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Why leader learning matters

By Sarah Tierney

As a school leader, you can get so focused on student learning that you overlook your own learning. But the leadership team at MAS Charter School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, see a direct connection between their own learning and teachers’ and students’ ability to succeed. 

If we expect students to always learn and grow, we, as teachers and leaders, have to do the same.
— Principal JoAnn Mitchell

At the core of MAS’s school culture is a commitment to learning—for students, teachers, and leaders. “Everyone works tirelessly,” says principal JoAnn Mitchell. “And we have to. If we expect students to always learn and grow, we, as teachers and leaders, have to do the same.” 

JoAnn hires teachers who are learners and pushes them to continue to grow, in part by modeling it herself. For her, it’s an issue of equity: New Mexico may be ranked 49th in the country for educational quality, but at MAS there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that students deserve the best. That means the adults who support them have to work constantly on their own learning and development. 

We can learn a lot from the great practices happening at MAS: we highlighted MAS’s A+ school culture and use of data previously. In this post, we’ll dig into what MAS leaders are learning about now and why it matters for teachers and students.

Learning connected to school priorities

ANet coach Julie Puzon has worked with the leaders at MAS over the past several months and she attributes MAS’s success in large part to the fact that leadership team are always looking for ideas that will help them improve in priority areas. “Their ability to take something and run with it is incredible,” Julie says. “But the thing that sets them apart from a lot of other schools is that before they take action, they stop to think about whether a tool or resource is aligned to their school goals.” 

Learning #1: “Use the right assessment data the right way.”

Teachers and leaders at MAS share two unwavering beliefs:

  1. All kids are capable of extraordinary things.

  2. A strong teaching and learning cycle enables kids to do those things.

Over the past several months, the MAS leadership team has devoted their learning time to putting this cycle in place, and they’ve started with a critical first step: making sure they have high-quality, instructional assessments to analyze. 

For a long time, we’ve known it’s important to look at data; but what we’ve learned is that you need to analyze the right assessment data the right way.
— Principal JoAnn Mitchell

After all, assessment data that merely predicts student performance or measures student growth from one assessment to the next isn’t instructionally useful. A percentile score or a red/yellow/green report doesn’t give you insight into students’ strengths or gaps, and it certainly doesn’t help you develop targeted next steps to support students. The MAS Team learned that you can splice and dice data all you want, but if you’re not looking at data that helps you identify why students are struggling or what you can do to help, you may be spinning your wheels. 

“For a long time, we’ve known it’s important to look at data; but what we’ve learned is that you need to analyze the right assessment data the right way,” JoAnn says. Now, leaders spend the bulk of their time helping teachers analyze data and student work from instructional assessments that provide a window into students’ thinking—data they can use to reflect on past instruction and plan for future teaching. 

Learning #2: Assessments aren’t just tests—they can be powerful tools for planning and instruction, too.

At MAS, leaders are flipping the way they think about assessments and helping teachers do the same. Assessments are no longer just “tests,” but instructional tools teachers can use to deepen their understanding of the standards and grade-level expectations.

Josh Harrelson, MAS’s Math Instructional Coach and Math Lead, helps math teachers study assessment items at the beginning of each unit to better understand what students need to know and be able to do. Then, they plan strategies and learning activities that will help their students meet that bar.  Duncan MacIvor and Nick Coffman, Literacy Coaches at MAS, work alongside teachers to study texts and tasks and discuss implications for the day-to-day learning that needs to take place throughout that unit. 

The leaders at MAS own their teachers’ development and this is something that sets them apart; after all, it can be easy to rely on external PD to support teachers’ development because leaders already have so much on their plate. However, JoAnn and her leadership team believe that investing in their own learning helps them provide teachers with more practical, consistent, and focused support. 

Because leaders at MAS have worked to strengthen their own knowledge and expertise, they’ve become reliable, well-informed thought partners for teachers. Observation feedback, PD sessions, and one-on-one check-ins between leaders and teachers have become more powerful as a result of this widespread learning.

“Working with ANet has helped grow our teachers faster and better, and it’s helped our entire leadership team expand our knowledge, too,” JoAnn says. 

Interested in learning more about how our leaders are working on their own development? Check out these guides and resources for leaders looking to boost their development. 

Sarah is the managing director of system advising and a former coach at ANet.


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