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Becoming a TLI fellow is more than just coaching, it also means being part of a community of leaders dedicated to real change

Director of Leader Programs Nina Fitzerman Blue understands how difficult and lonely school leadership can be. As a former school leader herself she knows it can feel alienating when you don’t always have someone to consult and check your decision making. TLI’s School Leadership Cohort is designed to address this need by making space for a cohort of leaders to collaborate, problem solve, and network.

Throughout the year-long fellowship, leaders have multiple opportunities to learn alongside their colleagues. The fellowship begins with a combination virtual and in-person summer session where leaders develop the foundations for high leverage growth, and collaboration continues throughout six off-site professional development days throughout the year.

Leaders quickly develop trusting relationships within their cohort that become just as valuable as one-on-one time with their coach. Superintendent Kiana Smith says that the TLI cohort, “Truly allows me to have a friend in this work and a partner in this work because it is lonely as the superintendent…you contemplate so many things and you don’t want that pressure to be felt with your [colleagues].” Fellows often find themselves calling and texting peers to brainstorm ideas, ask advice or share resources. 
Too often school administrators are not offered sufficient opportunities to learn and grow, which is critical for long-term success. Joining the TLI School Leadership Cohort means becoming part of a community of educators dedicated to improving their practice and growing their schools. Click to hear more about becoming part of TLI’s leadership network.

Want more information? We’d love to hear from you.

Lots of focused practice, leads to widespread school change.

School leaders get the most out of the TLI School Leader Cohort when they are committed to understanding their practice and making changes that will lead to better outcomes for students.  Coaches work with leaders to target a specific action that will have the greatest impact, and they practice these skills to build expertise and confidence. 

TLI building visits often involve side-by-side classroom walkthroughs or teacher coaching where leaders can compare notes during debriefs and incorporate feedback into subsequent practice sessions. Observing students, teachers and leaders in action helps TLI coaches gather an accurate needs assessment and adjust planning as fellows evolve. This approach leads to real growth and lasting change. 

Assistant Principal Staci Brown explains, “Someone being alongside you, and actually [having] feet to the ground, really holding you accountable, really helping you pick the highest leverage moves…” is vital to realizing school leaders’ vision for students and families. 
While practice can be challenging, Principal Carolyn Statum says, “It’s okay because we made a promise to kids and that means the best thing I can do is to continue to improve my practice and be responsive to the feedback I get from my coach.” Learn more about how school leaders partnered with TLI coaches to ignite lasting growth for students, teachers and families.

Want more information about the School Leader Cohort? Drop us an email or find us on social media.

Good coaching is specific, targeted and empowering. That’s the heart of TLI’s approach.

Principal Donterrio Marzett

As a former teacher and school leader, TLI Director of Leader Programs Nina Fitzerman-Blue understands that every minute of the school day is precious and that leaders work relentlessly for their students. School leaders don’t have time to waste. This is why TLI uses a one-on-one coaching model that pinpoints areas of growth to make targeted change. 

Nina pushes school leaders to dig deep, reflect on their practices and identify specific areas for growth. Principal Carolyn Statum explains, “The training we get is targeted to the things we need and we are able to see positive results in our buildings.” 

While TLI coaching narrowly focuses on specific action steps, fellows also learn transferable skills that pay off beyond their time in the leadership cohort. Principal Jackie Dupont said that TLI coaching helped her become more proactive in leadership and address issues she had previously avoided. 

TLI aims to help fellows translate their individual growth into positive, school-wide change. Working side-by-side, TLI is committed to partnering with school leaders to set tangible goals and make schools better for Oklahoma students and communities. 

Listen to leaders reflect on their time in the fellowship.

Think of it like self-care: Make time for your growth and development

School leaders often tell us that they don’t have time for coaching. With unrelenting schedules, taking time for your own growth and development can feel overwhelming or even frivolous in the face of daily to-dos. But research shows that great leadership doesn’t just happen. Leaders who reach their full potential effectively prioritize their time and make space for development. 

For some Tulsa-area leaders, applying for the TLI School Leadership Cohort is the first step in the process. Nicole Whiteside, a school principal and School Leadership Fellow says, “Take the time because it will pay off in the end. We have all these things on our plate as school leaders, but at some point we have to know what to prioritize.” 

TLI believes that coaching shouldn’t add more to an already full plate. Instead, TLI coaching sessions simultaneously teach new skills while tackling to-dos more efficiently.  Sometimes this looks like a “you talk, I’ll type” conversation where coaches help leaders organize their thoughts and draft the outline of a plan or schedule. 

Other times TLI coaching entails making an up-front investment to learn a new concept or skill in order to save time in the long run. One fellow learned how to cut her planning time in half, freeing up her schedule to invest in other parts of the school. In this way TLI coaching is an investment in your professional growth as a leader, but also in school-wide change and improvement.

Reflecting on her experience as a fellow, Principal Carolyn Statum said, “I don’t know what I did before TLI. How did I make it as a school leader without this feedback and pushing?” 

Most school leaders would never consider denying professional growth and feedback to their staff, but too often leaders overlook their own development. Joining the School Leader Cohort means making a commitment to your professional goals and pushing your leadership to its full potential. 

Listen to former fellows reflect on their time in the School Leader Cohort and how they made time for professional growth. 

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.

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.

Greasing The Skids

In this 6-week change management series, TLI staff examine the big ideas and often-overlooked strategies for successfully leading school change.  Catch the series introduction or earlier blogs here.

Successful building-level shifts require more than a strong leader. A new curriculum is worthless without the teachers to skillfully integrate it into class. A new technology initiative won’t make it past the storage closet without the people to weave it into courses. 

Too often, the human side of change is treated as an afterthought or given a one-size-fits-all approach. After all, it’s hard to help staff navigate the emotion, time pressures, and skill building that change often brings. It’s hard to thoughtfully engage with skeptical faculty and listen carefully to painful criticism. 

Regardless of difficulty, planning for how you’ll guide faculty and staff through a big change is a crucial component of successful change. In this blog, we offer a concrete, time-tested strategy to keep people at the center of your change process. 

Grease the Skids, a strategy employed by many successful principals with whom we work, is designed to make change run more smoothly. This strategy takes its name from the pallets that easily slide across a factory floor with a little lubrication. We hope it helps eases the burden of change in your school, too.

To Grease the Skids of major change, school leaders start by identifying highly-influential people who aren’t on board with a new initiative. The key is to identify the teachers or school staff members who can quickly influence the people that are on the fence or on the bus (see our earlier post to identify those two groups).  

Pilot the Plan

The most popular version of Greasing the Skids is to pilot a new program or initiative with select teachers. Instead of rolling out one-to-one laptops to an entire school, test the idea of a laptop cart with one teacher or a highly-influential grade-level team. The small scale allows leaders to check in regularly, encourage growth, and adjust the plan as needed. It also builds relationships with influential staff members so leaders can eventually rely on these staff members to influence others.

After testing a change with a small group, ask pilot teachers to prepare a testimonial, share data, or offer illustrations on how the change worked. The teachers who used the laptop cart can quickly offer guidance to the full staff on how to build their own tech skills or give examples of how much the laptops helped with the writing process. Not only did you work out the kinks with a small group, but you’ve probably expedited the staff’s buy-in by leveraging influential teachers.   

Test the Message

Greasing the Skids can also be a way to test your message with an influential staff member before speaking to the entire faculty. Instead of announcing a new guided reading effort to everyone at once, seek out a few influential teachers for an advance check-in. Explain the rationale and ask for feedback about your approach. Are you taking on the work in the right way? What’s exciting or concerning for the teacher?

By testing the message, school leaders hear important criticism about the change itself and the messaging. If a teacher offers skepticism about the new guided reading initiative being just another under-resourced, under-funded change, the leader can immediately brainstorm how to make sure teachers are well-supported this time. Suddenly, the new teacher is an ally in solving a problem and helping the leader avoid dangerous potholes. 

One superintendent we work with teaches his principals to test the message with at least two people before each major announcement or meeting. 

Whether you’re launching a change or training faculty on new skills, try to Grease the Skids before you take a change to your whole school.

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