Responding to the Pandemic Blog Series

In March, teachers, administrators, and school support staff rushed to accommodate the new COVID pandemic realities by shifting to distance learning–all while parenting and caring for loved ones at home. The transition was swift, bumpy, and full of ingenuity. At each turn, we saw generosity, kindness, and flexibility take a front seat. 

Now, with the school year over, day-to-day operations seem like all we can do. But we’re also faced with the uncomfortable possibility that schools may not be able to operate fully in-person during the fall. 

Fortunately, the fall planning runway is longer than the emergency planning of Oklahoma’s first dip into distance learning.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be featuring blogs that tackle the planning process for returning to school in the fall. Look for topics ranging from reflecting on what we’ve already learned, to tackling distant learning challenges, and re-evaluating shifting roles. 

For now, check out a few of the insightful planning resources already on the internet.

  1. Bellwether Education’s free COVID toolkit breaks the school planning process into 4 stages with distinct steps, downloadable protocols, and guiding questions. They also include customizable notetaking guides for each stage so you can quickly share the documents during a Zoom meeting.  
  2. In addition to a focus on expanding internet access to Oklahoma students, the Oklahoma State Department of Education offers a trove of grade-level and content-specific guidance including aligned-activities with minimal supplies. 
  3. TNTP offers helpful guides for everything from supporting English language development to recruiting and hiring teachers virtually
  4. For virtual teacher training options, check out Teach For America’s extensive list of ways to build capacity from a distance. 
  5. For Oklahoma district learning plans and parent Covid-19 resources, visit the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration’s (CCOSA) helpful resource round-up.

20 Under 2 Calls For Top Oklahoma Teacher Nominations

Every year, 1 out of every 5 new Oklahoma teachers leave the profession. By year 5, only about half remain in the classroom. While it’s easy to decry the loss of teachers, the persistent classroom vacancies, and the worrisome number of emergency certificates issued this year, there are also plenty of bright spots. We think it’s time to step up and celebrate some of the brightest novice teachers in the state. 

20 Under 2 is a list of new Oklahoma teachers who represent the best our state has to offer. Like Forbes’ 30 under 30 collection of honorees, this list celebrates emerging teacher leaders, high performers, and teachers who make Oklahoma’s future look bright. 

This year, nominations are open from March 1-15, 2020. All full-time public school teachers in their first or second year of teaching are eligible. See eligibility requirements here or start a nomination today.  

As Chief of Staff Marissa King pointed out, “Novice Oklahoma teachers need support and encouragement to learn to teach, an especially hard job in underfunded and overburdened systems. Regardless of certification, whether a new college graduate or mid-life career changer, each new Oklahoma teacher is filling a critical public role.”

Have a question or want to see last year’s honorees? Give us a shout!

5 Tips for Curriculum Leadership

District-level curriculum roles are often pulled in hundreds of directions. But the role is crucial for supporting the leaders and teachers who impact students. We’ve compiled 5 tips to keep in mind as you navigate endless to-do lists and never ending demands.  

Tip 1: Get On The Balcony. 

It is easy to get sucked into the hustle and bustle of everyday school life especially for those who like the feeling of in-the-moment help or are used to school-level leadership. But it’s important for district leadership to get a big-picture view and gather district-wide evidence too. Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky (2009) urge leaders to “get on the balcony” instead of always staying on the dance floor. The “balcony,” as the metaphor goes, allows leaders to see the whole dance floor instead of mistaking the closest dancers as proxy for the entire dance floor.

Tip 2: Evaluate Your Underlying Change Management Beliefs.

District-level leaders are responsible for managing change across a system. Before jumping into a change management plan, it’s important to consider your underlying beliefs and those of your colleagues before you determine the level of management that is required. Think especially about accountability, empowerment and autonomy, and capacity-building. District-level beliefs will shape how you roll out changes and help you avoid angry clashes with district leaders. 

Tip 3: Make PD Count. 

Professional development is a tried-and-true way to build capacity at every level of a system and support district-wide change. But all PD isn’t equal. The most effective PD includes practice, feedback, and coaching (Joyce and Showers, 2002). A big-name, engaging presenter might get a big round of applause but make sure you evaluate if it’s actually building skills and making change. District leaders must stay focused on overall strategy instead of buying the trend of the day or going for a quick round of applause. 

Tip 4: Build Up Leaders. 

Strong building-level leaders make a big difference in implementing district change and improving instructional quality. But principals need and want capacity building especially to strengthen instructional leadership skills (Goldring, et. al, 2018). Plus, well-trained principals stay in their jobs longer (Levin & Bradley,  2019). Instead of constantly passing down mandates, district leaders should eagerly look for ways to build up school-level leadership. 

Tip 5: Take Curriculum Seriously. 

Want to move the needle on student achievement? Changing to a research-based, “high-quality, content-rich curriculum” is much more effective than measures like reducing class size (Chiefs for Change, 2017). Curriculum decisions are crucially important. Instead of dissolving into arguments about developmental appropriateness or text choice, find a way to unite people on a common purpose and make decisions that will benefit the most kids. 

The district curriculum leader has a tough job but ultimately serves as the voice for academic performance in the district. 


Chiefs for Change. (2017). Hiding in Plain Sight: Leveraging Curriculum to Improve Student Learning. Hiding in Plain Sight: Leveraging Curriculum to Improve Student Learning

Goldring, E. B., Grissom, J., Rubin, M., Rogers, L., Neel, M., & Clark, M., (2018). “A New Role Emerges for Principal Supervisors: Evidence from Six Districts in the Principal Supervisor Initiative.” New York: Wallace Foundation. 

Heifetz, R. A., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Joyce, B.R. & Showers, B. (2002). Student achievement through staff development (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 

Levin, S., & Bradley, K. (2019). Understanding and addressing principal turnover: A review of the research. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

McAdams, D. R. (2006). What School Boards Can Do, Reform Governance for Urban Schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

NAESP (2018). “The Pre-K-8 school leader in 2018: A 10-year study.” National Association of Elementary School Principals.


DIY Instructional Leadership Team

In many Oklahoma districts, a single principal can lead a 40-member staff in charge of nearly 600 students. With such a demanding job, principals need a team who’s committed to building instructional skills and getting things done even when the principal is pulled away. 

Typically, instructional leadership teams include teacher leaders, instructional coaches, additional administrators, and reading specialists. While conventional wisdom usually pulls one representative per grade level, consider selecting leadership for performance, coachability, and influence instead. After all, some grades may easily contribute two strong contributors while others may yield none. The big idea is to build a reliable, get-it-done kind of team so selecting leadership based on grade-level alone risks the efficacy and reputation of the team.

What does an instructional leadership team do?

Denver Public Schools and Leading Educators provide strong models for what instructional leadership teams do. The overall goal is to support change in response to data including roles like these:

  • Gather and analyze data related to school-wide trends, school culture, student achievement data, and strategic priorities
  • Develop and monitor strategic plans 
  • Set vision for and maintain school culture
  • Create curriculum and assessment strategy
  • Calibrate on tools and protocols (TLE, observation/feedback protocols, data protocols)
  • Plan and progress monitor professional learning

How to establish a strong instructional leadership team

Building a strong instructional leadership team moves responsibility away from the principal towards distributive leadership. But it takes some work to get there. First, principals need to select and train leaders. Decide what traits matter and what skills you can train.

Distributive leadership is a critical part of a school’s success but it takes consistent work. By establishing clear responsibilities, training the team, and supporting their work, a principal can shift their focus from leading the entire school to developing the capacity of a few.

Coaching Confidentiality vs. Principal Collaboration: Where Is The Line?

Although instructional coaching evolved from research on teacher supervision and instructional leadership (Knight, 2009; Neumerski, 2013), most instructional coaches do not have the formal authority to evaluate teachers. In contrast to principals who also coach teachers, instructional coaches are usually positioned in a non-evaluatory, supportive role. 

Despite shared teacher and school improvement goals, the difference in evaluatory roles can make it easy to clash over the question of how much to share and with whom. 

Coaching guru Elena Aguilar (2013) suggests that coaching must be confidential to maintain a positive and trusting relationship between the coach and teacher. From a teacher’s perspective, it makes sense. With the promise of confidentiality, teachers can share openly and vulnerably with their coach in ways that they might not want to share with a boss or evaluating supervisor. 

Unfortunately, coaching confidentiality can lead to mistrust between instructional coach and principal. After all, a principal who is expecting continuous classroom growth may get frustrated to be left out of the loop and unaware of specific classroom issues. It can also lead to frustration for the teacher if instructional coaches and principals are sending conflicting or mis-aligned messages.  

To balance the need for trusting coaching relationships and school leader collaboration, we recommend sharing high-level analysis about classroom performance, action steps, and look fors. For example, a coach might share that a teacher is focused on giving consistent consequences and flag that the principal should look for a clear direction followed by narration before a consequence. With that information, the principal can communicate clearly and positively reinforce progress and recognize accomplishments, as Todd Whitaker (2015) recommends. 

With this delicate balance, the instructional coach can still maintain a degree of teacher confidentiality too. The instructional coach needn’t share the teacher’s concerns about making class fun if she’s always giving consequences or that the teacher is stressed about the lesson plan requirements. 

Regardless of where you fall in the confidentiality spectrum, teachers deserve to know what will be communicated and to whom. We suggest re-visiting the question of confidentiality early and often to make sure everyone knows the expectations. 


Aguilar, E. (2013). The art of coaching: effective strategies for school transformation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Knight, J. (2009). Coaching: Approaches and perspectives. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press.

Neumerski, C. (2013). Rethinking Instructional Leadership, a Review: What Do We Know About Principal, Teacher, and Coach Instructional Leadership, and Where Should We Go from Here? Educational Administration Quarterly, 49(2), 310-347.

Whitaker, T. (2015). What great principals do differently: eighteen things that matter most. New York, NY: Routledge.

Instructional Leadership Kick-Off

Liv, a rural Oklahoma principal who attended one of our recent workshops, desperately wanted to improve the quality of instruction across her elementary school. The problem? She wasn’t sure where to start. After all, her schedule seemed full and the task was daunting. 

Like Liv, principals and school leaders across the country are eager to improve instructional leadership skills. 

The primary focus of instructional leadership is to improve the quality of instruction happening in classrooms–a tall task for school leaders with limited time and extensive scheduling demands. Leaders need an intensive focus on the inputs (curriculum + instructional strategies), outputs (data), and a thoughtful analysis of where to focus time and energy in order to have the greatest impact on student learning (Whitaker, 2015). 

We hope this blog series contributes to the larger conversation about the different leadership roles that contribute to quality instruction in schools.

We’ll start by spotlighting best practices for the instructional coach-principal relationship. Then, we’ll explore the major roles of district-level curriculum leadership and the school-based instructional leadership team including teacher leadership. Finally, we’ll round out the series with some insights into deciding who to coach and why. 

Whitaker, T. (2015). What great principals do differently: eighteen things that matter most. New York, NY: Routledge.

Making Time: The Case for School Leader Coaching

It’s no secret that school administrators have jam-packed schedules and daunting to-do lists. With so much to do, it’s easy to shy away from leadership development due to time constraints. 

TLI’s Director of Leader Programs Nina Fitzerman-Blue urges leaders to make a different choice. 

“This is how we make time. Leadership coaching is how we learn to efficiently and effectively use the very small amount of time you have.”

Nina, who coaches School Leader Cohort Fellows each week, points out that leader coaching shouldn’t feel like just another task to check off the to-do list. After all, with each coaching session, leaders work on doing their jobs more effectively.

Leader coaching happens in your school building, focusing on what you want and need most.  Often, leaders collaborate with their coach to get those tough-to-finish tasks off their plate. Stuck on how to introduce the latest data to staff? Leaders work with their coach to analyze data and design a plan for a data dive with teachers. Spinning your wheels about how to coach new teachers? Walk through the process with your coach, getting face-to-face support and feedback. 

Listen in as a few of the 2019 School Leader Cohort Fellows why they’re glad they invested leadership coaching.

“Take the time for leader development. It will pay off in the end.” -Nicole

School Leader Cohort: What Is Leader Coaching Like?

School leadership can be isolating work. TLI’s Director of Leadership Programs Nina Fitzerman-Blue is working to change that. Each week, she offers focused, personalized coaching for school leaders in TLI’s School Leader Cohort. Under Nina’s direction, our fellows receive year-long support to develop instructional leadership skills, ranging from teacher coaching to adult culture to managing performance. 

While each leader coaching session is customized, coaching often includes instructional walkthroughs, observation and feedback practice, data analysis and planning, personal organization, professional development, and crucial conversations. 

Here’s a peek into what some of this year’s cohort members think about their coaching:

Even the sharpest leader benefits from a thought partner, pointed feedback, and another pair of eyes. Here’s how one leader describes our weekly coaching meetings: “Having weekly meetings with Nina has allowed me to take a more proactive approach to leadership. As part of the School Leader Cohort, I’ve sharpened my instructional eye, learned to give effective feedback, and ultimately raised the instructional rigor in my school.”

Are you ready to push your leadership to the next level? Applications for the 2020-2021 School Leader Cohort are open now! Grab a quick information sheet here and start your application here.  

“Leadership coaching is like partnering with my biggest cheerleader for one hour a week. I always have an action plan and the support I need to make change.”

Still have questions or want more information? Leave a comment, send us a message, or follow us on social media.

What We’re Listening To: Staff Edition

In preparation for the long road trips and airport delays as we return home from holiday travels, we’ve rounded up a few of our favorite things to listen to and learn. Cue up the podcasts, friends. We’ve got some recommendations from TLI staff and friends.

Education Updates

Listen to the researchers and leaders behind major education innovation and discoveries on the Harvard EdCast. Each short, informative podcast episode features a world-class guest. 

If you’re ready to delve into reading research, check out The Science of Reading, a podcast by Amplify Education. For a more general list of education topics, TLI summer intern and PhD student Jennifer Burris likes Cult of Pedagogy. Episodes range from technology integration to graphic novel use. If you want a taste, check out Burris’ favorite episode Think Twice Before Doing Another Historical Simulation

Go local, OK! 

Fortunately, Oklahoma has plenty of homegrown talent on the podcast scene. Executive Director Jo Lein recommends listening in on the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center’s new podcast, School Zoned. Each Friday, host Brent Bushey interviews influential #oklaEd educators from the 2019 Teacher of the Year to State Superintendent of Instruction, Joy Hofmeister

OU doctoral student and reading research fanatic Tiffany Peltier turned us on to Education Trust’s ExtraOrdinary Districts podcast. Check out this episode featuring two rural Oklahoma districts: Lane Public Schools and Cottonwood Public Schools. 

The OklaEd Podcast Network offers a plethora of other local podcast talent. We’re partial to Passing Notes including this interview with TLI’s own Dr. Jo Lein,  and the ReThink ELA podcast with Michelle Waters. 

School leaders should also check out the Principal Matters podcast with Cooperative Council of School Administrator’s Will Parker for a wide range of interviews on school issues. 

Audio Documentaries and Books

Audio means more than just podcasts, of course. Improved public library audio book lending and paid subscriptions to streaming services like Audible mean you have thousands of listening options at your fingertips. You can listen to everything from Fostering Resilient Learners to Paul Tough’s latest book, The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us. Look for books read by the author!  

Tiffany Peltier recommends listening to audio documentaries too. Her top choice? At a Loss for Words: What’s Wrong with How Schools Teach Reading

What’s queued up on your phone or podcast app? Drop us a comment below or send us a message. We’d love to hear from you! 

Staff Bookshelf: Winter Edition

Winter break is the perfect time to cozy up on the couch with a warm quilt and a new book. To kick off our own winter reading, we peeked into our staff bookshelf to reminisce on inspiring education reads and general lit picks. 

Jo Lein, Executive Director

Jo can’t stop talking about Hollowing Out the Middle, a great pick for those interested in the future of rural education. Written by sociologists, the book follows the young people in small Iowa towns as they struggle with what the beauty and limitations of small town life might mean for their futures. If you’re ready for a break from school reading, Jo recommends David and Goliath by heady perennial favorite Malcolm Gladwell.

Angie Cline, Teacher Development Manager

Tera Westover’s Educated is captivating enough that you’ll want to read it in one, long irresponsible session. For a quirky, relatable, and road-trip ready read, grab The Overdue Life of Amy Byler. It’ll have you snickering to yourself in no time. 

If you’re already amping up for a New Year’s Resolution or just need to get organized, check out The Together Teacher or the Together Leader. Both offer practical advice you’ll want to implement right away.   

Nina Fitzerman-Blue, Director of Leadership Programs 

Need to have some hard conversations or just want to improve your relationships? Nina recommends Radical Candor by Kim Scotts. For a reference text on child development and social-emotional stages, Nina loves Yardsticks. Although you might not charge through the text in one setting, it may turn into a bookshelf favorite in your life as an educator, parent, or keen observer of children. 

Marissa King, Chief of Staff

Run to your local bookstore to grab Richard Powers’ The Overstory. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, this intricately-connected plot will have you noticing all of nature’s little glories and ready to plant a few trees of your own. For another nature-inspired read, check out Braiding Sweetgrass by botanist and Potawatomi Nation citizen Robin Wall Kimmerer. The book offers an inspiring glimpse into hands-on science education and a window into a world connected deeply to nature. 

Jennifer Burris, Professional Development Specialist

Ibram X. Kendi’s newest book How to Be an Antiracist, is a current favorite on Jennifer’s bookshelf. The book is thought-provoking and challenging- exactly the kind of read to end the year and shape your newest resolutions. 

What’s on your bookshelf or winter reading list? Drop us a comment below or send us a message. We’d love to hear from you!