This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of HaYidion, Prizmah’s magazine, on the theme of Leading Together. Reprinted by permission.
By Nina Bruder and Fayge Safran Novogroder
Schools are most effective in advancing student learning when there is alignment across roles, from head of school to classroom teachers. Based on our work at the Jewish New Teacher Project (JNTP) in more than 200 schools over 18 years, this article explores how leaders can create alignment across roles in a school, what alignment looks like, how it impacts teaching and learning, and what factors undermine alignment. We offer insights that establish the necessity of alignment up and down the rungs of a school’s professional ladder in order to create an optimal learning environment to advance student learning and growth.
What do we mean by alignment?
The words that best describe alignment are “shared and agreed upon.” In a school, this can mean a number of things: shared values and priorities—between the board and administration, between administration and faculty, between parents and the various professionals in a school; a shared sense of mission, direction, purpose and philosophy so that the entire school community is working toward the same goals and students and teachers alike see their roles in advancing those goals; a shared sense of what is considered good teaching so that there is a standard of excellence to strive toward and by which to measure; a shared language between all the educators; a shared approach toward students. When there is alignment along these lines, the school works as a cohesive unit, and there is the greatest opportunity for success in advancing student learning and growth to the highest possible levels.
Creating alignment throughout a school ecosystem
The very foundation of school alignment is a well-defined vision and mission statement that is created with input from all stakeholders and, most importantly, is communicated often and consistently throughout the school community at every opportunity. Moreover, the school’s vision should be utilized to truly map the goals and programs of the school, indicating that the values have been considered and actualized in how the school works. It is important for administrators to be transparent about filtering decisions through the vision and to serve as a model for all constituents, professional and lay, to do so as well.
What might this look like?
One school shared that their mission statement, along with a list of actionable core beliefs, is prominently displayed in writing in numerous places throughout the school building, and that different parts of the school community are actively engaged in conversations around unpacking what the mission means at different points in time. For example, when Covid hit, the school leaders challenged themselves to continue to achieve the goal of being a “dynamic learning environment that meets the needs of the whole child” during a pandemic. The school nimbly modified their schedules and pedagogical methods throughout the year. In the early fall when many schools remained closed, this school put in place weekly sessions where students engaged in a whole day of outdoor learning, allowing students to connect with their teachers and with each other and to forge the foundations of their relationships. Those students who remained at home enjoyed online scavenger hunts, cooking experiences with their friends and teachers, and even creating a short film to document their experiences and learning, to ensure that they remained engaged and connected.
Another school’s mission statement contains the goal of recognizing and nurturing the “divine spark” within each student. In practice, this idea translates into a focus on working with the whole child, attending to each student’s emotion, social, cognitive and spiritual development. This school feels so strongly about their mission of recognizing and nurturing the whole child that they are planning a complete overhaul of how their school is structured. While until now they have had a traditional pairing of Judaic studies head teacher with an assistant for half a day and the same arrangement in general studies for the other half, beginning next year they will have teams of Judaic and general studies teachers working together throughout the day. This will allow teachers to truly get to know the whole child and be invested in who they are and who they can become.
A third school strives to embed its mission deeply into its culture. Its annual summer planning time begins with an exercise that has teachers find themselves in the mission of the school. They use this language explicitly and consistently throughout the year.
It is important that all school staff are on the same page when it comes to school vision and mission. The mission should be shared with every potential new hire to ensure that every single person who works in the school is aligned with the school’s values and educational goals, and schools should only hire those individuals who are in alignment. In addition, follow-up, accountability and assessment of adherence to the vision should be part of goal-setting conversations, faculty meetings and even parent communications. In this way, everyone involved with a school is aligned around the school’s values, purpose and goals and are working cooperatively to achieve them.
The tone and culture of a school is set by its institutional leaders. In our work with schools, we have seen that culture encompasses attitudes and behaviors around two categories: the interpersonal and the educational.
Interpersonal aspects of school culture include personal caring and concern, positivity, deep listening, trust and respect. This is reflected in the ways administrators talk to staff, how teachers speak to students, how students speak with their peers and their teachers, and how the faculty/administrators and parents communicate with each other. When there is a positive interpersonal culture, there is collegiality among staff and students alike as well as expressions of appreciation, trust and an openness to learning. A positive culture encourages distributed leadership, such that all educators, novice to veteran, and even students feel they have opportunities to make suggestions, take the lead in teaching peers and bringing initiatives to fruition, and stepping up as informal leaders in the building.
In a positive educational culture, teachers see themselves and approach their work as professionals; they engage in reflective practice; there is clarity around roles, expectations and what success looks like; and there is a growth environment, where everyone in the building—adults as well as children—are supported in continual learning. Numerous elements can contribute to creating such a culture. A shared language and a shared approach to instruction are important.
So is a shared definition of what good teaching looks like. We use a set of standards based on Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching that offers both benchmarks and language for good instruction and provides an opportunity for teachers to reflect and assess their own practice. One school has created a school playbook that outlines the school culture, which they use to guide educational practice. Topics listed include who we are, working together, classroom practice, educational philosophy, portrait of a teacher, the child and the organization. They spend time reviewing the playbook with faculty at the start of each school year.
Another way to foster positive school culture is to use an instructional leadership approach that is facilitative. By using questions to clarify, probe and guide, rather than mandating and imposing solutions, a school leader encourages others to be reflective and to discover solutions themselves. The guiding questions remain long after the issue has been resolved, and people feel empowered to think creatively and resourcefully. Regular classroom visits, ongoing feedback and coaching aligned with school and teacher goals, as well as opportunities for self- assessment also foster a positive educational culture.
Collaboration straddles the interpersonal and educational cultures. One administrator pointed out that collaboration doesn’t happen on its own; schools need to schedule regular opportunities for teachers and staff to work together. At that school, time is set aside for collaboration at each level: teaching teams, departments, divisions and even full staff, so that educators can plan together, reflect together, learn together and look at student work together.
Another administrator suggests that “alignment comes from the infrastructure built around conversations and collaboration.” It is the continuity of dialogue, of always being in conversation around curriculum and learning practices and student work—in person and online, between teams and across divisions—that creates synthesis and keeps the school in alignment.
Shared Professional Development Experiences
A way to foster shared language and educational philosophy among teachers is through the shared experience of professional development. When a school is able to send multiple teams to the same professional development experience or when multiple staff, over time, participate in the same professional development program, the shared language, techniques and tools of that approach begin to create alignment in the school. When staff who participate in a program share their professional learning with colleagues who did not participate, they further disseminate the ideas and language, as well as the importance of professional growth, throughout the school.
One school points to a training that many teachers participated in a number of years ago. The thinking fostered by that shared professional development experience has become a shared language throughout the building and has helped the school develop a culture around good teaching, including an emphasis on student interactions, student voice, student choice, cultivating joint inquiry, and encouraging and celebrating the spirit of curiosity, exploration and empowerment.
Another school reported that they use professional development opportunities to “develop a shared value system.” One seminar led to the collaborative definition of a rich, caring and accountable classroom, values that the teachers then incorporated into their practice.
A number of schools we worked with reported that the shared language, reflective practice and, particularly, the ongoing analysis of student and teaching data that the JNTP training promotes have impacted even those teachers and administrators who did not participate in the program. With more than 30 educators from each school participating over time, these schools have invested in creating a framework that pushes all educators in the school, faculty and administrators alike, to be better, not just the participants.
Weak leadership, poor communication, not facilitating collaboration, failing to invest in ongoing professional development for faculty and not having a clear school vision weakens the school at all levels. Some of the negative results stemming from lack of alignment include dysfunctional teams, competition among faculty, lack of clear roles and responsibilities, an authoritative and toxic culture for staff and students, and a fragmented approach to teaching and learning. All of these create disunity, inconsistency and confusion, and undermine student success.
Another major barrier arises when boundaries between the lay and professional leadership have been crossed, with the board assuming the role of educational leader and making decisions about curriculum and staffing. Gaining alignment across the roles in a school—in shared purpose, mission, values, goals or culture—is much more difficult to achieve under such circumstances, and the school’s potential for success is diminished.
Aligning the Field
School leaders set the tone for their schools. To be sure, they need the support of their board and community leadership. They also need to model and lead the school community in establishing the culture, values, environment, communication and academic expectations. Through their modelling and example, as well as their policies, they promote the mission as they set the tone of respect, collaboration, goal setting and priorities that become the shared and agreed upon norms of school life. This, in turn, empowers school alignment and fosters student growth.
Working to create alignment in one school can potentially impact the greater field of Jewish education, as well. As educators move from one school to another, and as schools visit and learn from each other’s best practices, the goal of alignment itself becomes a shared value. Perhaps the vision can be expanded to include not only alignment within each school, but among all the schools throughout the landscape of Jewish education.