Episode 231: What Can I Do When My District Feels Stuck? – A Math Mentoring Moment

May 1, 2023 | Podcast | 0 comments



This week we speak with Giovanni Patalano, a high school mathematics teacher leader from California. Giovanni is striving to continue pushing mathematics teaching practice in his school and across the district, but feels like they’ve hit a rut in the road.  

How can Giovanni assist his own school team of mathematics teachers continue making progress while also trying to help an overworked and understaffed district leadership team to continue making productive moves in the right direction? 

This is another Math Mentoring Moment Episode where we speak with a member of the Math Moment Maker Community where together we brainstorm strategies and next steps for teachers to overcome pebbles they have in their shoe by growing all six parts of their Mathematics Program.

You’ll Learn

  • How can a school level teacher leader help to influence the direction of district wide initiatives when there may be too many priorities and not enough support?
  • What PD structures can a teacher implement when on their own to plan and facilitate productive learning sessions?
  • How can a teacher leader positively influence their peers and supervisors without stepping on toes?
  • How can we focus both on the big picture for district wide goals, while leaving space for different schools to dig into different parts of their mathematics program tree?


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Giovanni: Yeah, so I'm our math team lead on my campus, so I go to ... We have curriculum council meetings and I talk with the people at the district, but I think the problem is communication, clear goal setting. I think on your last podcast you guys were talking about that, how there's so much to try to tackle that you have to pick small goals, and I think we're having trouble with that inaudible-

Kyle: This week we speak with Giovanni Patalano, a high school mathematics teacher from California. Giovanni is striving to continue pushing mathematics teaching practice in his school and across the district, but feels like they've hit a bit of a rut in that road.

Jon: How can Giovanni assist his own school team of mathematics teachers continuing making progress while also trying to help an overworked and understaffed district leadership team to continue making productive moves in the right direction? Hey, this is another Math Mentoring Moment episode where we speak with a member of the Math Moment Maker community, a person just like you, where together we're brainstorming strategies and next steps for teachers to overcome the pebbles they have in their shoe by growing all six parts of their mathematics program.

Kyle: All right, my friends, welcome to the Making Math Moments That Matter podcast. I'm Kyle Pearce.

Jon: And I'm Jon Orr. We are from makemathmoments.com.

Kyle: This is the only podcast that coaches you through a six step plan to grow your mathematics program, whether at the classroom level or at the district level.

Jon: And we do that by helping you cultivate and foster your mathematics program like a strong, healthy, and balanced tree.

Kyle: If you master the six parts of an effective mathematics program, the impact of your math program will grow and reach, far and wide.

Jon: Each week here on the podcast, you'll get the insight you need to stop feeling overwhelmed, gain back the confidence. You can get back to enjoying the planning, facilitating of your mathematics program for the students or the educators you serve.

Kyle: Today, we'll be specifically highlighting the limbs of the tree, which represent either your school or district professional learning structure, or your own professional learning plan if you're in a classroom setting. So, stick around as we work with Giovanni to help strengthen that part of his district-wide math program as it tries to funnel into his own school and his own classroom.

Jon: Yeah, stick around, you're going to hear our conversation with Giovanni on how he can make strides with many constraints surrounding him, so that he can strengthen that program up. So here we go.

Giovanni: Okay yeah, so there's just a lot of things like we have a lot of moving parts. Our district doesn't really have a math specific leader, so I feel like a lot of things start falling through the cracks. And it's hard for me, I'm trying to be the voice for the teachers and trying to help them get on track with our goals that we've discussed, but I'm meeting how administrators are approaching teachers when they're not doing it perfectly yet.

Kyle: Now, when you say perfectly, what specifically ... are there certain actions that they're saying it should look exactly this way, or what does that look like or sound like?

Giovanni: Yeah, so I think we've been focusing mostly on student discourse in classrooms and trying to build that up. So, we recently inaudible strategies for that to give us a common vocab, procedures in classes students can get used to. But it doesn't always go well at the beginning, as I'm sure you guys know, just to feel comfortable.

Kyle: Yeah, so that's an interesting piece. You've said a few things. What I think I heard you say was you're in a situation where it sounds like maybe it's a funding issue, maybe it's a focus issue for the district in terms of having a leader that is focused on the mathematics. How many schools are in your district?

Giovanni: We have two high schools and 20 elementary schools and 10 junior highs, or eight junior highs.

Kyle: Okay, so there's some decent size there. Sounds like there are some goals going on around math discourse, which is great, but then it also sounds like on one hand, we want teachers to try new things, we want them to implement new things, but it sounds like when they try something and maybe it doesn't work out as you might want it to work out over time, there's a little bit of whether it's backlash or judgment, or at least perceived judgment going on there. That's interesting.
Tell Me more. What else is on your mind? And I am wondering if you can also dig into sort of your role. It sounds like you're a bit of a ... you're rallying the troops a little bit here.

Giovanni: Yeah, so I'm our math team lead on my campus. So I go to, we have curriculum council meetings and I talk with the people at the district, but I think the problem is communication, clear goal setting. I think on your last podcast you guys were talking about that, how there's so much to try to tackle, that you have to just pick small goals. And I think we're having trouble with that.
I've always had an issue with focusing my lessons and things like that, and I'm having that same issue right now with my team just because also there's a lack of direction coming to me. So, I guess just strategies to get people all on the same page and figure out what we feel like how we should move forward with it in a way that's measurable and attainable, as opposed to hopping around from this idea to this idea, to this idea, before we perfected it.

Jon: Right. That makes sense, yeah. We did talk about in order for us to have a strong mathematics program, whether it's in the classroom, or whether it's at a district, or whether it's in a small school team, we do have to create those specific goals. And usually, what we talk about when we create those goals, is we just ask ourselves an easy question. I guess, it's not really an easy question, but it's a question that sounds easy.
It's like, well, what do we want our classroom to look like in a couple of years? What do we want the kids to say? And that usually can help frame what we want to work on, but that question has to be posed to each of themselves, so yourself, each of your team members, and then it's like, let's come together with the answers that we've come up with and is there any alignment? Is there any overlap on what we want to see here? And does that line up with the district is telling us that we should be focusing on? If so, maybe we can mold or blend what we are coming up with.
And then usually, because we co-create those, everyone starts to go, "Hey, I can see where I might fit in on this pathway and where you're going to fit in on this pathway and maybe we can create a pathway together so that we can all get there." I know that you're saying you've been struggling with some of this in your school as well, but what would you have done so far to try to bring this about?

Giovanni: So, we have done the seven years question actually, and the biggest thing that came out of that was that we wanted students to be more engaged, involved in discussing with each other, more interactions between both of them. There was also more about kids being able to be self-starters. And then third piece was more engaging questions and things like that. So, we also need support with curriculum, but that's something that's a little bit out of our control.

Kyle: Right, right. It's interesting, and I'm wondering too, and I think you're heading there with what you had just said. My thought was going back to the math discourse piece and how some people are having some struggles with that, and how it obviously takes time to develop. I'm wondering, do you feel like there's some other pieces to the math puzzle that might also be hindering some of the success? And what I mean by that is oftentimes we'll pick a goal. We'll pick something like math discourse, or we'll pick problem solving, or modeling, or whatever that might be, but sometimes it's very hard for that thing to have much of an impact if it's only happening on its own and there might be some other missing pieces. But I think I just heard you articulating that with some of the other goals you had?

Giovanni: Yeah, because I mean then it also comes up when we are talking about student discourse and trying to plan stuff together. None of us are really fully aligned, so we still need to have conversations about what are we teaching in a class? Because right now, our district has chosen to focus on how we're teaching in a class. It almost feels backwards to some of the teachers because we're not all really aligned, right?

Kyle: Got it, got it. Yeah, I'm definitely hearing that and that makes sense as well. Oftentimes too, I'm going to guess here, that when math discourse came in, there might be some stakeholders, some educators that might not be really sure why that and not something else. I think everyone likes the idea, but learning about why and shifting our beliefs around why that might be helpful. Sometimes in the district, I've been in a position where you're leading a district and in your head it makes sense, but that's not clearly articulated to everyone in the team. Then it's very difficult for us to arrive or at least travel down a similar path, to try to arrive at a place together. So, there's a lot of thoughts there.
My wonder for you is this, you had mentioned about the focusing on what it looks like in the classroom and may not ... and that you don't necessarily have enough time to meet together and sort of align that teacher vision. Is there any sort of PD structure built in for you, as either a smaller team, or as a school-wide team, or maybe even beyond into more of a district-wide team?

Giovanni: We have PLC time on Tuesday mornings, but one of those is given to all staff, and then the other one is given to specialty teams, so APs, and other teams like that. So really, we're just meeting twice a month, sometimes three times, and it's just an hour each time before school. So, it doesn't really lend itself to us actually digging in and getting deep into things.
That's why a lot of times when they do send us a task, it's just impossible to do in the time that we're given. So sometimes, I'm trying to think, how can I streamline this to make it attainable within the hour? That's one of ... another struggle that I've had. So, it's finding the right focus that we can actually try to tackle in the little time we're given together.

Kyle: Do you have anyone at the district level that you've maybe had this conversation? By the way, it sounds like the way you're articulating it is very appropriate, it's very respectful. Sometimes people get frustrated and that can come across sort of negatively and it becomes unproductive. But it sounds like the way you're describing it to us, it's in a very productive way.
I'm curious, is there anyone, do you have anyone's ear, where through some of your concerns, but then maybe through some of your ideas, you might be able to help them help with the alignment, without overstepping those bounds? Because of course, as you know, people ... their backs can get up if they feel like they're being attacked or being judged themself.

Giovanni: Yeah, I actually feel like I've made some headway with my person at the district reaching out to them and expressing, I totally understand that the breadth of their job is wild and it's not lost on me. So, I do try to give some suggestions like, "Our team thought of this," or, "Our team thought of that." But another time, another issue is just that time. Sometimes we plan things where we pull teachers out to do observations or something like that, but then we don't have enough subs so it gets canceled.

Kyle: Yep. Been there, done that.

Giovanni: Yeah, so maybe there's other strategies to try to encourage teacher collaboration outside of that plan time, but I don't know how to-

Kyle: Well, my thought, and Jon, I don't know if you're thinking along the same lines here, but having someone there that you can connect with, and it sounds like you are sharing the fact that you obviously care and that you want to help. You don't want to cause problems, ruffle feathers. I wonder if there's an opportunity for you to help introduce or bring them into a bit of the fold. And what I'm thinking in particular, is recently we've actually crafted a district leader assessment tool, which you may or may not have come across.
There's also a classroom version which might be helpful for you in your PLCs, but when it comes to the district leader, it could be one of those things where maybe you do it and you go through, get familiar with that, and then maybe share it as a, "Hey, I just did this thing. I found it really helpful." If you do, if you don't find it helpful, you won't share it. But if you do, you could share that with them.
And I wonder, you could even throw the olive branch out and say, "Maybe there's a day over the next couple weeks where we can connect after school?" Or maybe they can come visit you, who knows? "And we can sit down and go through some of these questions and see if there's any pieces there that might help us reach the goals that we've set as a district." So my language there, I'm trying to be very respectful of the work that they've done so far because I'm sure that it's been a lot of work to get to where you are. And then through that process, you might be able to be almost like the connector to more ideas.
And then I'm picturing on this PLC side, when you go back to your teachers, you could share the classroom version with them. And maybe that's something that you say, "Hey, listen, we're going to use the next PLC. We're going to all do it, and then we're going to go through the questions together and look like, what did you think?" And most of it's a Likert scale, so zero to five. And if you're scoring a five on one question and someone else is a zero, you'll be shocked at the conversations that develop from being able to go, "Wait, did you interpret the question differently? Or what does that look like in your classroom?"
And oftentimes what that allows you to do, is you figure out where you're aligned as a team. That can be an area that you can continue some work, but then also you try to figure out where you're not aligned and that can help you with helping to get to that alignment that you had described earlier. So, I'm going to pause there and get your thoughts on that. I've shared two big ideas and maybe they're both way too lofty, or maybe there's some meat on the bone there that you want to grapple with.

Giovanni: Yeah, I think the first thing is ... Well now, I'm second guessing. I was going to say, I was thinking the first thing would be to try to as a district look at it, because when I talk with this district leader, she talks about how our school is already ahead of the other schools as far as where inaudible-

Kyle: Shocking, you're there. It shouldn't be shocking that that's the case because you obviously care and you're putting all this thought and time. But continue, sorry, I just want to make sure you know that.

Giovanni: Yeah, so we're already ahead of the other schools, so it's nice because now I can be like, "Well, we're doing this and it's working," or, "We tried that and it didn't work," which is cool, but the district leader is talking about, "Yeah, you might be able to define," or she has questions that she brings up all the time. She's like, "You guys might be able to answer this within your own classroom, within your own site. But the challenge is aligning that answer to the entire district." So, she's real zoomed out and I'm trying to zoom it back in and focus on these smaller wins and how we can take what works here and bring that to another campus.

Jon: Sounds good. I have some thoughts as well on that district level connection. As Kyle had mentioned, that assessment can be helpful to see where the groups could align, but I mean, because there's lacks of funding, because there's a lack of release time and teacher substitutions, I wonder if there's an opportunity here for you to be a connector amongst your school and the other schools?
So, it's almost like this district leader is taxed so much, that it's not math specific. It's so many things. It's almost like we need a person who's like, "This is my focus," and I know that it can't always be like, "Hey, this is your full-time job now," which is what should be, right? There should be somebody who's focusing specifically on math, it would be ideal. But I wonder if there's opportunity where not everyone's going to get a release time to do, but maybe there's some opportunity for you to get some release time.
Maybe there's pockets of release time for Giovanni to go and visit a classroom and observe and then meet with a teacher, and then it's like go back to your classroom and keep going with what you would normally do. Or visit the other site to work, observe, talk with a teacher there, and you're all of a sudden a connector between the two schools, or the many schools if they're middle school as well, and then into ... back up to the district leader.
So, that could also help create alignment. Now that would require an investment on the district side to go, "Hey, we need to release a teacher to do that," but that could be a way to relieve some of the taxed district leader, but also try to connect the two or the many schools that are there, to try to keep alignment on the goals.

Kyle: Going back to your thought, you said you were in the moment feeling like maybe you were second guessing your initial gut instinct to start at that district side. And I tend to be with you, I wanted to give you two ideas and I think you start with one where you feel more comfortable I think is most helpful, but it sounds like to you you're going, "I have to potentially work with one person," and there's probably a better chance. It sounds like you already have a good working relationship there, where you could share this work with them. Again, being very cautious not to accidentally step on toes. Sometimes excitement can come off the wrong way. It can suggest like, "Hey, look at all the stuff I did and you didn't," or whatever that might be. It sounds like you're not going to have a problem with that, but if you're able to bring them into the fold with this conversation.
What I really like about where this could go for you is that through that discussion, we've arranged this whole assessment around what we call the six parts of a tree and that math program at a district level or at the classroom level, they're slightly different, but they're all very connected. But at the district level, there's six parts there, and the beautiful part is this assessment allows you to see it all together and all interconnected, which sounds like that's where the district leader's focus and attention is. Which makes sense. They're going, "I have all these schools." Just like teachers in the classroom saying, "I have all these kids all over the map and I'm trying to meet all their needs." And then you're thinking, "But at my school it looks a little different." What that would allow you to do is as a team, you're looking at the whole district, the whole tree, and then you can zoom in on a part of the tree that might be where your team is at.
And then as you as a team, as a duo, start to better understand how they all interconnect, you might be able to then help to guide, like Jon said, if you're a connector to some other schools. You might be able to say, "Hey, you know what? It sounds like where your team's focusing is this part of the tree." And the beautiful part is, is that all of these pieces are important and sometimes as districts, we think that everyone needs to do the exact same thing at the exact same time because that sounds easy, but in reality it's actually harder that way, when someone's not ready to be at that part of the tree. They might need to be over here and you're over, there just like you're saying, "I'm working hard in here. I don't want to take my attention or my foot off the gas on this spot."
Whereas somebody else might want to be over there or needs to be maybe looking at the whole picture. So, I'm wondering when I flip that back to you, are there any thoughts as to maybe some next steps for you that might be helpful for you here based on this pretty short call, but at least something to get you going and feeling like you're heading in the right direction?

Giovanni: I think I can take on a bigger role of communicating with the district leader, trying to help with creating more alignment and talk with my team about what they feel is the most important, and either try to agree on what we're going to focus on, a variation there with smaller groups of teachers to focus on different things. And yeah, bringing all the math leaders together to answer these questions, whether it be a Zoom call, or simple lack of ability to get release time. I think those would be my next action items or focuses.

Jon: Sounds like a good plan to move ahead with.

Kyle: So I'm thinking here, Giovanni, before we let you go for today, and hopefully, please do let us know. I want to just inform you as well that there are some districts that we work with explicitly on this work. So, what I might recommend is you first explore, touch base with your district leader, with this colleague of yours, see how things are going, and then maybe in your back pocket there could be an opportunity where we all hop on a call and we try to ... it maybe helps you bring that alignment together. Sometimes bringing an outside voice in can be helpful as you try to engage in that work. Of course, you have to tread very lightly there. They have to be fully open and interested in doing that.
But just so you know, and then you can obviously share that with them, we have a district improvement program. We work extensively with districts trying to help address all of these ideas that you're sharing. So hopefully, you found this call helpful for your next step.
Before we let you go, I'm wondering is it okay we record every call? We do, but this one is turned into actually something that might shape up to be a nice Math Mentoring Moment episode for the podcast. If you're okay with it, and we're more than happy if you want us to leave names out, or if you don't want your video on there, or whatever, but we feel like the conversation's a great one because I think a lot of people are struggling with that same pebble that you and your district are right now?

Giovanni: Cool.

Kyle: There you go. It's always a little less nerve-wracking when you find out after, right? Instead of thinking about it ahead of time.

Giovanni: So, excited for this call anyway, so that's awesome.

Kyle: Well, that is great, my friend. Listen, we can't thank you enough for taking on the leadership role that you have. It's a formal leadership role, it's important work. Like I said, I wasn't kidding when I said I'm not shocked that your school is making some progress. Hats off to you and your team. Clearly there's some good things going on there and we're hoping nothing but the best here as you move forward.

Giovanni: Yeah, I'm lucky I got a good team.

Kyle: Well, Math Moment Makers, as you heard, we were honing in on the limbs of the tree, but keeping in mind, the conversation started around math discourse. That would be like a pedagogical content knowledge piece, which would be up in the branches. Hopefully you have this visual in your mind of how the limbs, this PD structure, is there to hold on to those branches, to the pedagogical moves, to the leaves, which is your tools and your resources, so that you can develop and deliver an effective math program.
Hey, let's not forget about the trunk, which is the leadership part of the tree. We're talking about leadership at the district level, or if you're in the classroom, we're talking about those pillars, those norms for your class, to build classroom culture. And deep under the soil, we've got the roots. And the roots is all about what we're here to do, which is to ensure that all students are mathematically proficient.
That means we're going to have to work on our content knowledge and we're going to have to shift our mindsets and beliefs, which is the soil, sun, and water for our tree, so that it can grow to become strong, balanced, healthy, and so it will stretch far and wide.

Jon: Yeah, it is great to see how interconnected all these pieces happen to be and the work that Giovanni is going to be doing with his program and in stretching into the classroom with the teachers he works with, but also stretching higher into the district leadership team. When we focus on the limb, the professional development structures that he's going through, or at the district level, you have to then focus on another area of the tree. They go hand-in-hand at some point. So it is great to see Giovanni making strides and we are excited to check back with him in a little bit to see how things are going.

Kyle: Hey, my friends, if you've learned something here, you need to share it somewhere. Share it with a friend, a colleague, maybe your partner at home. Or best yet, you can leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts, or on a comment on the YouTube channel. However you choose to do it, we certainly appreciate all of the wonderful, wonderful comments we love and get energized when we hear from you the Math Moment Maker community.
And guess what? Google and Bing and all of those search engines love it too, and they will share that message, far and wide. So get on there, leave us that rating and review and give us your biggest takeaway.

Jon: If you're also looking to strengthen your tree, and aren't sure exactly what piece to focus on first, Giovanni here should be thinking about how to focus on his limbs, and we talked about that, but if you're wondering, what should I focus on first? Should I do the limbs or should I do a different section? Then we've got an assessment for you. We have our district or classroom mathematics program assessment, that's just a 12-minute survey that gives you a sense of what you could focus on, but then you get a report emailed to you directly to highlight that area of need that you should first focus on.
Now, there'll be other areas in your report that you can also focus on, but you can get that report. Now, you can head to make mathmoments.com/report. That's the mathematics classroom version. Or you can head to ... specifically if you're a district leader, you can head to makemathmoments.com/grow. That is the district assessment that can help your district focus on what is important first as well.

Kyle: Awesome, awesome stuff, my friends. Show notes, links to resources and complete transcripts are available on the show notes page over @makemathmoments.com/episode231. That is make mathmoments.com/episode231.

Jon: Hey, thanks for listening to the Make Math Moments That Matter podcast, where we help you grow your mathematics program like a tree, so your impact can reach far and wide.

Kyle: Until next time, Math Moment Maker friends. I'm Kyle Pearce.

Jon: And I'm Jon Orr.

Kyle: High fives for us

Jon: And high five for you.

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