THE INSTRUCTIONAL LEADER – OBSERVER AND COACH
THE BREAKTHROUGH COACH:Tell us about the path you followed to your current position as Principal at Springdale Elementary School.
SHANE THACKSTON: I began my career as a special education teacher in a Pre K – 8 school, then taught social studies for grades 6, 7, and 8. I moved to the Lexington district as an Administrative Assistant Principal, which meant that I taught for half of the day, and handled classroom observations and discipline for the rest of the day. I then spent two years as an Assistant Principal, before becoming a principal for another two years. I became principal at Springdale Elementary (which is in my own neighborhood!) six years ago.
TBC: The Lexington district is very large and diverse, isn’t it?
ST: No. My deep interest in technology led me to work for a tech start-up company as a computer network engineer. I missed teaching, though, so I began teaching ESL to academically struggling kids at a school on the Lower East Side of New York. My principal suggested that I attend the New York City Leadership Academy and become certified as a school principal, which I did.
TBC: How did the idea for the East-West School begin?
ST: Yes, it is. We have 17 schools, with nearly 9,000 students. We’re considered a Title I district, with a 35-40% poverty level. Springdale has 565 children in grades Pre K – 5, including classes for developmentally delayed and emotionally disabled children.
TBC: Do you have a diverse student population?
ST: In many ways, yes. Our students are ethnically diverse, but nearly all are economically disadvantaged: 55% are Asian, 35% Hispanic, 15% African-American, and 3% Caucasian and Native American; with 92% qualifying for the Federal free or reduced-price lunch program.
TBC: Under your leadership, Springdale has focused closely on student health. Can you tell us about that?
ST: Research tells us that there is a close correlation between students’ physical health and their academic achievement. We emphasize physical activities (limiting “screen time”), and healthy eating. We teach children about “eating from the rainbow”, with lots of red, yellow, orange and green in their diets. We also strongly discourage sugary drinks because they lead to dehydration, and we’ve learned that dehydration is often the direct cause of disciplinary issues. The healthier our children are, the more we can focus on the education they are receiving in the classroom.
TBC: We know that you’re very involved in what happens in your school’s classrooms, but it wasn’t easy to do that when you began at Springdale, was it?
ST: No, it wasn’t. As I said, the school is in my own neighborhood, so the parents were also my neighbors. They expected me to be familiar with everything that was going on, and they didn’t want to hear about the complexities of the job that made such familiarity difficult. Furthermore, budget constraints precluded expenditures for professional development.
TBC: When did you begin your work with TBC?
ST: I actually heard about TBC four years ago, but it wasn’t until January of 2013 that professional development funds became available and I was able to attend the TBC 2-Day Program. I began to implement The Breakthrough Coach Management Methodology™ immediately: the program was held on a Monday and Tuesday, and when I returned to my school on Wednesday I gutted and cleaned my office, turning it into a conference room. I held a faculty meeting the following Monday to explain the process and establish a level of trust, and on Tuesday I was in classrooms from 7:50AM – 2:00PM. Before we attended The Breakthrough Coach 2-Day Program, our admin team had observed only 25 classrooms since the beginning of the school year. By the end of May 2013, our team observed 225 classrooms – an increase of 900% in four months! I’m now in classrooms 2 1/2 days a week and working towards 3 full days. Our assistant principal spends 1 full day in classrooms weekly.
TBC: How did the TBC Management Methodology™ help you?
ST: It defined roles and gave me an organizational pattern to follow. My secretary used to work in the corporate environment, so this was really an intervention for me, not for her. I don’t even check my e-mail any more because I think e-mail is a drug that can consume your whole day. My secretary and I meet every afternoon and she gives me the information I need.
TBC: How are you using all of this increased observation time to improve classroom instruction?
ST: I used to meet with the full faculty every Monday afternoon, but I no longer have full faculty meetings. Instead, I have a three-level approach:
• I post information for the full faculty on-line and they access it as they can on their own time;
• I attend the grade-level planning meetings to provide differentiated feedback to faculty in small groups;
• I meet with each faculty member individually once every 9 weeks for a 30-minute “coffee-time conversation”, where I provide coaching based upon my observations in his or her classroom; they take notes during these sessions, then send me copies of those notes.
TBC: What changes have you seen as a result of your observation-based approach?
ST: Well, it’s certainly true that what gets monitored gets done. There’s much more rigor in instruction, more time on task for both students and teachers, more inter-active lessons, and increased implementation of professional development information. Furthermore, disciplinary problems have decreased dramatically – kids are no longer “sent to the principal’s office” to just sit because, thanks to TBC’s Management Methodology™, I’m out and about.
TBC: Is your observation-based coaching unique to Springdale?
ST: At this point, it is. However, I think we’re planting the seeds district-wide because we’re starting to get inquiries from the other schools who want to know how we’re managing this process. I tell them that The Breakthrough Coach Management Methodology™ is the answer.