Professional Development Opinion

‘Collaboration Is Crucial': An Interview With Carmen Fariña & Laura Kotch

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 10, 2014 8 min read
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This summer, I’ll be alternating between publishing thematic collections of past posts (ones on Student Motivation and Implementing The Common Core have already been published) and sharing interviews with authors of recent books I consider important and useful for us educators (Meenoo Rami was the first) .

Carmen Fariña, Chancellor of the New York City schools, & Laura Kotch, its former Director of Professional Development and Curriculum, have just updated their book, A School Leader’s Guide to Excellence. They both agreed to answer a few questions about it.

LF: This updated edition of your book comes 6 years after its original publication. What would you say are two or three things you’ve learned during those 6 years that affect your thinking/working in schools today?

Carmen Fariña & Laura Kotch:

School leaders have faced many external pressures that have negatively impacted their perception about their role as change agents and their ability to make decisions that impact their school communities. We believe that collaboration within and across schools is crucial and that everyone benefits when expertise is shared. We know that what works well in one classroom, school or district can be adapted and replicated to scale up excellence, build capacity, and impact student performance. Programs like the one we’ve launched in NYC called Learning Partners provides opportunities for schools to share areas of expertise and support each other in continual improvement. Through the pilot program just completed, we’ve already seen the positive impact that results when the knowledge and talents of teachers and principals are recognized and affirmed and structures are provided that afford opportunities to share what works with colleagues.

LF: You give a number of different examples of “what teacher leadership” might look like, ranging from Carmen’s experience of teaching 4 days and working as a mentor on the other day to “peer coach” which you describe as two teachers working together as equals to help each other improve-- along with a full chapter devoted to other ideas. It appears that the new contract signed by teachers and the NY district support at least some of these practices.

Can you paint a picture of what you see teacher leadership looking like in NY 2 or 3 years from now and how it will matter to teachers, students, and their families?

Carmen Fariña & Laura Kotch:

The contract makes clear that teachers can contribute in adding value to the system in many ways that they have not been asked to do in the past. Lead teachers in Learning Partner Host Schools will have opportunities to share their expertise with teachers from their 2 partner schools by opening their own classrooms to visiting teachers and traveling to partner schools to work alongside visiting teachers in their home schools.

Master teachers in “Light Contract Consortium Schools” will lead the collaborative work of designing innovative practices and experimenting in extended time in the school day.

Ambassador teachers will join with two colleagues to become change agents and add new energy to another school for one year, similar to a Fulbright scholar. Teachers will participate in Teacher Advisory teams to provide insights about curriculum and teaching and learning.

Excellent teachers will be rewarded with recognition, time to share their expertise, monetary incentives, and opportunities to add value to colleagues in other schools. We know that these opportunities will promote teacher leadership, build capacity, impact student performance, foster collaboration, and create sustaining change from within. Research shows that leaders make the most impact and are most effective when they know how to listen and how to support and these structures will provide experience in both. Students and their families will benefit because these structures will result in more reflective, articulate and effective teachers who will raise student achievement and grow into our city’s future leaders.

LF: Though I saw one line about the need for school leaders to “adapt the vision as needed” my impression is that your book emphasizes principals and other school leaders communicating their vision to teachers and families and working to get them to buy into it. Many elements of the strategies you outline (1-1 conversations, developing leadership etc.) remind me of effective community organizing techniques, but I was struck that the perspective communicated about vision did not seem to reflect what organizers often believe-- that it’s a matter of laying out your vision, and then getting people to react and change it to make it their own. Perhaps I misread this point, though. How does a school leader achieve a balance between communicating and enacting the core elements of his/her vision while helping all parties feel that they are co-creators of a community-wide vision for the school?

Carmen Fariña & Laura Kotch:

The vision for a school community is generated from the beliefs of the leader about teaching and learning based on research, the needs of the community, and the tangible goals and anticipated outcomes for student learning such as All second graders will read on grade level by the end of the school year. The framework of how the vision is realized, the steps of implementation, and the interpretation of specific meaning to make the vision concrete comes from the community. As the teachers, parents, students and partners continually engage in conversations about the vision, they add their voices to craft the language, clarify their perception of the benefits and obligations asked of them, and define their role in contributing their talent and expertise to its actualization. To make the vision the driving force in continual improvement, the principal needs to demonstrate by words and deeds that every decision is made based on the vision while continually inviting the community to make the vision their own.

LF: You devote a chapter to the importance of parent engagement. What would you say would be a good 3 or 4 point criteria that school leaders could use to evaluate if a particular parent engagement strategy was likely to be effective or not?

Carmen Fariña & Laura Kotch:

First, conduct a needs assessment by surveying parents to find out what they are interested in learning and how they want to participate. Parents will be more engaged if they know that you have listened to them before planning activities. Our parent survey told us that parents wanted support in navigating middle school choice and when we offered workshops on this topic parents came. Parent feedback is also crucial after an event to assess the effectiveness of the offering and suggestions for next steps.

Second, know the culture and language of your parent community and demonstrate your respect by having translators available who represent their culture. Honor the diversity of your community by inviting diverse parents to participate in the life of the school. Many schools engage parents by organizing diversity festivals where parents teach students about their home countries and the unique contributions of the culture like food, language and way of life.

Third, make time for parents to meet with teachers for in depth conversations frequently throughout the year. The new contract affords 40 minutes each week for teachers and parents to collaborate in building strong home school connections.

Fourth, parents have busy lives and will become more involved if they know well in advance what is available. Monthly parent calendars are helpful especially if there are offerings that list the specific activities that pertain to their child. A parent of a second grader is more likely to be engaged in an event about the second grade curriculum than an event that is about the whole school.

Finally, build capacity by using the expertise of parents to teach other parents. We have found that engagement grows when parent workshops are led by parents who understand the challenges and are available for continued support.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

Carmen Fariña & Laura Kotch:

If we are to transform schools into places of excellence, we believe that all members of the community, regardless of their role, must see this work as their personal responsibility and seek to contribute their unique talents and effort to add value to the system. We see our mission as a call to action to enlist the support of every stakeholder to take on the challenge of creating schools that work, places where every child will flourish. Business leaders, community based organizations, universities, and arts organization are all crucial partners to insure that students are ready for college and productive careers. Our core belief is that when we take on the challenges of educating all our children as if they were our very own, everyone reaps the benefits. An example of the way we put this core belief into action and demonstrate how personal this mission is for us, is the framing of the struggling school initiative. The Chancellor and members of her senior management team have each “adopted” a struggling school, making the commitment use whatever resources are needed to move each school from failure to success.

We know that enduring change takes time to take root and grow strong. There are no quick fixes to the challenges we face in moving all students to rigorous common core standards. We believe, however, that as we move from mandates to collaboration and share our knowledge, talent, expertise, and dedication, we will succeed. Our clients, the children and families we serve, count on our public schools to be the bridge to a promising future. Our book was written with that intention and we hope the updated version will serve as a resource for educators to make that promise a reality.

LF: Thanks, Carmen and Laura!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.