Q&A and Video: How the “V Formation” Transformed A Struggling Chicago School

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Five years ago, Casals Elementary School in Chicago was struggling to produce positive results for their students—so the school began working with the Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL) to turnaround their trajectory and improve how they served their students, teachers, and entire school community. One of the key changes AUSL worked with the Casals team to implement was creating an Instructional Leadership Team (ILT) that included both the school principal as well as a variety of teachers who have embraced the opportunity to guide and collaborate with their colleagues. Their work has helped elevated the quality of instruction throughout the school and increased student learning and outcomes.

To learn more about Casals Elementary’s successful leadership model, we spoke with Principal Kristie Langbehn and a group of teacher leaders from the Casals Instructional Leadership Team: Heather Debby, Scott Liska, Sarah Reardon, Tayler Showalter, Teresa Chavez, Nicholas Hall, Michelle Gillespie, and Kristen Munoz.

How would you describe your school leadership team? How do you work together, and what are the team dynamics like?

Principal Kristie Langbehn (KL): We describe it as the “V formation,” which is modelled after geese when they fly. At any point in time you might be leading the V formation, and when that person gets tired, they go to the back of the line, and someone else takes that spot. Flying in that V formation creates efficiency with the team. We all bring a certain skillset to the table, and when it’s our turn to lead, then we go to the front and we lead. Also, when we see a teammate struggle, we’re there. With geese, you also see that the team is behind that leader—they’re encouraging the leader—that’s where you hear geese honking! So overall, that’s our model—more of a teacher-staff co-op, where a school is operated and led by the people who work there.

How does this “V formation” structure benefit you as a principal?

(KL): For me, it’s always important to remain cognizant of what’s happening in the classrooms. As leaders, we’re always looking from that bird’s eye view, and so it’s important that you have people who are actually in the classroom in leadership positions, so that when our instructional leadership team makes decisions, we have those voices at the table. They’ll be the ones to say, “That’s really not going to work here—that would work best here.” I’m also afforded a nice opportunity of teachers being able to give constructive feedback when they feel like they tried something but it didn’t work.

How does shared leadership benefit your teachers? What kind of feedback have you heard from them about the model?

(KL): When we first started five years ago, 26 of the 30 teachers in our school were first-year teachers, many coming from AUSL’s Chicago Teacher Residency program. Now, a lot of those core teachers are here in their fifth year, so they’ve been steeped in what we do here and are now ready to lead. For them, teaching another adult solidifies their ownership in the process. They also come to understand that leading adults isn’t always easy – there’s some give and take when you’re working with colleagues. It’s a unique experience for them, but a good one.

How has your work in sharing leadership had an impact on student learning?

(KL): Last year, we had an incredible year—our student attainment last year jumped; we were in the 75th percentile for math and the 68th percentile for reading, and we were above the 90th percentile in growth. This is big for us, after four years of being a turnaround school. Now, there are a lot of factors that go into that, but for me, the fact that teachers were owning their practice and trying to develop and help their colleagues grow gave us that school-wide growth.

Can you tell us about a challenge that your team has tackled and how the shared leadership structure made a difference in how you approached the challenge?

(KL): We have seven teachers who are leaving Casals, and so we’ll have seven new teachers coming in next year. The instructional leadership team knew that and they said, “We’re going to need a mentoring program.” And so I said, “Based on our budget constraints and what we know new teachers need to know about Casals, let’s develop a mentoring program so that we can support these seven new people.” A team of four has put together a plan for next year, and they will present that to our instructional leadership team for feedback. The goal is to have an induction program for new teachers at Casals, and then a mentoring structure that will support them throughout the year, led by the teachers. They’re going to lead this charge and own what it is.

From your view as teacher leaders, how has having a shared school leadership structure impacted and supported the instructional practice of your colleagues in the classroom?

Teacher leaders (TLs): Our school leadership team structure promotes collaboration and teacher ownership in instructional decision making in a variety of ways. For example, teachers have more lesson plan/unit planning support and more collegial observations. As teacher leaders, we deliver professional development, lead our colleagues in analyzing data. The leadership structure also has given teacher leaders the opportunity to lead by example, offer instructional support, and have a thorough understanding of the curriculum.

How have you worked with your teacher colleagues to implement the curriculum?

(TLs): We were the first team members to initially “vet” the curriculum and buy in to the idea of a school-wide curriculum. We have partnered with our colleagues to break down the curricular resource, unit plan, and create vertical alignment throughout the grade levels. Because we spend so much time working with the curriculum, we have developed a support system to help all teachers learning to use the curriculum—for example, we have engageAUSL.org, a web resource that includes all instructional notes and pacing guides for the curriculum. As a group, we understand that implementation must happen at each grade level for the curriculum to move student achievement.

How do you support your classroom colleagues with using data to support instruction and improvement?

(TLs): We lead our colleagues in professional development in data analysis around our quarterly assessment, biannual assessment, and formative assessments. As a team, we initially look at data from a school-wide lens to determine trends in our overall instructional practices and then we create professional development to guide our colleagues through a step-by-step analysis of the assessment. Teachers reflect on the impact their instructional practices had on the data and collaborate to create re-teach plans for standards that students haven’t mastered. By using the data, teachers have collegial conversations around next steps and adjustments that can be made.

How does your school’s leadership team create a strong, positive culture of high expectations focused on professional learning and good feedback?

(TLs): The “V formation” implies that we are all leaders in some way, so even if teachers aren’t a part of the leadership team, they’re still valued as leaders and their input is taken into account. The team leads by example and we observe each other’s classrooms to give feedback and continue to grow. We model being open, reflective, and honest about our practice so our colleagues do the same. There is a mutual respect between teachers and we keep students first in the decisions we make.

Learn more about AUSL’s approach to school leadership in this video.