Tennessee School for the Blind – Nashville, Tennessee
School leaders who create strong instructional leadership teams drive instructional improvement and foster student ownership. For a state special school in Nashville, Tennessee, that serves students with visual impairments and blindness – like many schools who face myriad challenges – it is critical to have leadership teams that intentionally focus on student learning.
Tennessee School for the Blind (TSB) Principal Tonja Dandy admits that forming an instructional leadership team (ILT) initially felt like another task to add to the list. TSB first partnered with NIET in 2020 during the pandemic, and Principal Dandy wondered how she could implement something new with everything else that was happening at the time. "I had a 'wait and see' attitude," she said. "This was another thing for us to do, and we didn’t know how we would manage that during a pandemic."
Within the first few weeks, Principal Dandy saw the impact of the ILT. Here are a few takeaways she had on how an ILT is improving student learning at her school.
Intentionally setting time for everyone to discuss student learning creates alignment that accelerates improvement
When NIET partnered with TSB and began discussing the formation of the school's first ILT, Principal Dandy wanted to include the leaders who were making decisions that affect student learning: the superintendent, principal, assistant principal, director of special populations, and residential services director.
Before TSB's partnership with NIET, these five members worked in a more compartmentalized way. Upon establishing their first ILT, the school immediately noticed more cohesion simply by having everyone together in the same room on a regular basis. "We were able to touch other areas in the school that maybe we wouldn't have been able to before, because before our brains weren’t all in the same room at the same time having the same conversation about student learning, and that has transformed everything," said Principal Dandy.
The ILT meets consistently for at least an hour each time. During this time, leaders are able to make connections between what happens in the classroom and what happens in the evenings with residential students. Even more importantly, they are better able to serve the whole child, as well as analyze student data, which is key to making instructional decisions. "It allows us a chance to be innovative," said Principal Dandy.
Leading through a student-centered lens is key
Another crucial job of the ILT is providing feedback to teachers, with the goal of elevating strong instructional practices and student ownership of learning. Once the ILT at TSB was formed and meeting regularly, members began taking learning walks around the school, which is a powerful piece of the puzzle for instructional leaders. In order to understand how students are learning – and how teachers are causing student learning – leaders must get a first-hand view of classrooms.
The most integral aspect of the learning walks was keeping students at the center. "Our teachers knew we were coming, and they understood that we were coming in looking at students. Our focus was not the teacher. Our focus was, 'How is the student responding to the teacher’s instruction?'" said Principal Dandy. Learning walks allowed leaders to talk to students directly about their learning, which also challenged students to take ownership by articulating specifics about their work.
Strengths-based coaching and collaboration improve school environment
The ILT also challenged teachers to remain student-centered in their professional learning communities (PLCs). The ILT strategically designed these PLCs based on their knowledge of staff and placed teachers together purposefully. Teachers own the learning in PLCs by choosing the topics to discuss, with the one stipulation that it must be student-centered. They use this time to look at student data and reflect on instructional practices, discussing specific student needs and progress.
ILT members then provide feedback after PLC meetings, focusing particularly on teacher strengths they have seen in the classroom during learning walks. "Some of the teachers have been very surprised about the strengths that we saw," said Principal Dandy. Strengths-based coaching, a new approach for TSB, has flipped conversations between administrators and teachers. When leaders start with highlighting strengths, the teacher leads the conversation around areas for improvement, often bringing up instructional refinements before administrators do – another sign of ownership. Continuously pinpointing strengths also improves school culture. Conversations are no longer about what a teacher is doing “wrong,” but rather about what they are doing to improve how students learn. "This process has transformed the whole school, because even our teacher conversations have changed," said Principal Dandy. Teachers seek each other out more, feel more confident in their strengths, and interact in a more cohesive way.
Although there was reticence at first, Principal Dandy highlights that NIET structures, particularly the instructional leadership team, have created coherence, fostered student and teacher ownership, and improved the school’s environment. "This has brought us together like a family so we can have more unified conversations about our students," she said.
Creating their first ILT has made instructional leadership a key priority at TSB – and it has elevated Principal Dandy as a leader who keeps student learning at the center. "My staff has seen a difference in me as a leader because I’m able to be more focused on being an instructional leader. That instructional piece has been huge, because as a principal it can be very easy to get distracted." Especially now, after school leaders have taken on so much through the pandemic – and continue to respond to diverse student needs – forming an instructional leadership team is a powerful action principals can take to build capacity and make room for a clear focus on what matters most: student learning.
Photo courtesy of: Tennessee School for the Blind