the collaborative time together.

Prior to coming together, we discussed the format of the two days. In considering the purpose of our time together, we all felt that the most value would come from significant periods of time for the coaches to collaborate together. However, the collaboration would need structure to be purposeful. We surveyed our coaches to determine the topics that were most on their minds right now and around which they most need the opportunity to collaborate.

“I was so nervous that everyone here would be competitive and trying to prove that they were the best coach. I am so glad that this hasn’t been the case! Everyone is so nice and collaborative. I can’t wait to keep learning together!”

–Woodridge 68 Instructional Coach

A significant portion of our time together was spent engaged in what we called “Topic Driven Research.” Coaches joined a team based on the topic they most wanted to research. In these teams, the coaches collaboratively developed a research question, visited schools and classrooms to gather information, consulted print and web resources, and talked together about their own experiences. At the end of their research, teams developed a one-pager which included a summary of their research and information on the resources they had consulted in their work. These were shared with the group so that follow-up could occur as interested.

The sense of exhilaration that everyone felt at the end of our two days together was inspiring. The request was made to share emails and Twitter handles so that newly formed partnerships could be maintained. The coaches have requested that these sessions occur twice annually to maintain the collaborative relationships. What started as a simple concept, a multi-district collaboration, turned into something much more significant than we could have imagined. Though not much time has passed since these two days together, we have each seen evidence of the power of this collaboration in our coaches. As leaders, there is no greater feeling than knowing that you have enabled your staff to grow professionally and personally. Through intentional, cross-district collaboration, we all got better, together!

“The time spent with coaches from the other districts was both informative and inspiring. We were able to have great conversations about how coaches are making an impact on students. The collaboration was amazing and new friendships were formed. We can’t wait to attend the next session!”

–Waupaca Instructional Coach

About the Authors:

Mark Flaten began his teaching career in September 2001. Besides being a first year teacher, the events of September 11th truly put his ability to connect with and lead students to the ultimate test. Many thanks to his humble middle class upbringing and collegiate international travels, Mark quickly put to work his two educational principles that continue to guide his work;
Education = Freedom
Tolerance is not an acceptable replacement for teaching students to celebrate our differences.

After teaching for 5 years at suburban Grafton High School, Mark began his Administrative journey in rural Nekoosa, becoming an AP and Activities Director. He then moved to Green Bay East HS for a year before spending the next 7 as the Head Learner of Green Bay West HS. During his time at West HS, West became just the 13th authorized International Baccalaureate Diploma Program school in Wisconsin. This revitalization of West HS yielded a 17% increase in graduation rates, a 55% increase in graduates earning college credit, and a $535,000.00 increase in college scholarships awarded to West graduates. In 2017, Mark and his family moved south to be closer family and friends while becoming the Principal of Waupaca HS. In 2018, Mark agreed to become the Director of Teaching and Learning for the School District of Waupaca.

Danica Lewis is the Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Pupil Services for the Fond du Lac School District in Wisconsin where she leads curriculum development, instruction, assessment, and special education services for the 7,500 students of the Fond du Lac community. During her 7 years in this role, Danica led the implementation of standards-based grading K-12 and facilitated the strengthening of professional learning communities in the 16 schools of the district. Danica has facilitated impactful professional learning around literacy, data analysis, and PLC leadership for the principals in her district as she knows that a strong instructional leader in a school building is critical to improving student learning.

Don Smith has 16 years of professional experience in public schools. Don is currently the Director of Teaching and Learning for the Winneconne Community School District, in Wisconsin. Prior to his current role, Don was the Director of Teaching and Learning in the School District of Waupaca. Don also served as the Principal at Fond du Lac STEM Academy and Fond du Lac STEM Institute, as well as the the District Assessment Coordinator for the Fond du Lac Area School District (WI). Don continually leads professional development sessions centered on research based practices in instruction and assessment. His primary areas of expertise and support with FIRST include: professional learning communities, assessment and grading, culture, and evidence-based decision making.

Greg Wolcott currently serves as the Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning at Woodridge School District 68 in Woodridge, Illinois, a suburb 30 miles west of Chicago. As an educator in the Chicagoland area for over 20 years, Greg is passionate about developing opportunities for all students to succeed as well as finding ways for all teachers and staff members to utilize their strengths to maximize the learning of each and every child whom they interact with on a daily basis.Greg consults throughout the United States on a variety of subjects including adult learning, developing innovative practices in the classroom to engage all learners, formative assessment to drive instruction, response to instruction/intervention, and data usage for school improvement.