Building Professional Community with the Written Word
Network Superintendent, St. Louis Public Schools
“ I could visit nine schools, which would take me all week, and deliver the same message, or I could spend 90 minutes really crafting a well-written, succinct message and have it all happen the next day.”— Jeanine Zitta
The Pointed Problem: Providing More Guidance with Less Face Time
Jeanine Zitta has always treated the leaders she supports as a team — if not a family. Rather than use only 1:1 coaching to build their skills, she’s sought every opportunity to bring them together at each other’s schools to do what she sees as essential work: define what excellence looks like in the classroom and build teacher and leader skill to achieve it. The cross fertilization of practice that results has been a key driver in the success of the network of nine elementary schools she oversees.
So when the pandemic forced everyone to work remotely, she lost one of her favorite and most effective strategies for building a professional community — and at a time when everyone faced a steep learning curve in adjusting to completely new forms of teaching and learning. Somehow, she had to give her principals and instructional coaches more guidance than before while seeing them far less often.
The Innovation: Putting it in Writing
To keep her leaders connected and supported, Zitta has greatly elevated the importance and content of her written communications. These communications are much more than a means for issuing reminders and announcements. They’re a critical tool in her efforts to ensure instructional equity and high levels of student engagement in remote and hybrid learning in a time of unprecedented challenges.
Amid so much physical isolation, these purposeful communiques have allowed her to:
- Reinforce network-wide instructional priorities and action steps;
- Provide concrete examples and resources for supporting teachers in shifting to new modes of teaching;
- Communicate trending successes and gaps from her observations of virtual and hybrid instruction; and
- Lift people’s spirits by offering words of inspiration and appreciation, and by keeping them aware of what’s going on with their friends and colleagues.
The Story: “One Heartbeat.”
Breaking Down Isolation
Well before the pandemic, Zitta was moved to build community among her leaders out of recognition of how lonely their jobs can be. Principals and other school-based leaders typically have little opportunity to get inside other schools and compare notes with those in similar roles. When she started regular school visits for groups of leaders in her network a few years ago, she saw multiple benefits.
“Their takeaways were always just so powerful,” says Zitta (who calls her network “ZEN,” for Zitta Education Network, instead of the official “Network 3.”). “And the side effect is that relationships are built and networking happens. And it extends beyond the physical visits to emails. And now they have all their own text groups. It’s like a second way for them all to share information and communicate.”
ZEN’s motto is, “Thousands of Learners, One Heartbeat.”
Prior to the pandemic, she launched her ZEN newsletter to address a different challenge: limits on the amount of time school leaders come together for professional development. Monthly meetings were not enough, she says, to provide them with all the training, practice, and support they needed to continually improve the quality of instruction in their schools.
We Can Do This, Here’s How
When all work in the district went virtual, ZEN took on even greater importance. Published on Smore, ZEN combines motivation and practical guidance, and reflects Zitta’s upbeat personality throughout. The underlying message is, “We’re in this together, we can do this, here’s how.” Readers are as likely to get links to inspiring music videos as they are examples of effective remote and hybrid teaching. When schools partially reopened she started creating video montages, set to music, of students and staff.
Each issue offers concrete steps for ensuring quality instruction for all students. Often, these draw from her frequent observations of classroom practice. For example, early in the year, when she saw many students not engaged in their assigned activities during independent practice, she urged leaders to make sure teachers were clear and complete in their directions to students on what to do at such times. She also shares tips she picks up from her leaders and their teachers, like on how to monitor student work in real time.
Zitta says the newsletter played a key role in her network’s roll-out of hybrid learning, when the district transitioned from remote-only in October. Through ZEN she shared videos she’d found of effective hybrid teaching from other districts, and outlined how school leaders should go about creating their own such exemplars to train their staff. While acknowledging the great complexity of the undertaking, she stressed all students deserved the same quality teaching, whether in school or at home (For more, see “Ensuring Equity in Hybrid Instruction.”).
Not Something ‘Extra’
To make sure she completes the communication every week, Zitta adds content to her newsletter template each day as she observes instruction, speaks with leaders, and pulls together resources. Her leaders send her photos and call outs for staff who’ve gone above and beyond, and whom she recognizes in a section called “212,” the temperature at which water boils.
After New Year’s, she started a new feature, “Unreasonable Requests” — completely optional invitations to engage in a professional growth or community building activity. For February, the ask was to block off one hour a week for professional reading. She also asks her leaders to share what they’re doing for each request, and includes their responses in subsequent newsletters.
She sets aside 90 minutes of her own time on Wednesdays to finish each newsletter, in case she needs the time. As soon as she hits “send,” she opens a blank template for the next issue and begins adding to it. Zitta says she doesn’t look at the work as something extra, but as an efficient way to accomplish what she needs to. “I could visit nine schools, which would take me all week, and deliver the same message, or I could spend 90 minutes really crafting a well-written, succinct message and have it all happen the next day.”
Using Smore’s tracking function, she knows some issues have been viewed over 200 times — 10X the number of leaders she supports. But the most compelling evidence of ZEN’s use is the great frequency with which she sees action steps and resources from the newsletter employed in the schools in her network. “It feels like a great way to develop my network,” she says of ZEN. “I’ve literally only met with my network face-to-face twice this year, but I don’t feel like I’m missing out.”
Tyler Archer, one of the principals in Zitta’s network, says the newsletter fortifies a carefully cultivated culture among her schools that revolves around a shared understanding of priorities. “The newsletter gives us a lot of direction,” he says. “What I like about it is it’s connected to the kids and the academic outcomes first; she always keeps it grounded in that space.”
Taking it Back to Your School
- What are the key components of Zitta’s approach? What makes it so effective?
- In these challenging times, how do you convey: “We’re in this together, we can do this, here’s how.”
- How might you more effectively establish and regularly communicate key priorities, bright spots from your schools or classrooms, and trending areas of growth to focus on?
- In this time great isolation, in what ways can you put a human face, and your personality, into your communications?
- How will you know if the information you share is useful and gets used?
ZEN, September 10, 2020. Zitta used this newsletter to share common expectations for how her leaders would observe virtual instruction and student learning early in the school year.
ZEN, October 8, 2020. To help her leaders prepare for the launch of hybrid instruction, Zitta used this newsletter to share a set of priorities to address based on her review of best practices.
ZEN, December 10, 2020. Zitta used her last newsletter before winter break to call out her leaders’ many successes from the fall, and to express her deep appreciation for their efforts in a time of unprecedented challenges.
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