As members of an instructional team from the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut, we recently had the opportunity to bring our leadership experiences to practicing principals in Jordan. The trip was made possible by a partnership with Queen Rania’s Teacher Academy (QRTA), the University of Jordan, and the Jordanian Ministry of Education. The QRTA Advanced Leadership Training Program is built on four, week-long modules modeled on courses from Neag’s UConn Administrator Preparation program (UCAPP). The goal of the program is to give principals in Jordan the leadership skills they need to improve student performance at scale. Together, the partner members of this program are committed to fulfilling this deep and enduring commitment.
The program is a train-the-trainer design, with gradual release of responsibility to QRTA trainers across three cohorts of participants. Instructors for the four modules are practicing superintendents from Connecticut who use a cognitive coaching model that supports instruction as it is modeled for the trainers.
As the first two instructors to complete our modules, we have had time to consider the impact of the experience on our own leadership practice, including three key lessons that we have applied as education leaders in our home state of Connecticut.
1. Our own instructional and leadership practices grew.
While we were invited into this project with the goal of impacting leaders’ effectiveness in the schools in Jordan, we have come away from this experience feeling that we are better instructors for it.
As practitioner instructors, we have both taught in the UCAPP program for years. Our experience on the ground in Jordan, however, was something different. An intensive, week-long session of full days drove us to see more clearly than before how much of our daily practice continues to be grounded in sound, invitational, pedagogy. As we planned instructional tasks for a room of 35 practicing school leaders, we were forced to think clearly and plan intentionally. Following each day of instruction with an evening coaching session from our executive coach, Jason Culbertson, drove us to reflect on our practice and our specific instructional moves so we could adjust and roll out improvements in the next day’s session.
This work was not so different from what we do as district leaders. We are constantly teaching, assessing our own effectiveness, and adjusting and responding to meet the outcomes we have identified. Working in a setting as new and different as the one we encountered in Jordan allowed us to see more clearly that while teaching and learning is the content of our work, it is also the process of our work.
2. We developed a renewed appreciation for taking a critical assessment of our performance relative to our expectations when planning and working for improvement.
The conditions in Jordan share many universal truths with the conditions we encounter in our districts. Children are children, hungry to learn; teachers are teachers, committed to the work of teaching and learning, striving to be effective; and learning is learning, a complex process that is challenging to systematize in the best of circumstances.
But the specific details of the conditions in Jordan are completely different than those that we see in our districts. According to QRTA’s website, “Teachers in Jordan are under-resourced, under-supported and disconnected from one another. Most of the students’ learning experience at schools consists of routine learning, and students are under-performing in international test assessments in math, science, and literacy.”
We were challenged to work with educators striving to fit the research we presented and the experiences we shared to their local structures and resource restrictions. We worked with principals struggling with class sizes ranging from 45 to 60, in schools that were absorbing Syrian refugees into student bodies already overcrowded and lacking resources. We were reminded of the challenge posed by measuring where we are in our work, and the difficulty of thoughtfully identifying the next steps that can lead to improvement.
3. We saw again the importance of the ways in which we communicate our expectations and those strategic next steps to the communities in which our schools are situated.
Working with the principals in Jordan, in communities different than ours, we saw with fresh eyes the challenging and organic nature of the continuous improvement process. And we both came away thinking anew about that process and those communications in our own districts.
Jordan was an eye-opening experience for us both, and we were privileged to feel that we contributed to the practice of committed school leaders. One principal described her use of a four-frame tool, created from Bolman and Deal’s work, as a palette with four colors of paint. From that palette, as she dipped her brush, she created new hues with which she is painting images of school improvement she had not previously envisioned.
We were also surprised, though, to find that we came away thinking so deeply about our own work. This was not an example of stand-and-deliver instruction. This was a challenging and recursive conversation, through which we generated new questions and deeper understandings about the content we delivered and our work at home in Mansfield and Guilford. We are excited for our return trips to Jordan to work with cohorts two and three.
Paul Freeman is the Superintendent of Guildford Public Schools in Guildford, CT. Kelly Lyman is the Superintendent of Mansfield Public Schools in Storrs, CT. The cognitive coaching model they used in Jordan was provided by Insight Education Group, with executive coaching by Insight’s President Jason Culbertson.