Leading from the inside

When district leaders become classroom collaborators, great teaching thrives


Teaching in ways outside of your own experience is hard. It’s especially challenging when the vast majority of public school classrooms, as College of Education Assistant Professor Jessica Rigby notes, still follow the old “egg crate” practice—one room, one teacher, door closed to the outside world.

In order to shift that practice in lasting, meaningful ways, Rigby says district and school leaders have to be willing to throw open the doors, go inside, and work side-by-side with teachers—as collaborators, not just evaluators.

“Having district-level academic leaders is really key,” Rigby said. “Math Labs blow the doors away. You’re trying new and messy instructional practices in front of other teachers and school leaders. It’s radical. And we’re seeing that some principals are starting to use this radical way of collaborating throughout their schools—not only in the labs themselves, but elsewhere.”

Expanding UW’s Math Lab model

Pioneered by College of Education Professor Elham Kazemi and other UW researchers in partnership with Renton School District, Math Labs have been around for nearly a decade. The basic idea is that a group of district and school instructional leaders, sometimes along with UW researchers, work collaboratively with a group of teachers in their classrooms to improve instruction.

What everyone learns together during the process informs the research—and the research, in turn, refines and improves the process over time.

The labs have been shown to be highly effective at improving teacher practice. Now, UW researchers support schools across Washington’s Road Map region to use labs to not only improve teachers’ skills, but with the added goal of getting instructional coaches—and principals—to learn a content-specific approach to instructional leadership and improvement.

Leading for great teaching

UW researchers and educators at Federal Way School District discuss their work to build school leaders’ ability to support and advance great teaching for all students.

What the hard work looks like

One after another, 11 Federal Way district instructional coaches, along with Rigby and district Elementary Math Facilitator Annie Mosich, file into a 2nd grade classroom at Lake Doloff Elementary School during a bi-monthly instructional coach professional development (PD) session. The PD session involves enacting a math lab together and explicitly discussing their learning, so they are able to lead labs in their own schools.

They’re ready to deliver a challenging lesson they just spent an hour designing—bringing all their combined expertise to the table with the goal of helping the kids think deeply about how visually grouping numbers can help them solve math problems.

“A problem of practice we’re constantly explicitly wrestling with is when and how much to allow kids to struggle with an idea,” Rigby said. “How difficult of a problem do you give children? When do you move on? When do you give information versus asking a question? How do you support children to engage in productive struggle? We talk a lot about developing deep conceptual understanding—and helping coaches think about what does it actually mean to have a conceptual understanding of a topic like fractions.”

The kids quiet down in anticipation as the coaches find places around the room. Then the class’s teacher tells her students it’s time to get ready for some math. One coach who has volunteered to lead gets up and dives into teaching.

The kids respond enthusiastically, waving their hands in the air to participate. At one point, Mosich calls for a “teacher time-out” to briefly discuss a fine point of what just happened. The kids take it in stride—then dive back into the lesson.

Afterwards, the coaches, Mosich and Rigby all go back to a conference room and discuss the lesson in detail. They agree on minor improvements—then head directly into another classroom to try again, followed by a final debrief focused on how the coaches will support their teachers doing this new kind of collective professional learning. All this intense, focused work takes place in about three or four hours.

This learning is a central focus of Federal Way’s strategic plan. For the first time in 20 years, the district developed a plan to align and coordinate teaching and learning across all of its schools. Labs are a part of job-embedded PD, a signature strategy of the strategic plan in driving student achievement. Not only mathematics pedagogy but all content areas are improved through job-embedded PD, with instructional coaches playing an integral part delivering training in their respective buildings.

“It’s different than other professional development models,” Mosich said. “We’re not just sitting in a session listening. We’re actually trying something out with kids. We’re getting in-the-moment feedback and seeing how it works with the students in front of us.”

James Crawford, Federal Way’s chief academic officer, said this work is a huge improvement for the district.

“Before, principals and coaches worked by themselves in isolation in their buildings. Now we’ve built in collaborative efforts between schools and the central office so that we’re all working in an aligned and coordinated way.”

The method has been so successful at improving instructional leadership that Federal Way has expanded its implementation from eight schools in 2015 to 19 schools as of June 2017.

“It transforms the way that teachers, coaches and principals work together because there’s not one person doing the lesson,” Mosich said. “Instead, we’re coming up with what we want to try collaboratively.”

The next hurdle: Increasing principal participation

Rigby said that while getting the district’s coaches and instructional coordinators excited about the lab model has been very successful, bringing more principals on board as active partners with coaches and teachers in those labs is the next big opportunity for the district.

“Nationally, we have evidence that principals spend a lot of time in classrooms, observing and giving feedback,” Rigby said. “But the feedback isn’t always helpful in terms of improving instruction.”

One reason is because principals’ focus is often on evaluating instead of growing teachers, Rigby said. Principals’ attention can easily become centered on increasing test scores, rather than carving out time in their hectic, demanding schedules to participate in the “messy” and time-intensive process of coaching and collaboration.

Federal Way, however, is an exception, with a shift starting to happen among principals there thanks to individuals like Learning Improvement Officer Julie Ray, who coaches and evaluates ten district principals, Rigby said.

“I worked extensively with Jessica in my role as principal at Lakeland for two years. We implemented Math Labs, and it grew,” Ray said. “On the days I had labs I would let my staff know—don’t call me unless the building’s burning down! It shows teachers what’s important to you. That you value instruction and student learning. Over time, teachers really wanted me to come into their classrooms.

“It’s not about fixing teachers. It’s about getting messy with practice and improving our work. At every level we need to keep learning to do that.”

From research to sustainable practice

In the three years the research project has been active in Federal Way, Melissa Spencer, the district’s coordinator of elementary instruction, said researchers have been consciously shifting the lead roles from themselves to district staff.

“It’s very much been a gradual-release model. The first year, [College of Education instructor] Adrian Cunard was the lead and we were still learning. At this point it’s a partnership, and she’s a thought partner. She and Jessica support us because it’s a lot of work. But they’re creating leaders both in Annie, our facilitator at the district level, and supporting Annie to create leaders at the instructional coach level.”

“If they were just coming in and doing research I don’t think it would be nearly as valuable,” Ray said. “It’s an interesting balance between what drives research and the practicalities of the K-12 system. But the fact is we’re really able to team with them around our work and their research—so it’s not just a one-way street. I think that’s where the power is.”

“As a district we’ve been able to grow our coaches and grow our principals in a way that makes the work sustainable,” Mosich said. “The UW researchers are all mentors to me personally. They want us to get to the point where they’re not needed as much anymore—and that’s invaluable, much more than any professional development I’ve ever participated in.”

“The teachers love having the researchers there,” Ray said. “When you’re passionate about the labs and it’s not evaluative, they want you there. Every researcher that comes, the teachers see they care deeply about kids, and about mathematics instruction. I can’t say enough about their professionalism and passion.”

  • A Federal Way instructional coach at work during a bi-monthly professional development session at Lake Doloff Elementary School. 

  • Job-embedded professional development such as Math Labs are a key strategy for Federal Way.

  • Federal Way has expanded implementation of its instructional leadership efforts from eight schools in 2015 to 19 schools in 2017.

  • Professor Jessica Rigby during a Federal Way Math Lab.

Research yields “awesome” unexpected result

Rigby said that one of her most surprising research findings to date is that participation in Math Labs actually changes teachers’ beliefs about the learning capabilities of students of color or who live at or near the poverty line.

“In the beginning of the labs there were comments about how certain students couldn’t solve challenging problems,” she said. “Many participants came in with a deficit perspective, with implicit biases about students of color or who live in poverty.”

Now, in the schools that are participating, many educators are reporting a profound shift in their thinking.

“They’re not just looking for answers now,” Rigby said. “They’re really looking for students to explain their thinking. Now they choose the difficult problems to challenge their students. That’s a fundamental shift—actually changing teachers’ beliefs about students’ learning capabilities.”

That shift is advancing Federal Way’s focus on engaging in conversations about race and equity and how beliefs impact quality instruction.

“Helping teachers move from a deficit perspective to an asset perspective was not something I expected—in fact it was shocking and awesome!” Rigby said. “I’m really proud that the Math Lab work has transformed so many teachers in that way.”