Episode #106: How To Influence System Change – A Math Mentoring Moment

Dec 7, 2020 | Podcast | 0 comments


Today we speak with Nancy from St. Louis. Nancy is a math specialist at her school and is frustrated with an ineffective model of supporting students in need. You’ll hear how she wants a better plan to help the students she works with and together we help her realize what she can influence and how she can proceed to help make change. 

This is another  Math Mentoring Moment episode where we talk with a member of the Math Moment Maker Community who is working through struggles and together we brainstorm possible next steps and strategies to overcome them.

You’ll Learn

  • How to help teachers make small changes; 
  • How to get your ideas heard when it’s hard; 
  • How to spark change with your fellow educators;
  • The importance of nudging without overwhelming.
Start your school year off right by downloading the guide that you can save and print to share with colleagues during your next staff meeting, professional learning community meeting or just for your own reference!


Nancy: What we had started to do was we created some formative assessments for the entire grade level. If I was working with first grade teachers, everyone was giving the same formative assessments. We got together and we switched papers and no teacher was allowed to grade their own students' papers. Then we looked at that data to see where the students were. I think that-

Kyle Pearce: crosstalk Today we speak with Nancy from St. Louis, Missouri. Nancy is a math specialist at her school and is frustrated with an ineffective model that is in place to support students in need. You'll hear how she wants to help plan a better way to help students she works with and together, we help her realize what she can influence and how she can proceed to help make these changes.

Jon Orr: This is another Math Mentoring Moment episode where we talk with a member of the Math Moment Maker Community, a person just like you who is working through struggles and together we brainstorm possible next steps and strategies to overcome them and you're just going to listen in on this conversation. Kyle.

Kyle Pearce: Let's get into it. Welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter podcast I'm Kyle Pierce from tapintoteenminds.com.

Jon Orr: I'm Jon Orr from mrorr-isageek.com. We are two math teachers who together-

Kyle Pearce: With you the community of Math Moment Makers worldwide who want to build and deliver math lessons that spark curiosity-

Jon Orr: inaudible Sense-making-

Kyle Pearce: And ignite your teacher moves.

Jon Orr: Let's get ready for this jam packed episode. But like we've been doing lately, we want to say thank you. Thank you to all of you Math Moment Makers out there who have taken the time to share feedback by leaving us ratings and reviews on Apple podcasts.

Kyle Pearce: Yes, this week, we want to highlight Phil Stringer, who gave us a five star rating and review that said...

Jon Orr: "Must listen to Math podcast. Jon and Kyle have created a podcast in which they explore contemporary issues in math education, brilliant conversations with math educators from around the world."

Kyle Pearce: Wow, we can't thank Phil enough for taking the time out of his busy day to not only listen, but to help us grow the podcast with these positive ratings and reviews.

Jon Orr: If you haven't taken a moment to go and give us an honest rating and review on Apple podcasts, we would certainly appreciate it.

Kyle Pearce: Yes. Because Phil shared a screenshot of his review on social media, this Math Moment Maker has been entered into our rating and review contest for one of five copies of Peter Liljedahl's new book, Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics, Grades K-12.

Jon Orr: Right, right, right Kyle. Here are the details on how you can enter and hopefully win. Step one is head on over to Apple podcasts and leave us a rating and review. If Apple podcast is not your listening service, hopefully you can find how to rate and review us on yours and we'll take that one too. Kyle, what's step two?

Kyle Pearce: Step two is to take a screenshot of your review and share it on Twitter or Instagram mentioning @makemathmoments or in our free private Facebook group, Math Moment Makers K-12.

Jon Orr: Step three, and this is the last step, is on that post, be sure to use the #MMMgiveaway, as that will help us search and find your review.

Kyle Pearce: That is it my friends you are in and right now there are only a handful of ratings. I believe we're at about 13 since we started this contest and this episode is being recorded about 13. You got just under a 50% chance of winning one of those five books as it stands now. Holy smokes, you know your chances are really high so stick around, make sure you get that review in and you'll land one of those books from Peter. If you don't know who Peter is, listen up to Episode 21 and 98, two of our most popular episodes and you'll land his brand new book Building Thinking Classrooms.

Jon Orr: Yeah. We will be giving away five copies of that awesome book. But to get in on this rating and review of giveaway you just need to get that rating and review in by December 31st 2020.

Kyle Pearce: Now, if you are listening after December 31 2020, go ahead and leave a rating and review anyway. Follow the same process and we do plan to have another contest in the future. We will accept your rating and review if it's left after December 31 for the next giveaway.

Jon Orr: All right. Now, let's get on to our discussion with Nancy.

Kyle Pearce: Hey there, Nancy. Thanks so much for joining us here on the Make Math Moments That Matter podcast. How are you doing today?

Nancy: I'm good. It's actually gorgeous here. I'm going to enjoy the weather today.

Jon Orr: Awesome. I love hearing about gorgeous weather, it always just brings a smile to my face. Nancy, tell us a little bit about yourself. We'd love to get a backstory on teachers and their education journey. How long you've been teaching? What grade level do you teach and how did you kind of just stumble into teaching kids?

Nancy: Okay. I had a pretty much of a rocky start. I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher from the time that I was five years old. I stumbled a little bit because my older brother became a doctor and I felt that I needed to live up to that. So I went into college and started out as a bio major and then have to dissect a frog and said, "Oh no, I can't do this." Then I said off, "I'm not going to be a doctor, I'm going to be a lawyer." So I started taking a lot of political science courses. It took me five years to graduate from college. I'd say in about year three, I was like, "What am I doing to myself? Let me go back to the thing that I always wanted to do."
I didn't have a lot of family support. They kept trying to tell me to stick with either being a doctor or a lawyer but I stuck to my guns. I went through and did some education classes, graduated and then started to do my student teaching. I was doing my student teaching in a pretty rough neighborhood. Towards the end of my student teaching, a teacher had to leave, because her husband was very sick. I went to the principal and asked them if he would consider hiring me for the position and he did. He took a chance on me.
I ended up being a fifth grade teacher for the last four months and then they kept me on the following year. In that school, I was there for about three years and then I just wasn't happy. There was not a lot of parents support. The kids were struggling. When I taught fifth grade, I had a range of kids reading from kindergarten to 12th grade. My last year in that building, I had 35 students in my class and it just was not getting any better. I went to a job fair and at the time, my district was very involved. I had brought in Columbia reading and writing to my district. I got really good at teaching, reading and writing and I went to a job fair and I ended up being hired by my new district. I've been in this district now for 20 years. I started off there being a third grade teacher and I was fifth grade for a little bit and then, talked about a defining math moment. Can I talk about that now?

Kyle Pearce: Yeah. crosstalk Because I'm very in to see based on that storyline that you've given us so far. Yeah, have at it right now.

Nancy: Yeah. I was a hotshot at teaching reading and writing. Math was not even a second thought for me. I knew I had to teach math, but it really wasn't something I was invested in. I was a type of math teacher who taught math from a textbook page by page. But I started to become really bored with it and I was like, "There has to be another way. Reading and writing can't be this rich and then math is this dull subject that I'm just going page by page, the kids are falling asleep at their desks." That very same year-

Kyle Pearce: More to the story. Yeah.

Nancy: That very same year, a teacher was hired, who had traveled around the United States and I just happened to be walking by her classroom one day and I heard her using the richest math language and I was like, "Wow, I want to teach like that." I stood by her door and I just watched her teach. She invited me in and from that moment on, we developed a friendship and she became my mentor. We met on our preps, and we planned together. She encouraged me to come in and observe her. We gave assessments, we sat down and graded them together. We would talk about how her kids always managed to do better on the assessments than my kids did. What it came down to was that I wasn't doing enough formative assessment and pulling small group work. I got really good at teaching math.
This teacher ended up leaving to go to another district that paid her better but I continued my work and I got very smart at math. The principal at the time, who was herself a math guru gave me books. So I just started reading voraciously anything that I could get my hands on and at a point, she said to me, "I'm taking you out of the classroom and I'm going to make you a math coach. We developed a model for our building that involved me pushing in to teachers classrooms every day. I started in first grade and I pushed in every day to five teachers rooms and planned with them and other schools from the district started coming to visit and see what I was doing. I was a math coach in the district for about six years. Now, this is where the story gets a little rocky.

Kyle Pearce: Okay, yeah. I was going to say, I'm like, "That sounds awesome."

Nancy: It was awesome. I really had a great time doing what I was doing. The district expanded the model and they hired a math coach for the other three elementary schools in the district. Now I had a team and it was going great. I don't quite know how this happened but the director of ELA got put in charge of the math program. She does not know a lot about math but she became the head of the math coaches.
She decided to change the model. She made instructional coaches that became coaches of everything. I had a new principal at the time who said, "I want you to apply for the job." But I had already been told by this woman that I want you to be a math specialist. So I didn't do it. What I said to my principal at the time, who was also a very supportive person, the math guru, I said to him, "I can't take on the role of an instructional coach when I have only been focusing on math for the last six years. If I'm going to take on a role as a leader in the district of reading, writing, social studies, science and math, I need to be at the forefront of that. I can't be on a learning curve hoping to lead teachers along with me because then I lose my credibility."
I mainly believed that and I stuck to that. So my role changed and I became a math specialist. Basically, what that meant was I would have a math lab. When the program started, it was first, second and third grade, coming to the math lab, whole class with the teacher and then based on what I saw through a formative assessment that I gave before they came to the lab and based on what I see when they're in the lab, then I also pull small groups for remediation.
Every year, we added on a grade level. We started with first, second and third, then it became first, second, third, fourth, then it became kindergarten through fourth and now it's kindergarten through fifth. The job is exhausting. I don't feel like I'm filling any gaps. There are times that I'm pulling groups of 12 kids from one class. Now the school that I was in and because I was accountable for K-5 meant that I had to and I was one person in the building, I had to combine classes. There were times that I had 16 kids in front of me for small group work where there were gaps that needed to be filled. There started my frustration.

Kyle Pearce: Pulling small groups of classes, essentially, instead of small groups of small groups, right?

Nancy: Exactly.

Kyle Pearce: Yeah.

Jon Orr: It also sounds like you're now instead of coaching teachers on helping the students, it sounds like you're more of a resource teacher where you're pulling these small groups or large groups of students and then I guess like you said, filling gaps on those kids and then sending them back to class.

Nancy: Right. The reasoning behind the model was that the teachers were coming to the math lab and I was essentially still a coach because the teacher was seeing me modeling the best math practices. In theory, it sounds really good. However, I can't tell you how many teachers came and they were on their cell phones.

Jon Orr: I was just going to cut in. Sorry there, Nancy. Just from that one sentence, it sounds like the teachers were treating you as like-

Kyle Pearce: Coverage.

Jon Orr: Yeah. Those kids are out of my class, I got a smaller group to work with. And then your job is to handle that and I got a break.

Nancy: Yeah. Yeah. Not everyone. There were some teachers that were invested in this and came to learn but it wasn't the majority of them. The theory behind what I'm doing sounds great, but in practice, the teachers do not have the content knowledge. For this to work, the teachers have to say, "Okay, I'm going to take back what I saw you do today and do some of this in my classroom." But there's no accountability built in. That's not happening. The content knowledge is lacking in a lot of them. The math language is not there. A small group work that they should be doing isn't there.
It's this cycle of the kids have... There's so many gaps to be filled and the pieces that need to be in place are not in place. I'll just say a couple more sentences. In order for this model to work also, I need to be able to meet with the teachers and say, "Okay. Here's what happened in math lab today. Let's talk about what we both saw. Here's what I saw Johnny and Christine and Rachel doing. Here's some next steps that I think could help the three of them. Why don't you pull them in a small group, do this with them?" That meeting time never happens because my schedule is jam packed with teaching. I'm always teaching a lab or pulling groups to remediate. So that's where my frustration is.

Kyle Pearce: You've sort of painted us a really clear picture of kind of like a journey and how clearly you're very committed, you were committed in both reading and writing and then you kind of shifted your focus to math. I feel like you sort of held your ground on this idea that since you had been focusing in math, you wanted to actually continue that focus. You didn't want to be a all subject specialist because we all know, that's a very difficult role to fill, especially if you want to go beyond pedagogical moves and into content knowledge. It's very difficult to be a content expert in all sorts of subjects.
So that's something I'm hearing loud and clear. I am, like you. I said to my district the same wording. I said, "If I am focused on anything other than math, then I would like to go back to the classroom." I feel like we align on that front. Now, it sounds to me like you're in a scenario where if I reiterate, you're very busy between teaching labs, between now pulling small group. It's sort of like you're wearing maybe more hats than is reasonable. Not that you personally can't do it, but people in general can't do it. It sounds to me like one of your biggest struggles is actually the model that is being used. Would that be fair to say?

Nancy: I would say... The story continues, let me just add a couple more things to this. So this building that I was in that I was a math coach in, the instructional coach that was hired did not have any math knowledge. People kept coming to me to be the coach and I couldn't play that dual role. My frustration with building, while in this process, another building principal loved the work that I was doing and asked me to come to her building instead and just to focus on kindergarten first and second, because that elementary school is a lot bigger and they need a two math specialists in that building.
So I jumped to this other building. So that's where I am now. I am just managing K1 and K2. The same things are happening however, because it's the same model that's in place district wide. However, this building has a 50% free and reduced lunch rate. There is a lot of EML students, there's a lack of true parent support. I'm not blaming the parents for that. There's a lot of issues involved here because these are parents that have to work sometimes two or three jobs to put food on the table. There are a lot of gaps to be filled in this school and that's where I am now.

Jon Orr: I think you're in a situation that many teachers are in. There's a lot of listeners of the podcast right now who are probably nodding their heads that yes, I'm also in a system that I can't change or this is the way this model works on this initiative. And they're wishing that maybe I could change it or I wish it would operate differently. I think there's a lot of us in there.
I've been in that situation too where I thought the program was going to go this way, but it didn't and now you're in it and you're in this kind of like... Sometimes we refer to them as spheres. Like there's a sphere of influence. You have a sphere of influence and what you can influence. Like who can you influence and help see. There's also like a sphere of concern. There's a sphere where you can't actually influence them or change anything in this sphere but you're worried about it, you're concerned about it. A lot of systems are like that, where we're in it and we're concerned that this system is the way it is but we actually can't change it or influence it in our own sphere, our own power.
There's lots of different things. Like you can't change the neighborhood, but you can influence the people you have with you. There's things to consider because I think we're all in situations kind of like that and we tend to try to think well, okay, I'm in the sphere of concern but I want to actually stay in my sphere of influence. What can I do to influence things that I want to see change in or modifications or what can I do to make my situation better? I'm wondering right now, it sounds like you're in a situation like that where you can't actually change the model of this professional development for teachers, but also for kids and helping those kids, but you used to be.
I'm wondering like right now, Nancy, what are you currently doing to help address these issues that you have? What strategies have you gone and tried to kind of mitigate this issue of teachers just taking advantage of this situation and not getting the help they need and administrators kind of perpetuating all of this? What maybe some small things that you've done so far that we can hear about and then we can kind of hash out what you could do next?

Nancy: A little bit more background. I am a part of a team. So there are six math specialists in the district. We all bring our concerns, because we are afforded a meeting time, one time a week, half a day, to get together and plan the labs that we do and to talk about the gaps that we're seeing in students and we bring our concerns. A part of what I have done is brought this to the group. The hard part with that is that there are members in the team that do believe in the model. The frustrating piece with this is that there are so many systems in place that are thwarting this changing.
The principal that I had in my last building was also a math guru that did not believe in this model. And I could have the conversations with this is what needs to happen and he was in total agreement. However, the director in charge of making the decisions does not want to hear what we're saying. The new building that I am in, this new principle is not a true math guru but also doesn't believe in the model. When I have conversations with her, she is in total agreement on what needs to happen. But again, the director and the person involved is the one making the decisions about the way the model should be.
There are times... Okay. Let me back up a little bit. I think it was four years ago, I started to have a conversation with her and I basically asked her the why. I said, "Why are we doing this?" I really didn't get an answer that was satisfactory. I also asked, "What was the five-year plan?" Because that's how my brain works. I need to see it laid out for me. So, "What do you envision this program looking like in five years? What are the steps we're going to take to make it happen?" I was basically told that's not my business and not something that I need to be concerned about.

Kyle Pearce: Right. I'm wondering, so I'm going to flip the question on you. If you were that person, what would that look like to you? What in five years would the program look like in your mind?

Nancy: In my mind, there would be more math specialists and I would be able to pull smaller groups. My program would look like me be doing the math labs, me pulling small groups of students but I also have maybe five periods a week that I'm meeting with teachers, I am holding PD sessions based on patterns and trends that I'm seeing and I'm pushing into classrooms in addition to pulling kids out. There is some type of process going on where I am tracking and I don't mean tracking in the negative connotation of tracking, but I'm taking specific anecdotal notes on students and looking at data with teachers and saying, "Oh wow. This is where Jon was six months ago. But wow, look at where he is now."
Both myself and the teacher were having these conversations about those kids that need our help in getting to the levels that they need to be at to be successful. That's my model.

Jon Orr: That's awesome. I think one of the key pieces is having a model in your own mind because if we're trying to shift someone's thinking or shift a structure or a model, is being able to help paint a picture of what could be. It's like, here's what it is now, here are some of the challenges, here's some of the pros too. We don't want to downplay that it's all bad, because I'm sure there's some pros. So kind of weighing those out and then flipping to the other.
Before I go on, I've got kind of a story that I think connects to your situation. My curiosity though is when you're talking about actually trying to track students and where they are along their journey, I'm curious what sort of resource or trajectory are you using in order to take that and make those assessment notes and take those notes to essentially determine what the next steps are for both you, the teacher and for the student in the small group?

Nancy: It's funny that you ask that because that's a conversation I've tried to bring to the team and the group and to my director. That what is the rubric that we're looking at to assess these kids? We have summative assessments that the students are taking and I don't buy into the summative assessments. When you think about questions on an assessment, you need to have a range of level one through level four questions. Just a little bit of a background, I do believe in productive struggle and I do believe that kids need to have some level four questions on a test. That's how you really see who your shining stars are.
Summative assessments have a lot of level one and level two questions. The summative assessments are dummied down. I don't think those summative assessments are an accurate measure of where our students really are. In addition to that, teachers are encouraged to give formative assessments, but there is no... Okay. There's a lot here. My principal from my old building, the woman that was a math guru, what we had started to do was we created some formative assessments for the entire grade level. If I was working with first grade teachers, everyone was giving the same formative assessments and we got together and we switched papers and no teacher was allowed to grade their own students' papers.
And then we looked at that data to see where the students were, I think that was a great thing to do. Not encouraged to continue and it's not what's going on now. Teachers pretty much make willy nilly decisions about where their students are. We do use Aimsweb and we do look at RTI data, but there's not enough conversation that goes into that and there's no accountability for next steps.

Kyle Pearce: Now, would you argue that maybe some of these assessments that have been used in the past and I guess currently, are they kind of geared towards just preparing students for standardized testing? Like very procedural in nature?

Nancy: Yes, absolutely. Because I believe that math should be taught from a problem solving approach and that's not what's happening.

Kyle Pearce: Right. Okay. So I'm kind of sensing that from the conversation. It sounds like kind of fundamentally, we've got a bit of a structure issue here. The structure, I'm going to just go out and say that I'm sort of picturing that you're being a instructional coach, using essentially kind of stuck in a model where it's like lab classes are great if there's opportunities to be able to pre-plan with a teacher, do the lab class and have them as a co-teacher, not sitting down and just kind of observing because a lot of times they miss. Just like students in a class, if we're just modeling for students all the time and we're not actually allowing them to do the work, some kids heard exactly what you wanted them to and others don't. I think with teaching, especially the teachers that probably need the support the most, they're not picking up what we're throwing down when we're just modeling for them.
I see that as the challenge here. But also, you're sort of being asked to also wear this other completely different hat where they're like, "And we also want you to help these students over here who are struggling." I'm going to make a bit of a leap here, a bit of assumption, but it sounds like they're like, "Listen, these students over here are not able to jump through the procedural hoops, fix that over here." I'm worried about the only way that could kind of happen if we're only in this procedural world is that through repetition, through constantly taking the rigor out of the problems and...
You had kind of insinuated that a little bit as well. But I'm worried that regardless, we could do this all day long. Students who are struggling, if they're not actually having help to help them with the conceptual understanding they require in order to get to the next place, we're just spinning our tires. I'm sensing your frustration. I'm kind of feeling it for you, because I feel like this model that you're sharing, there's a lot of issues with it from even a research perspective.
Also, I'm worried about access and equity here as well. I'm going to guess who's being pulled in these small groups. It's not the type of small group instruction or with the intentionality that Jon or I or others in the Math Moment Maker Community would sort of be advocating for. We totally are feeling you here. I guess my wonder is, can you help us and paint us a picture? So you're saying... You've given us an idea of what that may look like. If you could speak to your supervisor and your supervisor said, "Hey, listen. I agree with you." And maybe they don't. But let's say they do, we get them to this point where you're advocating for change, how are we going to address those things?
Now, obviously, we could say more coaches, but we have to also keep in mind that funding is always a huge concern regardless of where we are. How do we make positive changes? Let's pretend the budget has to stay exactly the same. Because I always give the best case scenario. But then I also give the all right, same budget scenario, because the reality is, is oftentimes budgets are going down, not going up.
So kind of having kind of two tiers. Let's pretend that it's the same budget and we're looking to massage the current model into something that's more effective and then also, how do I bring on my teammates? Because if my teammates think the current model is effective, I need to understand why they think that. You sort of insinuated why you might think so but I wonder if maybe an even more tough conversation or a crucial conversation has to happen to better understand each other, so they understand where you're coming from and you also understand where they're coming from, because maybe there's something that you're not seeing that maybe they're seeing or at least is a different perspective. What are your thoughts on that?

Nancy: Yeah. I like that. I know, I've painted a totally negative picture of this. But what I can tell you is one of the big positives that I see is that I have kids that love math now. When they come to the math lab, they leave feeling good about themselves. One of the things that I do pat myself on the back about is that I do believe for a lot of kids, there is a fear of math and they do believe I can't, I can't, I can't and when they come into the lab, I show them that they can.
That it's up to me to find that zone, where they're at and teach them where they're at and back up to where they can be successful and make them be successful at something. I'm able to do that for them, not to the extent that I would like it to happen. I don't see myself making the changes in their achievement gap, but in their feelings about math, I feel empowered about that.
I think for the most part, the group feels the same way that I do about that piece of it, that we are making kids love math. I'll just say one other quick thing. You asked me about the perfect model. Another thing that I would like to add to that are conversations with the instructional coaches because right now, the instructional coaches are kind of running the curriculum in the district and teachers are handed a day to day plan. Day one, do this, day two, do this. Our work is not in sync. We do need meetings with the instructional coaches to try to somehow I guess... There's a part of that that's not my job. It's not my job to convince the instructional coaches the right way that math should be taught.

Jon Orr: Now I'm wondering, just to be clear, so are you working with... When you do your labs, I just wanted to make sure that I'm clear, the kids come in, you're saying one of the things you guys are doing well is making kids love math or like math more than they used to. You're modeling lessons in that lab and the teachers are there and they're sometimes are paying attention and sometimes they're not. Is that correct?

Nancy: Yes.

Jon Orr: Okay. At no time, are you sitting down with that teacher independently and going, "Hey, what does your lesson look like?"

Nancy: No.

Jon Orr: You're saying that's what the instructional coach's job is?

Nancy: Right. There are times that when the teacher's leaving the lab, if I have a prep right after, I'm following the teacher down the hallway, to say, "Oh, here's what I saw, here's what you could do." I'm trying to fit those things in but there's no set meeting time now.

Jon Orr: Right. So you're not meeting with the instructional coaches, is that correct?

Nancy: Right. We're not meeting with them.

Jon Orr: In your perfect world, if you could influence the instructional coaches to start thinking in a different way, then you're in sync with them, they're going to be in sync with the teacher and this might be a way for this to start flowing. Is that safe to assume?

Nancy: Right. Yes. I have had conversations with the instructional coach who I loved, she ended up going back to the classroom this year because she got frustrated with the model. I encouraged her to come into the math lab to see what I was doing. And that when I figured we could form this relationship, and when she saw what I was doing and saw the kids that needed help, then she could push into the classroom and support this teacher and the students. But again, their schedule is so jam packed, they're in charge of writing the curriculum for the district in every subject. Their job is not really a coach. They're not coaching teachers right now. They hold PD sessions and then they write curriculum.

Kyle Pearce: I think that's a very common struggle in many districts. I know even in our district, we do not have enough human capital to do the best job or the ideal job. I'm sure many are nodding their heads with you saying, "Yeah, this is a common struggle. We're so happy to have you here to chat through this." A few things are popping into my mind and it sounds like there's an alignment issue here or alignment challenge going on whether it even just be at a school level, but also a district level as well.
This is really tough. As districts get larger, like my district has over 70 schools and we definitely have an alignment issue from the perspective that it's just so large. We do our best. We try, we keep coming back to trying to make that better. But it sounds like yeah, like trying to get in sync is something that we want to be thinking about in order to make this better. I think the other piece too is again, coming at this challenge with a coaching lens.
For example, I'm thinking in my mind, as a coach, when I'm working with educators, just like we're doing on this call, like we're trying our best, I'm saying best because it's not always perfect. We're not experts at this but we try to come at it from a curiosity perspective. We follow a book called the Coaching Habit. We use that as a guide, in order to keep... He says, "Stay curious longer." So that we're not just coming in and giving the answers because answer giving, advice giving is something that immediately humans get turned off by. They get their fight or flight going. You'll see this with educators. For example, if an instructional coach comes into a class and says, "Okay, here's what you need to do. It's this, this and this."
It seems like well, it's all research base. It seems reasonable that why shouldn't I just say that? But right away, the teacher gets concerned. They either get scared, they feel like they're not a good teacher, they feel like they're being told what to do. I think the same approach will really need to happen here where trying to find... I heard Jon say it earlier, how do you influence this scenario? But influence doesn't mean telling or it doesn't mean giving the advice.
It's about trying to bring to that forefront and trying to bring the challenge to the surface for other people to kind of have their own epiphany, like how do you help your supervisor to kind of have the epiphany that you've already had? That's really hard for us as humans because in our minds, we're sort of saying like, "How does nobody else see what I see?" You've got your perspective on this. It sounds very clear to me that you've got a clear understanding as to why things are not working as optimally or as effectively as you would like to see them. But the challenge is, is that many other people may not have that same viewpoint. How do I help them get to your realization without telling them, "This is how it has to be." Because right away, that sort of throws up some barriers.
I want to kind of switch to some ideas and generating some ideas for you to think about before we wrap up this call. But something that really hit me, I don't know which book it was Jon, but I know you and I read a lot of the same ones. You'll read one, then he flips it to me and I do the same. I don't know if it is the book Influence. But there are a couple books around... It might be Switch. One of those books out there about influencing people and helping them come around to see your viewpoint really had me thinking. When I was struggling in my own district, we were struggling with funding because we didn't have enough funding to use an effective model.
But then what happened in our district was we were also tending to send our coaches, our math coaches to the schools that were the lowest performing over the past five years on the standardized tests. Now, right away, the red flag that we run into here is that first of all, research doesn't support it. It's not helpful to send an instructional coach to the school that's performing the poorest on a standardized test because immediately what that says is, "Oh, so these teachers aren't good." That's not helpful. But then also, it's oftentimes it's many other issues going on, socioeconomic issues, access and equity issues, even systemic racism issues.
There's so many things going on there. That is not the model we want. Oftentimes, these coaches were coming in for these, we'll call them like in and out sessions, which sounds similar to kind of what's happening in your scenario. When I tried to get our district thinking differently about it, I didn't come in and say, "This needs to change because of this, this, this, this, this." I did present a case as to why I was concerned. So I went to the research, I went to some of the common struggles, which would be some of the ones that you're sharing with us in this call. But then the part that is the hardest work if we want to actually influence some change was actually taking that vision of how I would love to see it and making a plan that made it easily implementable.
Now that's the hardest part here because one of the biggest challenges would be okay, I go to my... If I'm a teacher and I want to see something change in my school, I go to my principal or if I'm a coach, it might be the superintendent. We go to them and we say why something isn't working. But if we walk out the door, now we've put that problem in their lap and they're thinking, "I don't know a better way. This is the way I came up with." So I first have to think about how do I navigate this without insulting anyone? Because if that person came up with this, I'm guessing they probably thought long and hard about this model and in their mind, it made perfect sense.
So it's about like, approaching it from like a massage standpoint. How do I massage this model, without making someone feel as though they're being targeted as ineffective or their ideas aren't valued, but taking that and trying to help them see and have that epiphany of why some change might happen. And then painting them, helping to paint them a clear picture of what that looks like, how it affects them financially. But then also, and probably even more importantly, is how we can ensure that we can make this structure work without too much chaos being added to their plate.
For example, like something that is really difficult in a district is you come up with a plan, you're like, "This would be amazing." Everyone's like, "Yes, this is amazing plan." You're like, "But we're going to have to change all the bus schedules across the district." Right away that's like, "Ooh. Lots of work. Way too hard." The more work and the more thinking that you can take off of the decision makers plate and help them to see your side and to see what that could look like and painting them that clear picture, I think will at least get that ball rolling in that direction. It takes a lot of time as well. It requires a lot of patience, it requires a lot of dedication and thought and reflection, which to me, based on what you've shared with me, I don't think you're scared of either of those things.
So I feel like you've got these ideas there and maybe you have to pick like what's the easiest one that's going to generate the greatest effect in the short term and then slowly work your way up to some of the bigger changes. I'm going to pause there. I just want to kind of get your perspective on that and your thinking. We can go from there and kind of see like what might be some next steps or maybe takeaways for you to think about and then we would love to follow up down the road as well. Because this is a problem that I'm guessing almost every person listening to this podcast is probably shaking their head saying, "I have a similar issue in my school or my district." I'm sure that this conversation is helping them think it through.

Nancy: Well, I love what you said and I was taking notes while you were talking. I love the idea of presenting the case about why I'm concerned and taking the plan and making it implementable and painting it as clear as possible. I doubt my ability to do it though because I don't know the whole financial district picture and that would have to be a part of the plan for me to show them how it's doable. I don't even begin to know how to get that information.

Jon Orr: Right. I see where you're coming from here. I think you might not have to worry about that part of the plan. I don't think you want to take on the whole... I don't think that's what Kyle is saying in the sense where you want to take on a whole redesign of everything. I think he's suggesting is thinking about maybe a small step. If you're thinking about what you want to achieve here, like in your role, thinking about what is the best bang for your buck. If you could make one small change right now, what would that look like for better success with your students. More alignment, I think that's the real issue here right now is more alignment between you, the teacher and the instructional coach.
Maybe the next step is putting the bug in your supervisors ear that we should have a meeting about this or we all go to some sort of professional development or get professional development. That suggestion does increase the budget which is kind of going against what Kyle was suggesting. But I think it's like what is one small thing that you could do to help paint the picture for the person who is going to make the decision but not put the problem on them.

Kyle Pearce: Right. That was my big piece there Jon is like, if you want a sure way to not have any change or even any consideration of changes to take an issue and go to the supervisor in a sort of we'll call it, in like a complaint sort of approach, where it's like, "This isn't working. I'm telling you about it and now I want you to deal with it." I'm going to argue that that should be okay because that's sort of the role they've taken on. When you're a leader. That's your job is to take these issues and try to work through them. But just from knowing how people are, they're going to at least push back on complaints versus taking feedback and trying to keep it productive and try to...
Again, make it... Like Jon is saying, maybe that small step. You might have a bigger plan, maybe you have to sort of think of okay, what is my end goal? Because if I don't have the end goal, here's the big challenge is that if I don't have an ideal model, then I'm really playing Russian roulette. I'm hoping that they'll make a change but the chances of them making a change that's actually in line with what you're hoping to see is really low.
You're just throwing a dart at a dartboard. They might come back with a brand new model. They might have thought all summer about it, you come back, and you're like, "This isn't what I wanted." And they're like, "But it wasn't clear to me what you did want."
Getting clear yourself, I think is probably step number one. But staying flexible within that because chances are it's not going to turn out exactly the way you're seeing it. But how do you then help them kind of start taking like... Let's say their needle is pointing like 180 degrees away from what your vision is, how do we help them start changing or tipping that needle? It might only go... Now you might be out of 170, and it's like, how can I get them to even 90 degrees and then over time, slowly get that needle to kind of close in or hone in on something closer to what you see as being productive and valuable but also actually implementable? Because if it is impossible or if it is really, really, really difficult, like highly improbable to happen, then we're just kind of spinning our wheels and stressing and thinking about all these things for essentially no possible payoff.
A bit of balance going on. I'm wondering, if we were thinking about this conversation and you were to think of like a next step, are there any things that sort of popped into your mind as like sort of like an easy first step for you. It might not be necessarily to go to someone right away, but something that you can start doing to continue you're reflecting and sort of I guess, planning on your next steps of how I make this slow, incremental change for the better?

Nancy: Yeah, I have to think about what that is and again, try to make it as small as possible. Because I see the five-year plan. I see the model of what I want it to be, but what's the first step to get me closer to that? That, I have to think about.

Jon Orr: It's definitely not something that we're asking you to kind of come up with on the spot, for sure. But at least I think we're putting the nugget in your brain that you want to think about that. And that can be that first step is whatever that step looks like for you, I think could put you on the path to making some change and all that. So maybe that's you white boarding some stuff out or making a mind map or sketch noting.
Like Kyle said, start with the end in mind, start with where you want this to go and how can you make that first step easy. It reminds me of a book, actually is two books that maybe you want to explore further. There's a book called Switch that we've often referenced here, one that has to deal with working with people who have different mindsets than you and trying to nicely change some of that mindset. So they have a nice framework. Kyle was referencing this idea of like, how do you make it easy and that's one of the frameworks where it's called clearing the path.
How can you clear the path for someone else to make it real easy, which kind of parallels nicely with this other book called Nudge by behavioral economist Richard Thaler, which is all about these little suggestions that you can make about making the behavior you want really easy and making the behavior you don't want really hard.
For example, this is a big book, it's not an education per se book but one of the examples in the book was like, if you want people to stop or recycle more, maybe it was one organization labeled the garbage cans differently. They had a recycle bin and a garbage can, but they're finding that most people are just throwing garbage out anyway. They weren't putting the recycle bin, they labeled the garbage bin landfill and then they relabeled the recycle bin like just recycle bin and that one small nudge, this is what he calls these things, actually changed the percentage of garbage that was thrown out in that one area.
Everyone started putting in the recycle bin versus the landfill bin which was normally just a garbage bin. So it's like a small little nudge on how you can kind of like one small change that can help make things easier for the people that you're working with. I know that that's a big thing to ask, even though it sounds like it's small.
Those are maybe two kind of next steps for you to explore some more learning around kind of the world that you're finding yourself in. But I'm wondering right now, as we're kind of nearing the hour that we've been chatting here, lots of big ideas here, Nancy, but I'm wondering right now, in this conversation, is there some kind of big takeaway that you've had or big kind of realization or, or something that we've helped you with your so far that you could say take away and then think about further? Like Kyle said, we wouldn't mind coming back and checking with you. But what might be a big takeaway today?

Nancy: I guess the biggest takeaway for me is, I guess it's no surprise if I say to you that most teachers are teachers because they are control freaks. It's kind of taking a step back from that way of doing things and really thinking about this a little bit differently. So I love the suggestions of the books, because I think you're right, I do have to figure out how to nice talk my way into this and make them see the vision and buy into that vision.
So a friend of mine talks about the compliments language all the time and that's something that I need to work on. My personality, it's very honest and straightforward and it's gotten me into trouble a few times. It's something that I know that I need to work on is to not always come across, because for some people, it can be a little bit abrasive when I say exactly what I feel and mean. It's finding a way to get my message across so that people are hearing what I'm saying.

Kyle Pearce: Folks who only know me from the podcast would probably think like, "Wow, Kyle isn't that way," but I actually, over time have sort of been working on that because I am a very opinionated person. I think everyone is. It can be really difficult. So we want to get our thoughts out and also we're looking for some affirmation. We're thinking like, if I'm thinking this way, how is it that somebody else is thinking so differently than myself?
I think that those are huge takeaways and I think those books we had mentioned, Coaching Habit earlier, that's a great one. Switch is a great one. And something I often reflect on is like, imagine, if you're thinking about politics, I know in the US, that we have an election coming up in the fall, they have to sort of win and they have to figure out a way to get you to nod to what it is they're saying without them saying, "This is the way things are, you have to follow my thinking." In education even more so, I think it's very important because it's easy for educators to kind of just shut the door and kind of do their thing.
You get to kind of stay in your bubble. It's not an effective thing to do. But it is something that can happen. So I think these are huge, huge, big ideas. I want to thank you so much for taking the time to hang out with us as Jon mentioned. We'll reach out to you nine to 12 months and see if you're willing to come on back and let us know how things are progressing. How are you feeling as we are about to hang up for the call? How are you feeling as you move forward? Are you feeling energized? Are you feeling drained from all of the ideas? What are your emotions telling you right now, after this call?

Nancy: Right now, I'm glad that I committed to doing this phone call. I feel that you guys really got me to see a different perspective on this. I'm glad that I had the conversation and I thank you for that.

Jon Orr: We're glad that you did reach out to us and we're glad that we could provide some sort of support, some sort of help. Like Kyle suggested, we'd love to kind of check back with you in say, six to nine months just to kind of hear how things are going. But looking forward to reconnecting there And we want to thank you for joining us here and all the best and luck so far until we hear back from you.

Nancy: All right, thank you.

Kyle Pearce: As always, both Jon and I learned so much from having these conversations with these Math Moment Makers all over the world. But in order to ensure we hang on to this new learning, Jon and I, we're writing show notes, we're doing all kinds of things to help us take away and walk away with this learning to ensure it doesn't wash away like footprints in the sand.
Make sure that you are doing a reflective process on your end. An excellent way could be just to reflect, create a plan for yourself and take action on something that you've learned here today.

Jon Orr: Right. You could write it down or even better share it with someone, your partner, a colleague at work or doing some of the Math Moment Maker Community. That's why we're there. That's why they're there. You could comment on the show notes page or tag them or us @makemathmoments on social media or in our free private Facebook group. There's a lot people in there just super eager to chat with you about math stuff. It's called Math Moment Makers K-12.

Kyle Pearce: Yes, yes. If you're interested in joining us on an upcoming Math Mentoring Moment episode, you can and we can dive into a big math class struggle together as a team. Apply over at makemathmoments.com/mentor. That's makemathmoments.com/mentor.

Jon Orr: Show notes and links to resources as well as full transcripts that you can download can be found at makemathmoments.com/episode106. Again, that's makemathmoments.com/episode106.

Kyle Pearce: Well Math Moment Makers, until next time, I'm Kyle Pierce.

Jon Orr: I'm Jon Orr.

Kyle Pearce: High fives for us, and a high five for you too.

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