Shelby County is a student-centered, data-informed district. Data is collected, analyzed, and shared constantly. According to Chief Academic Officer, Susan Dugle, “Data is part of our DNA. We use it to understand our students on personal levels.” We recently spent some time with the fourth-grade team at Painted Stone Elementary to uncover the ways they functionally use data to improve the educational experience for their students. We’ll explore how they’ve built a strong team, how they work together, and how they use data to drive their instruction.
They Just Care
As the group of four teachers trickles into the room, an observer immediately notices two things. One, this team sits on the floor. Two, they smile a lot. “Well, we sit on the floor because we need to spread out. Everyone brings a lot of materials with them and it’s just easier,” shared Team Lead, Ashley Warren. “It’s a reflection of our personalities, I guess.” And that explains the smiles as well. This group clearly gets each other. They know each other on a level that plainly goes beyond just professional colleagues. Just this past weekend, the majority of the group participated in a baby shower together. It feels as if they’re friends first, and they just happen to get to work together.
When I ask about how they’ve built this comradery, their principal shares that she believes it’s because of their common passion. This spurs the teachers to speak up. Mrs. Proctor says, “We’re all working toward the same goal. No one in here gets their feelings hurt or feels competitive. Everyone works really hard. The person in the next room is working just as hard. This is about working smarter, not harder.” Her colleague, Mrs. Akin adds, “Yeah, if she [motions to Mrs. Warren next to her] has something figured out better than I do to unlock learning, I don’t take that offensively. I just want to do the same thing for my kids… or let her do it for my kids.” A lot of heads nod in agreement.
The overwhelming feeling from this interview, the piece that consistently weaves through every answer the team gives, is that the kids come first. The student-centered approach to their work - the things they choose to share, the ways they question each other, the answers and advice they give - all revolves around the kids. In simple words, they just care.
They’re Not Going to Let Me Down
Throughout the interview, the principal and assistant principal are sitting in the circle. At one point, the conversation shifts, and I take advantage of the opportunity to lean over to Principal Acklin. “I appreciate you being here, but do you think they’re saying some of this stuff because you’re in the room?” She answers quizzically, “Why wouldn’t I be here?” Her reply is evidence of a cultural norm at Painted Stone - everyone pulls in the same direction. Turns out the principal, the assistant principal, and the instructional coach try to sit in on every data team… in every grade level… nearly every time they meet. I ask about her involvement during the meeting. “Different groups need different levels of support,” she says. “This group is pretty self-sufficient, and they could easily operate without me. But it’s helpful when we’re all in the work together.”
The conversation turns to the template they are using to gather the data. I ask about how all the information is collated. “It’s a Google Doc, so we all put our pieces in before the meeting,” Mr. Proctor tells me.
Me: “So, what happens if you don’t get a chance to input your data?”
Team: “It’s never happened.”
Me: “What do you mean it’s never happened? Will you get into trouble or something?”
Team: “No, of course not. I guess it’s just that they’re [points at the rest of the team] not going to let me down, so I’m not going to let them down.”
This group has such a strong sense of purpose and mission that it affects their behavior. They have bought into the idea that we is stronger than I. They believe that teamwork is valuable. This is the kind of behavior you read about in a Malcolm Gladwell book. This is Outlier behavior, isn’t it? For this team (and apparently for teams all across Shelby County) it isn’t.
When I asked Susan Dugle about it, she explained, “We have strong teams all over the District. Some are stronger than others, but everyone is getting better. There is momentum building. Teachers want to be the best they can be for their kids. If that means redefining the ways we do things, then they are shifting course.” Apparently, the age old idea of teaching in isolation, of protecting your secret methods of success, of standing bravely on an island is losing steam. It is being replaced by a clear purpose of something different. It is being replaced by personalization. “One teacher alone isn’t capable of meeting the needs of every student. It takes a team.”
The Painted Stone team gets this. The next phase of the meeting is sharing data. Each teacher discusses strengths and weakness of each student, calling them by name. All talk about how kids seem to have responded to the direction taken from their last data team meeting. There is talk about how some students still aren’t getting it. Talk about who can apply the standards to specific tasks and who can make the jump to applying the learning in different contexts. This part of the discussion is specific and honest. Each has a time to present and is asked clarifying questions. They each respect each other.
I Have a Hole in My Lesson Plans
I watch the conversation shift from what they’ve been doing and what they are doing to what they will do. This is the moment that defines the distinction between a “data district” and a “data-driven district.” One of the teachers turns to me to clarify, “I have a hole in my lesson plans for tomorrow. The decisions we’re about to make will determine what fills that hole.”
Together, they analyze their own strengths and weaknesses as teachers. Together, they sort kids into groups. Together, they decide which of them will take which kids. [I suddenly realize how they know every student’s name - none of these students belong to some other teacher. They ALL belong to ALL of them.] Together, they make decisions for what will happen tomorrow. And it all happens in the span of a few minutes. There isn’t a time for justifications. There isn’t time to make sure someone’s feelings aren’t hurt. There isn’t time for a power struggle.
It is clear to me that this is the right thing to do for kids and… dare I say, replicable. What makes this process work isn’t magic. It isn’t contrived or forced. I don’t even think it has all that much to do with these teachers being friends outside of their jobs. What makes this process work is ego. The word ego is defined as a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance. Without question, every person in the room is esteemed and important. However, the bottom line is none of them consider that something which gives them priviledge. No one outweighs another and no one outranks another. This includes the administration participating in the meeting. This is a group of passionate people trying to unlock learning together. That’s the opposite of ego. There is no self in the room.
The teamwork and dedication here is something that can be replicated. It isn’t easy. It isn’t something that can be done overnight. But, with passion, accountability, and systemic guidelines in place, it is something that can be developed and grown. This kind of improvement is happening all over Painted Stone, and it’s happening all over Shelby County.
Special thanks to the fourth-grade team at Painted Stone - Ashley Warren, Ryan Proctor, Brittany Akin, and Ingrid Proctor.