Building relationships with administrators and teachers demands thoughtful inquiry, care, and reflection
Education is awash with efforts to personalize learning. But what does it mean for a company to personalize its support for the teachers who use its product? School leader, Jordan Silvestri and Kiddom representative, Melissa Giroux, describe what it takes for an edtech company to deliver the kind of personalized experience to its customers that teachers give to their students.
Jordan Silvestri: Our school focuses on preparing our students during their final years of academic involvement to gain and hone the skills that they will need to be successful after they graduate. We started Torah Academy in September 2016 with a strong vision for how and what we want our students to learn. Every class, student interaction, social setting and community learning experience is another opportunity to help our students see their potential and grow.
After our first year of running the school, we realized that one of our major challenges involved how we were tracking students’ progress. We needed a student-centered program that would be easy to function for the teachers and bring all of our work into one place.
Melissa Giroux: Our initial planning session with Torah Academy was extremely energizing. We were excited to meet a school leader who had great clarity around his team’s strengths and goals: Jordan wanted his team to become more accustomed to using data to drive daily instruction and he wanted technology to support consistent routines so his students could become independent learners. His concrete goals made us confident we could support his staff’s day-to-day work from afar.
Working together over the course of the year, we — at Torah Academy and Kiddom — together learned three powerful lessons about how to deliver personalized support to educators:
1. Lead with Inquiry
When teachers in professional development workshops push back on learning a new tech tool or question if a new platform might mean more work instead of less, it would be easy for a principal to double down on mandates and take a hardline stance.
Empathetic leaders respond with questions: “Can you tell me a little bit more about that?” or “Can you walk me through the steps you currently take?” and most importantly, “How can I help?”
When teachers hear their administration pause to learn a little bit more about them, learning becomes collaborative. Rather than fighting, they work as a team to figure out if the platform can adapt to meet the needs of a range of educators.
Companies, too, need to build that kind of inquiry into every step of their work with educators.
Educators at Torah Academy teach courses that cover everything from Common Core mathematics to Judaic studies, as well as provide services including speech therapy and vocational training. A one-size-fits-all tutorial about edtech product features wasn’t going to cut it with such diverse staff goals.
The first session between teachers and Kiddom invited the educators to express their concerns so that together we could customize the platform to their teaching styles and goals. Teachers learned how to move their existing curriculum from Google Drive into collaborative Kiddom classes. Other workshops, using the Question Formulation Technique, helped teachers frame collective inquiry goals for professional learning communities.
The Right Question Institute frames this process well: “The skill of question asking is far too rarely deliberately taught in school.” We believe that same kind of questioning skill should characterize how teachers interact with edtech companies.
2. Walk the Talk
There’s nothing worse than a classroom full of students staring at you as error messages prevent you from moving on with a lesson. As an administrator, I (Jordan) was worried that some of my teachers might have technical difficulties with onboarding to new technology. The “competency test” for real customer service is simply this: Will it deliver when you need it?
One teacher, in particular, had reported that as she was working to set up her class over the weekend, she hit a snag. She struggled to figure out what was going on. Finally, she contacted Kiddom through the app and had a live troubleshooting conversation on a Sunday afternoon. I was floored by both the teacher’s proactive approach — and the fact that the company walked the talk, big time!
Just as important as responding quickly is speaking the language of the people you serve. The company’s support team has grown from a collection of part-time interns into a team of former educators — people who natively speak “teacher talk” — and avoid the kind of tech jargon that can confuse just about anyone.
No school is the same. Investing the time to send a company’s support team to visit schools and observe users in the field means that teacher advocates learn how to ask questions to troubleshoot and to gain context. They are not merely following tech support flow charts and giving standard responses; they’re relying on their knowledge of pedagogy and the challenging realities of everyday teaching to frame their responses.
3. Stop and Reflect
School-based staff don’t always have time to step outside of their day-to-day responsibilities and reflect on successes and challenges. But particularly when you start a relationship with a company, educators must ask their partners: How are you measuring success?
As a school for students with special needs, Torah Academy does not use letter or number grades to assess student progress. Teachers focus on helping students master the skills they will need to be productive members of their community. This approach to assessment — with the ultimate goal of having students apply their goals to new environments and interactions — has been core to our program.
During one of our first joint meetings, the company introduced its mastery grading feature to Torah Academy teachers as if it were a new concept. Hardly the case! In response, teachers showed the Kiddom team how that construct fit right in with the school’s methodology, so that teachers could correlate lessons to goals and assess student progress in one fell swoop.
Throughout the year of working together, our joint team relied on routine check-ins to collect feedback, plan targeted professional development and to provide administrators with a sounding board for worries or celebrations.
But by mid-year, it became clear that educators were adopting the platform in very different ways and at different speeds. We consequently scheduled a mid-year professional development day. The Kiddom team spent the day working with individual teachers during their prep periods, to better differentiate and leverage relationships. Each conversation was private, which allowed for candid feedback and questions and supported individual needs. Some teachers desperately wanted more support in analyzing reports; others were still working on building classroom routines using the platform.
Building relationships between teachers and students takes thoughtful inquiry, care and reflection — and the relationship between an edtech company and the teachers who use its products demands the same. When both groups invest the time, authentic learning happens.
It is appropriate that these celebrations are days away from each other — every mom is a teacher, really, and the National Center for Education Statistics estimates 76% of teachers are women. You’ve played both roles with passion and grace throughout my life, so it’s no coincidence that both Saraand I ended up in teaching.
You modeled a love of books so masterfully that I was convinced I could read Jane Eyre at age 3
As a mom, you exemplified what it means to love learning, in and out of school. Each summer, you shuttled us to the library on the first day of vacation and encouraged us to borrow as many books as we could carry (and we did). When you woke us up at three in the morning to watch a meteor shower, or dented the bumper of your car trying to get us a closer look at a wild turkey, we learned to appreciate the science all around us. I’ll never forget the summer experiments making sunprints in the front yard, or collecting only the best and brightest autumn leaves to preserve them before they crumbled (my partner still doesn’t really understand why you sent us leaves in the mail last October). Remember how sometimes friends showed up at our house for school project supplies because they knew “Momma G” would have pipe cleaners and hot glue guns ready for action?
Sometimes you say, “I know I’m not a real teacher…” when we’re discussing education policy, and I can’t begin tell you how wrong you are. You can’t go to our hometown grocery store without being surrounded by kiddos and their parents shouting “Mrs. Kathy,” like Glinda the Good Witch surrounded by the munchkins in Oz. They love you because you pushed them to explore, to question, to create. You even teach a class called “Let’s Get Messy” — there is nothing more revolutionary than encouraging young people to make mistakes by making a mess. You bring endless curiosity to the preschool baking, science, and art classes you teach, despite low pay and lack of access to resources. In fact, one of my favorite memories of you is hearing your purse clank and rattle as you bolted from the garden at a strip mall where you had taken perfectly smooth stones for your students to paint as a project. A teacher’s resourcefulness knows no bounds.
I asked Dad about his funniest memories of you collecting materials for classes, and he reminded me of the time he cut his feet at the beach trying to find you perfect shells for a lesson in marine biology, or when he scaled the side of our house to get you an abandoned bird’s nest so you could show your class how it was constructed. When you’ve thought of just the right craft or project to connect your kids to Van Gogh, the constellations, or the science of baking, the sparkle in your eye is contagious, and you’ve brought us all along for the ride.
I find myself mimicking you when I engage with young children, from kneeling on the floor so I can be at their level and help them feel comfortable to asking lots of questions instead of giving answers. I hope to have half the impact on young people over my career that you’ve had in your 20+ years of innovative teaching.
I love you, and the googly eyes and glitter that cover the floor of your car. You’ve taught me more than I can express, and the kids of Guilford are lucky indeed.
I love you, momma.
P.S. Don’t get mad at me for publishing this on the internet! You can’t ground me anymore 😉
Going on spring (or even summer) break doesn’t mean that students have to turn off their brains. One analysis in the Review of Educational Research found that students can lose as much as a month of learning during school breaks, and teachers know how difficult it can be to rebuild academic routines after time off.
Creating flexible, creative assignments for students to work on over a school vacation can help them imagine new worlds, stay connected to their classrooms, and stay mentally active. Here are some ways you can use Kiddom to facilitate these types of assignments, so your students can keep learning and you can take some well-deserved rest.
Send your Students on a Virtual Vacation
Google Arts and Culture allows the public to access high-resolution images of artworks, take a virtual walk through real museums around the world, or look at thematic collections of exhibits — all for free!
Choose a specific museum, work of art, or theme and send to you your students with open-ended questions for them to explore and reflect. Or, send them the link to the overall site and let them choose their own adventure! Find even more tips for incorporating art in our teacher-developed arts guidefocused on standards-based, interdisciplinary instruction.
Everything is bundled into one Kiddom assignment: (1) a teacher-created assessment via Google Drive and (2) a link to a Google Arts and Culture exhibit
Each student submits their work separately via the Google Drive attachment
Pause to Journal and Reflect
Break is a good time for students to dig into social emotional skills while they take a step back from a purely academic focus. Kiddom’s Google Drive integration allows you to send journaling prompts to your class, and Kiddom automatically makes a copy for each student to write their individual reflections. You can also have students reflect on their own progress towards mastery using the reports that they find in their Kiddom dashboards. You can even align these assignments to CASEL’s standards to track progress towards healthy social emotional development.
This folder, created automatically by Kiddom when sending an assignment, gives each student an individual copy of the journaling assignment to save you time
Send Content for Remediation or Exploration
Ahead of break, take a look at your mastery reports in Kiddom and pick one or two standards for students to work on. You can search for these topics or standards to find extension or remediation resources and assign directly to the students who need them.
Kiddom library of free curriculum and teaching resources
Each of these suggestions can be reworked to fit your class needs with Kiddom’s flexible assignment structure and student-centered communication tools. Comment on assignments as your students work, and keep consistency going so the re-adjustment is a little smoother on the Monday after break.
In the months since launching our school and district pilot program, the Kiddom team has collectively spent thousands of hours meeting with administrators to better understand their workflows, facilitate contextualized staff workshops, and support ongoing partnerships. Our goal? To build Kiddom Academy, a platform that allows every stakeholder in a school community to be connected and informed to drive student achievement.
We’ve learned so much from these passionate educators about what makes a school leader successful in driving achievement, and which qualities act as barriers to school success. With the goal of helping school leaders reflect and refine their practices, we’ve distilled our learning into three model administrator profiles — and two not-so-great ones. We share these learnings not to pass judgement, but in the hope of supporting the needs of teachers and students everywhere.
Our strongest partnerships with the greatest teacher engagement to drive student mastery all stemmed from leaders who fit a combination of these three profiles:
These leaders understand their staff strengths and growth areas, and leverage strong relationships. Empathizers frequently check the ‘temperature’ of their staff to ensure a balanced workload and plan responsive professional development. In our partnerships, these leaders carefully select education technology tools that leverage the skill sets that individual teachers and teams are developing rather than add another layer of work to busy teacher days.
Visionary leaders set aspirational goals for their teams and communicate them clearly. Because visionaries understand that large scale change doesn’t happen overnight, they plan intentionally for incremental steps towards a larger objective and set aside time for reflection to refine — sometimes over the course of several school years. Many of these leaders choose to pilot tools with small groups of teachers, distill learnings, and then use exemplar artifacts from within the school community to bring new strategies to life for the whole school community. These leaders react to failure with coaching and reflective data analysis rather than negative consequences.
In some of our partnerships, administrators met with us for only a few minutes before seamlessly handing off partnership responsibilities to teacher leaders. While this might seem like an overly hands-off approach, we often found that this staff development strategy led to increased buy-in from teachers and a quicker onboarding process. Principals are not just instructional coaches, but also CFOs, public relations managers, and human resources reps. They simply can’t do it all alone, which is why it’s smart to grow your capacity by building leadership skills in staff. This plan can also prevent staff turnover and foster more collaborative relationships between team members.
Unfortunately, not every school has had the opportunity to bring new tools to their teams due to constraints on time, money, and other factors. Many of the principals we’ve met along the way have had lofty goals for their schools, but struggled to implement them with unsuccessful leadership styles. Here are some models to avoid.
On occasion, we meet with an administrator who makes decisions swiftly and unilaterally, without regard for the current staff skill or student mastery levels. In professional development workshops at these kinds of schools, we heard teachers talking fearfully about what their administrators would be able to see in their accounts, and compliance-based worries about completion of tasks rather than real learning. The key difference between the authoritarian and the visionary was a lack of support for teachers to reach the mandated goals and the punitive consequences for not doing so.
The Impulse Shopper
There are a lot of edtech products out there with convincing sales pitches using trendy buzzwords. We have met principals who go for sparkle over function and fit, and choose separate software to solve every problem facing the school community. Adding tool after tool on top of standard teacher responsibilities causes a whole host of problems. Teachers don’t have time to learn the logistics of each one, and then abandon them, which means wasting precious school funds. Student data becomes fragmented and can become difficult to use in meaningful interventions. When tools are purchased based on marketing materials, they don’t necessarily align to long-term school goals; every year becomes another swing of the pendulum for staff — leading to change fatigue.
The Bottom Line
We share these learnings not to put anyone down, but to share what we’ve had the privilege to witness at schools around the country. We hope that these lessons help school administrators reflect on their leadership style and better support their teachers and students. Based on these experiences, we’ve built Kiddom Academy for schools and districts to include actionable, aggregate data and curriculum controls to help administrators coach, plan, empower, and experiment with intention. Plus, ongoing partnerships with our experienced success team means contextualized support and intentional planning throughout the year.
There is no shortage of news about schools adopting and then quickly abandoning new technology, curriculum, or assessment frameworks. Change is constant in education policy.
As federal and state administrations shift and new research comes out, school leaders race to keep up with trends and purchase or adopt the next best thing. But this ever-swinging pendulum moves at the expense of teacher buy-in and professional training, and the ‘guinea pigs’ of these experiments, our students, can only stand to lose. Often, the failure of an initiative isn’t a reflection of the tool or strategy itself, but the plan for implementing it.
Change fatigue is defined as “a general sense of apathy or passive resignation towards organizational changes by individuals or teams.” Every time a school or district decides to change a curriculum providers, an assessment system, update a gradebook, or adopt new software (and hardware), teachers are going to get increasingly tired, checked-out, or resistant. This is bad for professional development and damaging to kids.
With so many stakeholders involved, and with such high stakes, new initiatives led by school and district leaders must be planned with four key things: vision, time, communication, and reflection.
Have a Clear Vision
What is your goal for using a new tool or strategy? You’d be surprised how many school administrators choose curriculum or other education technology based on brilliant sales pitches instead of first developing objectives and goals for seeking new tools.
Just as teachers are asked to set objectives for learning, administrators should know exactly their intended outcomes before moving their whole school community in a new direction.
Be Mindful of Time
Be more intentional in launching organizational change. Do not select a new system or tool in August, roll it out to your whole staff in September, and expect immediate buy-in and impact.
Build a planning committee made up of a diverse range of stakeholders — parents, students, teachers, and administrators will all bring unique perspectives and needs to the process. This will help you develop a clear action plan for which resources and supports your community will need.
In all likelihood, seeing the results you’re hoping for will take longer than a single school year. Do your research and plan backwards. For example, if you expect all classrooms to effectively adopt 1:1 technology in three school years, you might use year 1 to pilot with a small team of teachers and cull best practices, use year 2 to have successful pilot users train the larger community, and by year 3, your whole community will have had time to train, internalize, and integrate new practices seamlessly into their workflow.
We can’t emphasize enough the importance of setting aside time for staff training and collaboration when adopting new school-wide practices. Without space to safely take risks, refine their practice, and learn from each other, teachers will only implement new tools at the surface level or not at all.
No matter how strong your plan is, if you’re the only one who understands it, it will fail. Ensure that all stakeholders are able to participate through clear and frequent communication.
Build buy-in and encourage feedback with surveys and town halls. Invite your community to participate in the decision making process, test possible tools, and discuss obstacles to implementation.
Develop shared language and help everyone get on the same page — keep an ongoing glossary public for all in your community to be able to communicate effectively and ask questions.
Reflect, Reflect, Reflect
In some cases, as soon as any data, whether reliable or not, indicates a new plan “isn’t working,” schools tend to abandon ship.
Make space for reflection and fine-tuning to adjust course. Collect diverse sets of data to allow for deep root-cause analysis. Anecdotal information from teachers, student achievement data, and community surveys will all highlight different barriers to success.
How do I start?
Despite the possible pitfalls of too much change, at Kiddom, wedon’t believe school leaders should shy away from evidence-based, carefully planned initiatives. In fact, we’ve developed specific resources to support this work with educators around the United States. In this excerpt from Blended Learning 101, we offer some considerations for administrators and teachers transitioning to a new teaching and learning model:
1. Prepare for internet issues (infrastructure and technology). A reliable Internet connection and sufficient bandwidth are vital.
2. On-site IT support and backup plans are critical to buffer schools from the inevitable technology issues.
3. Blended learning coordinators played an important role in supporting schools’ adoption of blended learning.
4. Establishing productive, self-directed learning cultures is important for students to fully benefit from online learning.
5. Single sign-on portals can allow even very young children to quickly access online programs.
6. Teachers’ satisfaction with training associated with the adoption of the blended learning model varied by site.
1. Determine your technological requirements and constraints. How are you planning to use technology? How prepared are you to take advantage of the technology addition? Do you have enough devices or know how to get more?
2. Explore how other educators are implementing blended learning in their classroom and decide what works best for you. There is a video directory of blended learning in action that features different blended learning methods.
3. Get excited about enhancing your curriculum! This is an opportunity to hone your craft: you can revive the joy of teaching that can sometimes get lost in the day-to-day. Finding the right tools to support the procedural skill development to allow you to plan engaging projects is an important part of this process. Try not to feel like you need to reinvent the wheel or record countless videos of yourself (unless you absolutely love it).
Were you thinking about adopting blended learning initiatives at your school or district? A successful blended learning program is the intentional integration of educational technology within classrooms to enhance the learning process. Implementation can take many forms.