Elizabeth Feser first worked with the Center for School Change when she was Superintendent in Windsor, CT, prior to becoming Superintendent in Milford. In Windsor, she was invited to join the Superintendents’ Network. In doing so, the Center helped her introduce Instructional Rounds. Rounds, she said, helped building principals and central office leaders focus on the impact of teaching practices on student learning, as well as on equity, i.e., the degree to which all students, regardless of color, were receiving sound and appropriate instruction.
“Rounds prompted us to look at where we were struggling instructionally. With the help of the Center, we were able to better frame issues related to classroom practice and work to address them with the goal of continuously improving learning for all students. “This approach,” Feser said, “put instruction and student learning first, caused us to be more reflective on our instructional practices, and deepened our understanding of the complexity in the connection between planned, quality instruction and substantive student learning.
Feser fully implemented Instructional Rounds in the Milford Public Schools. Teachers became integral to the process, helping to determine the Problem of Instructional Practice in a building to be visited. K-12 teachers across the district participated in Rounds, many for the very first time. The experience revealed that many of the struggles around instruction are common regardless of discipline or level, i.e., elementary, middle or high school. Feser also shared that “Instructional Rounds demonstrated that classroom instructional practice can be examined without being evaluative. Rich dialogue began to occur and greater reflection on practice.” Rounds also contributed to building trust between and among teachers and leaders. Teachers are now seeking to engage in internal Rounds in their buildings, e.g., within a department or grade level.
In the winter of 2017, Feser asked the Center to conduct a Coherence Review in Milford. While there were positives in the findings, there were also concerns, particularly that the instructional priorities in the district were not clear, and that though there were many improvement strategies occurring, how they connect was not always clear. Written communication on the findings, strengths and areas of weaknesses were shared in writing with the full professional staff. Working with the Center, the administrative team sought to articulate a single instructional focus, one that would connect all of the good work occurring in the district on improving instruction. A draft focus was developed and communicated to all staff: Provide all students cognitively engaging and intellectually challenging learning experiences.
The next challenge was engaging all staff in understanding and wrestling with the focus, which, Feser stated, she knew would take several years of work. “How to begin and how to sustain our work was the challenge. Again, with the help of the Center, the Milford team developed a plan to engage all professional staff in common learning experiences tied to the new instructional focus. For example, the first common learning experience involved all professional staff viewing two videos and answering the question, “In which classroom were students more cognitively engaged?” These sessions in all 14 schools were facilitated by teams comprised of the Principal, a teacher and an Instructional Supervisor. The Center was instrumental in helping us launch the common experiences. “The sessions were lauded by staff across K-12, and there was clear evidence of reflection and genuine discourse,” said Feser. Sustaining the work was essential. A group of administrators devised a district-wide 13-month plan that was vetted by a team of teachers, other administrators and the Center. “The plan is in place for 2018-19, and includes five common learning experiences wherein staff will zero in on specific instructional strategies that will support the Instructional Focus. It’s truly exciting!” declared Feser.
In reflecting back on her 13 years being a part of the Superintendent’s Network, Feser credited the Network as important in helping her develop personally and professionally, and said the forum for sharing experiences, seeking solutions to instructional challenges and working closely with colleagues was inspirational and critical to her success. “I would not be the instructional leader I am today without the support of the Center,” Feser proclaimed. “Moreover, the Center’s impact on our district was dynamic and far-reaching, and we continue to grow and improve as a result of the Center staff and its guidance and support.”
–Elizabeth Feser, Superintendent, Milford Public Schools, Milford, CT