Flashback to early 2020, March, specifically. Schools and education leaders needed to adapt at unprecedented speed, and at a level never before experienced by the sector. With many schools unable to find or afford help, The Learning Accelerator (TLA), a national nonprofit, quickly recognized the need for individualized support, secured funding, and launched the Always Ready for Learning (ARL) Coaching Network, a first of its kind collaborative effort among 11 education coaching organizations to provide K-12 leaders with pro-bono, customized guidance to help them improve teaching and learning during the pandemic.
We wanted to “remove barriers of cost and access to networks of expertise for schools to quickly get high-quality support,” said TLA Partner Nithi Thomas, who leads the coaching network. This accessibility continues to be the primary aim of the coaching network as they are seeking more schools and districts to support as we enter another challenging semester. This expanding initiative will add to the 1,515 schools they have already served, which has affected the lives of 939,988 students across 38 states.
The ARL network supports education leaders in building capacity for overcoming crises and challenges and creates authentic partnerships that help to identify clear next steps for leaders. This initiative serves a diverse cross-section of schools, ranging from charters, to districts— among these 51% identified as urban, 25% identified as rural and 24% suburban. The ARL team makes a concentrated effort to reach the traditionally underserved schools “in order to create and maintain change with equity in mind we have to provide access to resources, expertise, and networks” said Thomas.
Prince George’s County Public Schools: A District’s Experience
Early on in the pandemic, Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGC) needed support in processing the impact and disruption of COVID-19. This partnership began with Cassondra Thaddies, Director of Transformational Coaching at the Learning Innovation Catalyst (LINC) and one of the coaches in the ARL coaching network, actively listening for gaps, needs, and feelings. By taking the time to build an authentic relationship between coach and district, the team was able to better position for high impact next steps. It wouldn’t have been possible without first validating the emotions, anxiety, and stressors of the leadership team.
“Everyone was overwhelmed and it was not easy for leaders to be vulnerable and express their own uncertainty. I made it a point to ask them how they were doing first so that they could get clearer mentally to really consider what their big picture needs were,” said Cassondra.
“It was extremely important to commend the work and build the confidence of the PGC leadership team by affirming that they were on the right track in how they were proceeding with their planning,” said Cassondra. Through this work, the coach and district partnership was able to align resources, establish authentic relationships, have an affirming team experience, and establish priorities in order to keep things moving in the direction of progress.
Prince George’s County Public Schools felt extremely supported in the experience: “You picked the perfect partner for us! I knew that we needed help, but there was no one we could think of that had the expertise needed,” said Dr. Kia McDaniel, Director of Curriculum and Instruction.
What Sets ARL Apart: Rapid Response Coaching
From the beginning, the network made it clear that this was not long-term, multi-year coaching, this was response coaching — the coaches utilize short-cycle innovation support, meaning it operates in the span of weeks and months rather than years, a dramatic shift in the world of coaching. With access to coaches that have expertise in a variety of areas, it has created efficiencies in coordination and support provided to schools who come in with multiple areas of need.
At the beginning of the engagement, coaches often ask, “You’re doing a really good job but what should you stop doing and what should you start doing?” or “What’s working? What’s not? What are the 5 priority areas?”. This ability to prioritize and then reprioritize demands a great deal of agility from the participating schools and leaders, but the collaboration often results in leapfrogging months at a time. “We are grateful to be part of the Always Ready for Learning Coaching Network and hope that the initiative allows us to provide helpful support to the amazing educators adapting to this unprecedented moment in time, ” said Ben Rayer, Partner at 2Revolutions.
If the school still desires coaching support at the end of the coaching engagement, the network refers them to the Catalyst.Ed consultant search to get them matched with an appropriate long-term consulting solution.
The Power of the Network
One of the most important elements of this initiative is the encouraged collaboration among the varied and talented coaches. Every week the network joins a “learning call” facilitated by TLA to share resources and continue to build their community together. This consistent calibration helps to make the work more up-to-date and personalized when the time comes.
It was important for the coaches to have varied skill sets, as the requests from the schools had a wide range of needs and requests: some new superintendents needed help working with boards, some just needed help rolling out a personalized PD plan and some had questions about how to maximize budget in the novel moment.
Meet a Few of The Coaches
One of the aforementioned phenomenal members of the network is Cassondra Thaddies, Director of Transformational Coaching at the Learning Innovation Catalyst (LINC).
When asked about what positioned her to be a coach, she responded “I think I’ve always been a coach. That’s how I’ve seen myself show up in all of my circles. It’s not something that I feel has been foreign at any point, it’s an authentic way of being with people. I really appreciated it coming full circle with the Coaching Network.”
“For us at LINC, it’s all about the connection before content,” she added. When she was pregnant with her first son, she began investigating child care options and had no idea what she was looking for. This uncertainty ended up leading her down the path of education “that way I could navigate and ensure that my kids and other kids are receiving the care they need.”
This moment is no different. Cassondra feels intimately the challenges facing students, parents, and teachers and is determined to support districts who need help — “The districts that we have worked with, most importantly, felt listened to. [The network] was their lifeline,” she said. “it’s almost like they got a second wind to continue to move forward when it felt too overwhelming at one point — what they need, what they are seeing the needs to be and they need support. And they feel safe.”
Cassondra also noted what makes the network such a special opportunity for the coaches themselves: “I love the camaraderie. We now feel like we’re partners. We’ve figured out through ARL not only how to work together but how to see the big picture of how to support this world of educators and what’s happening now to our students. We’re bringing our very best to the table.”
Another coach in the network is Scott Milam, co-founder of Afton Partners, a consultancy that empowers education leaders with effective financial strategies.
Scott and his co-founder Carrie have unique experience when it comes to crisis management. Carrie was part of leading public education efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, while Scott worked in several large school districts prior to and during the financial crisis of 2008 to 2010. Their experience working with public and private organizations through crisis and the successive recovery made Scott and Carrie come together to create an organization that, in part, sought to apply lessons learned to help prevent financial crises before they happen. Using their skillsets in finance, education, and analytics, they created Afton Partners, who’s consulting services has evolved into areas such as sustainability planning, funding adequacy, equity, and transparency, governance and leadership, and innovative models and programs.
The coaching network has created a unique opportunity for coaches of all kinds to come together, but they all agree that: “We only want to do this if it is valuable for them. We love dealing with different schools, districts, states and the different challenges they have,” said Scott. “For our work, we have to dig in. We want to work side-by-side with leadership teams — depending on how much they want to engage we can work side by side with their financial team. We bring capacity to the table and we act quickly.”
The work that Afton Partners has assisted thus far has been ranging in scope. Everything from tracking enrollment variability and its impact on cash, to develop current year budgeting scenarios, to building long-term financial plans. “Budgets used to be perceived as a fixed target,” said Scott. “Board members are now talking about being nimble and scenario planning […] We have been, and currently are, members of boards ourselves, and have spent a lot of time with superintendents and districts.”
Scott talks openly about this anxiety-riddled time. “These leaders only have so much capacity to worry,” he said. “Many leaders have anxiety about finance, which is a challenging place for leaders when they really want to focus elsewhere. They’re concerned about something that’s not their primary competency. We can help address the uncertainty and anxiety that leaders may feel. Whether it be processes, communications, or tools.”
This coaching network enables schools to make thoughtful and strategic shifts in real-time and provides the confidence and comfort necessary to navigate uncertainty. “It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from — if you need the help come and get it,” said Nithi.
Amanda Bikowski, Elementary AP of Maureen Joy Charter School said this of her experience with the coaching network, “It was helpful to speak with people who are working closely with other schools in the midst of this pandemic and have been working with schools before. Being questioned on our vision, our practices, the scope of our work, our lens for equity, etc was helpful in revealing the depth of the work ahead of us. The balance of productive struggle and not outright being told the answers to our problems is a fine balance.”
Largely, what the network provides is capacity building for addressing crisis and challenge, and it provides a second wind for edleaders who are out of their depth or just human. “If you’re feeling isolated, overwhelmed and stressed this network/support will be like a lifeline and partnership to support the move forward. It will help to rebuild your confidence and you can leave with a next step,” said Cassondra.
The network continues to accept applications from schools, districts, and organizations of all sizes, facing any number of challenges. If you would like to support, or simply to learn more, you can apply here.
For more, see:
- Always Ready for Learning Page
- Always Ready For Learning: Meeting the Rapidly Evolving Needs of Educators Throughout COVID-19
- Building the Car While We’re Driving It: Lessons Learned and Back-to-School Priorities in Four Districts
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