Making the Time to Lead a Schoolwide Transformation

June 14, 2021

TS Hoard

Principal, Excellence Boys Charter Middle School (EBCS-MA), Uncommon Schools, Brooklyn, NY

The Pointed Problem: Bringing to Life a New Vision for Teaching and Learning

As he planned for a year he knew would be unlike any other, TS Hoard seized on the moment to re-imagine how his school served its students. The 2020–21 school year wouldn’t just be about doing online what they’d done in person, but a chance to build a stronger school culture — built on trust, relationships, and deep intellectual engagement. (For more on how he and others at Uncommon Schools came to this commitment, see Seizing the Moment to Create the School You’d Want for Your Children”).

With a new rallying cry of “Writing our Future,” Uncommon Schools resolved to center instruction around high-level discourse of complex texts, a new emphasis across Uncommon Schools. Students wouldn’t just practice writing paragraphs with enough supporting evidence; they’d develop the capacity to deeply investigate what they read, and to express their ideas in original and compelling ways. Now the question before Hoard was: How could he make that vision a reality?

The Solution: Aligning Time around New Priorities

Hoard understood that his espoused vision and values would only come to life if they were reflected in his calendar. How he planned and worked with team members each week would determine the kind of instruction and learning environment that his students experienced. Keys to his theory of action were to:

  • Create new weekly meeting structures for building the capacity of his instructional leaders to facilitate ongoing collaborative planning with the teachers they support;
  • Set aside significant amounts of time to build his own deep understanding of content and how to lead the kind of high-level guided discourse he wanted teachers and students to engage in; and
  • Start off each day joining and leading whole school and grade-level conversations designed to forge stronger connections among students and staff.

His thinking: By allocating his time according to the changes he wanted to see, he could move his school towards a vision of teaching, learning, and culture that more fully embodied its values.

The Story: Replicating a Model for Deeper Learning

Strengthening Instructional Planning

If Hoard wanted his students to become more expert thinkers, he knew he had to create more opportunities for his staff to become experts — in both their content and how to teach it at a high level. Teachers and instructional leaders would need ongoing practice in sharpening their own critical thinking and in planning how to guide students to do the same.

Hence the school’s current staff schedule revolves around a pair of back-to-back sessions held on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, during which teachers meet by grade and content area with an instructional leader. These include:

  • Planning Meetings, in which the teachers work together to strengthen their planning for an upcoming lesson; and
  • Weekly Data Meetings, to develop a reteach plan that targets a key skill or concept students struggled with as evidenced in student work.

These meetings play a critical role in Hoard’s efforts to transform teaching and learning across his school. During planning meetings, the group analyzed the content and objectives of an upcoming lesson and agreed on the productive struggle most likely to push students’ thinking. That might be, for example, explaining how a particular exchange between characters makes a key point in a book they’re reading; in that case, the group would plan and practice how to guide students’ discussion and provide feedback to help them uncover and explain what’s most telling in the passage, and why.

Hoard points out that going deep with teachers on one lesson a week gives them 40 opportunities for high-level lesson planning over the course of the year — and that, in turn, improves how they plan the other four lessons that they teach each week. He explains “We’re in the business of duplicating what works.”

Flow of School’s Planning and Weekly Data Meetings

Define Success

1. Review the key conceptual understandings for a lesson, in a “know-show” chart.

2. Review and revise an exemplar response to a key prompt in the lesson, to ID a handful of success criteria for the response.

Name Conceptual Challenges

3. Review examples of student responses/try to anticipate student responses to the prompt at different levels of mastery (from “almost” there to “further off”) to identify common gaps.

Plan and Practice

4. Review and revise a model lesson for teaching/re-teaching the intended learnings, focusing on the most common observed/anticipated gaps, and how to push student’s thinking.

5. Watch as the instructional leader models the lesson and/or teachers take turns practicing the lesson, with teachers making notes on feedback provided during and after the role-play.

(See “Resources on Weekly Data and Planning Meetings” below for examples of the process in action.)

Re-Organizing Instructional Leaders’ Time

Driving this teacher planning on guided discourse presented fundamental changes in how Hoard worked with his instructional leadership team (ILT). In the school’s current structure, the ILT includes Hoard, two other school leaders, and six of his most expert teachers, who each coach 1–2 of their colleagues while continuing to teach their own classes. Together they comprise the team that leads the rest of the teaching staff in their weekly data and planning meetings.

Hoard realized it was essential for this team to develop a deep understanding of how to guide teachers in their charge of engaging students in productive struggle. So he built into the schedule two blocks of time each Tuesday afternoon for his ILT to prepare for leading that week’s data and planning meetings.

During these collaborative planning blocks with his ILT, Hoard models how to facilitate each part of the teacher meetings, and gives his ILT members time to practice doing so with each other (For more on how he models, see “Transforming Teaching and Learning through Modeling and Practice.”) When working virtually due to the pandemic, he included reviews of recordings of their Zoom meetings with their teachers.

Hoard says the structure accomplishes two things at once. For the teachers who are part of the ILT, it deepens their own understanding of the content they’re teaching and how to teach it to their own students with an emphasis on productive struggle. And it enables those teachers to build the skills of their colleagues in leading the same kind of high-level discourse in their classes. Says Hoard of the teachers on the ILT: “They’re building their confidence and closing gaps with their students and the other teachers at the same time.”

Creating the Time to ‘Walk the Walk.’

Finally, to support greater depth of learning across his school, Hoard had to make the time to develop his own expertise in instructional planning. As he explains, he couldn’t help his staff understand how to teach for deeper learning if he didn’t understand himself what that entails.

To develop that mastery, Hoard carved out a significant amount of time in his schedule for his own planning. Out of the 42.5 hours he has scheduled in his weekly calendar, about nine hours are set aside for his own work time. A major focus of that time is preparing for the kind of high-level instruction and instructional coaching he wants his teachers and ILT to provide. In doing so, Hoard goes far beyond what many school leaders do to internalize the learning he wants to take place in his school. But, he explains: “You have to be a master of that process in order to have those same expectations for your teachers and instructional leaders.”

That means preparing for lessons as he would expect his teachers to, including doing the work of a student, anticipating student misconceptions, and planning for how to address those misconceptions. And it means preparing to model for his instructional leaders how to guide teachers in going through the same process. In yet another example of how he builds his own practical understanding of what he’s asking of coaches, Hoard himself coaches the school’s 6th grade ELA team, leading their data and planning meetings each Thursday.

‘Not a Lost Year’

Hoard says the meetings and planning time he’s built into his schedule has enabled a substantial increase in the level of intellectual engagement across his school, despite the disruptions caused by the pandemic. He says: “I’m now seeing my students get lost in the books that they’re reading — they’re so engaged…they want to keep participating. This has not been a lost year.”

The change would not likely have happened, he contends, had he approached this year like those before. For example, Hoard is emphatic that his teachers would not have grown in the way they had had he relied solely on the 1:1 teacher feedback conversations that had previously dominated his strategy for instructional improvement. Instead, while he and his ILT still give teachers observation-based feedback on evolving schoolwide priorities (see below), he attributes the data, planning, and ILT meetings as the engine that now drives faculty to go deep with their content and engage students in doing the same.

Says Hoard: “By focusing on these power meetings it’s really helped me to narrow my focus on what’s most important. And our teachers are really seeing the power of that too. They’re building their own content knowledge, and building their confidence — so we’re closing gaps with the students and with the teachers all at the same time.”

Taking it Back to Your School

  • How are your instructional priorities reflected in your/your school schedule?
  • How do you ensure that this time yields improvement in teaching and learning?
  • What might you adopt or adapt from Hoard’s approach that would improve student experience in your school(s)?


  • Resources on Weekly Meetings

The following illustrate the process outlined above in “Flow of Weekly Data and Planning Meetings.” All relate to planning a 6th grade ELA lesson on the book, “Chew on This: Everything You Didn’t Want to Know about Fast Food.”


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