A week ago, I closed out six and a half years serving as the Elementary Mathematics Curriculum Coordinator for Round Rock ISD. I wrote a blog post on my last day where I reflected on my accomplishments. If you’re interested, you can check out that post here.
Today I’d like to share the lessons I learned while doing this job.
Lesson #1 – Know your “why”.
Early on in my job, district leaders were given a copy of Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why. I’ll be honest that (corporate) leadership books tend to rub me the wrong way, but from time to time I find value in a message and it sticks. In this case, the idea of knowing your “why” resonated with me – why do I do this work? Why does it matter to me?
I gave an Ignite talk a few years ago where I shared my “why” and how I came to know what it is:
My “why” is driven by my evolving relationship with math, from the time I was a student until now. When I was still in school, I got the feeling that math was supposed to be making sense, but despite all the procedures I memorized and accurately reproduced, it just never did. To borrow a term from Robert Kaplinsky, I was a math robot. I did what I was told, but I only knew how to do what I was told. Despite earning good grades in my math classes, I finished high school feeling like an imposter.
My relationship with math took a sharp right turn years later when Pam Harris led PD at the elementary school I was teaching at. She re-introduced a room full of elementary school teachers to mathematics in a way that finally made sense, and it completely changed the trajectory of my career. I mean, just look at the past 12 years or so. I led a team of people designing digital math curriculum for grades 4-7. Then I served 34 elementary schools as a district Curriculum Coordinator. These are not jobs I ever imagined having before attending that PD!
So what is my “why”?
Sense making should be the focus of what we do for each and every one of our students so that they develop a positive identity toward mathematics today.
If you’re interested in this idea of knowing your “why” but you’re hesitant to add another book to your already too tall “to-read” pile, check out Simon Sinek’s TED Talk instead:
This quote from his talk resonated with me:
People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.
Over time I came to understand that my goal as a Curriculum Coordinator wasn’t to “sell” my curriculum documents to my teachers. Rather, I learned there’s power in sharing my “why” through my curriculum documents, through my professional development sessions, and through my communication with administrators, instructional coaches, and teachers. This is important because of the next lesson I learned…
Lesson #2 – Systemic change is hard.
When I became the Elementary Mathematics Curriculum Coordinator for an entire school district, I saw it as an opportunity to bring about systemic change in mathematics education. I didn’t know right away exactly what changes I was going to make yet, but I was passionate and excited at the possibilities. In other words, I was naive. I had been entrusted with the keys to the car…but little did I realize just how many other drivers had their hands on the wheel steering our schools, teachers, and students. There are so many people in a school district vying for attention and trying to move the system in one direction or another. Just because something was a priority to me did not mean it was a priority to everyone else.
I also quickly realized how little power came with the title. My primary responsibility was to develop and maintain all of the elementary math curriculum units for grades K-5. However, I had no power to make anyone teach them. While there were loose district expectations, campuses and teachers had a lot of leeway to make their own instructional decisions.
Don’t get me wrong. when I say I didn’t have the power, it doesn’t mean I wanted the power necessarily. I wasn’t looking to be a dictator telling everyone exactly what they needed to be doing in their classrooms. However, there’s no denying there is definitely a different feel to the job and your ability to affect change when everything you do is essentially a suggestion.
After learning that systemic change is hard, I tackled the problem of figuring out how to do it anyway.
Lesson #3 – Change what you can change. Influence the rest.
Rather than bemoan the fact that I couldn’t make anyone do anything, I turned my attention instead to what I did have the power to change – my curriculum documents. This is where it’s important that I knew my “why”. It influenced all of the decisions I made as I continually developed and revised our curriculum documents year after year.
Some of the notable ways my “why” influenced and permeated my curriculum documents are:
- Developing an Elementary Mathematics Beliefs document to put into words what our district believed about teaching and learning mathematics
- Writing a rationale for each unit so that teachers could understand the goals of the unit as well as why those goals are important
- Embedding links to articles, blog posts, books, and videos at the end of each unit rationale so that teachers had the option at their fingertips to deepen their understanding of the concepts in the unit.
- Developing suggested unit plans that included lessons, activities, and pedagogical moves that aligned with my “why”. This is how I introduced so many of my teachers to powerful resources like Notice and Wonder, Three Act Tasks, Which One Doesn’t Belong?, and Desmos Activity Builder.
- Restructuring the elementary math block to include 10 minutes of daily numeracy work and 20 minutes of daily spiral review.
- Embedding three anchor numeracy routines throughout the school year across all of the elementary grades – number talks, choral counting, and counting collections.
- Eliminating the 10-day test prep unit at the end of the year for grades 3-5 and instead implementing daily spiral review throughout the entire school year. I wrote a blog post about this on my district math blog. If you’re interested in reading more about my rationale for this decision, you can read that here.
- Creating yearly at-a-glance documents (3rd Grade Sample) that showed how math concepts wove through all three components of the math block across the year – core instruction, numeracy, and spiral review.
- Completely redesigning the Kindergarten and 1st grade math units to provide more time for students to explore and engage hands-on with math concepts. I wrote about these changes on this blog. You can read about them in more detail here.
Looking back on it now, this is, to a degree, systemic change. By changing (and continually refining) what was within my control – the documents my teachers engaged with on a daily basis as they planned instruction – I changed the system in which they worked. It’s important to note that I didn’t do this work in isolation. In addition to being driven by my “why”, many of these changes were also driven by teacher feedback. I regularly consulted our instructional coaches and brought in teachers to help plan units and create resources.
But changing documents isn’t enough, especially if not everyone uses them. While I didn’t have the power to make anyone use these documents, I did learn over the years that I had the power to influence them.
During my six and a half years as a Curriculum Coordinator, I had the opportunity to either lead or help plan so many PD sessions: summer PD, new teacher PD, after school PD, online PD.
Some of the ways I shared my “why” through PD include:
- Developing a 7-month long program called Math Rocks that was designed for teachers to dive more deeply into their practice and build positive identities around mathematics for themselves and their students. I’ve written several posts about it on this blog which you can check out here.
- Creating a uniform set of slides to introduce teachers to our Elementary Mathematics Beliefs document at all summer PD and new teacher PD sessions.
- Creating a session called Maximizing the Math Block to share with teachers how the elementary math block is structured and the rationale behind each component. This session was given at New Teacher Orientation, on district PD days, and after school at various campuses.
- Regularly highlighting the work of educators around the district who demonstrated practices that aligned with our beliefs about teaching and learning mathematics. The pictures below are from a session I led for campus principals to help them better understand our process standards using classrom examples from their own campuses. I always loved seeing a principal sit a little taller whenever I shared the work of a teacher from their campus.
Getting in front of principals, coaches, and teachers turned out to be an ideal way to share my “why” and get others on board with my vision for teaching mathematics. It’s not a quick fix, that’s for sure, but it’s effective if you’re willing to put in the work over time. Systemic change is as much about the cultural change you can influence as it is any technical changes you put in place.
Lesson #4 – I can’t please everyone, but I can listen to them.
The more people in an organization, the more people you’re inevitably going to disappoint. As much as I worked to bring as many people as possible on board with changes I made, it’s just not possible to please everyone, and that’s okay.
What’s not okay is not listening. Even if the eventual change isn’t exactly what they want, I’ve found that if people feel heard they are more likely to accept the change (perhaps begrudgingly), or at least not vocally oppose it quite so much.
And if you take the time to listen, you might even find some common ground or an idea you wouldn’t have considered otherwise. As long as I kept my “why” at the forefront of my thinking, I found it easier to make compromises rather than getting hung up on needing something to be “my” way.
Lesson #5 – Learning is a marathon, not a sprint.
I’m referring to the K-12 experience of learning here. It’s easy to get wrapped up in a particular lesson within a particular unit within a particular grade level and feel like you’ve failed as a teacher or the students have failed as learners because they didn’t learn the thing they were supposed to by the end of the lesson. Learning targets and daily goals are all well and good for keeping us focused, but the variability among people is so high it’s naive to think everyone will achieve the goals you’ve set for them every single lesson, every single day.
Learning is about bringing about incremental change over time in the ways students think, their dispositions, and the skills they possess. One of the reasons I broke up our elementary math block into three components – core instruction, numeracy, and spiral review – was to give more space for concepts to weave throughout the school year so that the pressure wasn’t on any given lesson or even any given unit for success for every single student. Rather, we have all year long to help lift up each and every student.
Don’t get me wrong, there are forces from above telling (or even demanding) teachers and students that they should be achieving learning goals on a rigid schedule, but somebody wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true. And just because someone wants something doesn’t mean they get to have it.
Lesson #6 – Forgetting is normal. Expect it, don’t fight it.
Related to the previous lesson, I learned that forgetting is a normal part of the process of learning. If your students forget previously learned material, you haven’t failed your students and your students haven’t failed you. As soon as you stop teaching something and move on to a different topic, the brain does a very normal biological process of forgetting what was just learned as time and attention are given to the new topic.
All is not lost, however. Intentionally waiting and returning to a topic later gives the brain a chance to go, “Wait, you still wanted me to know that?” As you review and practice, students relearn what was lost, but more importantly pathways are strengthened in the brain so that future forgetting will be lessened because now the brain knows this is information that needs to be held onto.
So the next time you revisit something like types of quadrilaterals and your students look at you like you just spoke a foreign language, don’t have a heart attack. Stop, breathe, and tell yourself, “This is totally normally.” Then do the work of helping them remember what they learned before in order to lesson future forgetting.
Lesson #7 – There is a lot of redundancy and inequity across school systems.
Think about it – No matter how big or small a school district is, their charge is exactly the same. Whether you have one 5th grade classroom or 300 5th grade classrooms in your district, every single one of your students is expected to learn the 5th grade standards. What varies is the level of support the district can provide its teachers.
A district with 300 5th grade classrooms likely has a larger budget and can afford a robust curriculum department with one or two people overseeing each subject area. A district with just one 5th grade classroom, on the other hand, likely has a very small budget and may not even have a curriculum department. Or if they do, it might consist of one person overseeing all subjects for K-12. The level of support these districts can provide their teachers is inequitable, despite the fact that both districts are required to provide the exact same service – educating all of their students.
Or think about this. I worked for a district with 34 elementary schools, and I developed and maintained around 90 elementary math units for grades K-5. My colleague in another district of similar size was in charge of developing and maintaining her own set of elementary math units for grades K-5. And another colleague in another district was doing the exact same thing. And my colleague in another district…and so on. There is a lot of redundancy in education. It doesn’t help that while some districts are open and happy to share resources, others are locked down and protective. More collaboration could save a lot of time and energy, not to mention result in more high quality resources for all.
I haven’t learned a solution to this problem. I’ve just become acutely aware of it. I do appreciate that social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have facilitated the sharing of ideas and resources among educators. These online communities are organic and unsystematic, but they’ve shown that we can be better and achieve more when we erase school district boundaries and work together.
I guess the final lesson I’ve learned is that I crave new experiences and challenges to learn from. I left my digital curriculum writing job in 2014 seeking a new challenge, and I found it in Round Rock ISD. Serving as the Elementary Mathematics Curriculum Coordinator and figuring out how to be successful in the role was a tough nut to crack. While I didn’t solve every problem and while not every effort I made was a success, I learned so much over the past six and a half years in no small part thanks to the leadership in my department who trusted me to not just to do my job but to do it well. I look forward to bringing the lessons I’ve learned with me into whatever role I take on next.
I have to say, I so appreciate that I’ve had this blog going for as long as I have. It was so nice as I was reflecting over the past couple weeks that I had so many blog posts to look back on where I captured various aspects of my work. I know blogging isn’t for everyone, but it sure is a great way to capture your thought process at a particular point in time that you can return to later. Don’t worry about your “audience”. Write for yourself and if it resonates with anyone else, consider it a bonus.