Kevin: The last two years have shown us a lot about school districts' capacity for transformation. Education leaders see an opportunity to not just rethink public education, but to implement real changes that deliver tangible results. But what exactly should the modern school district look like? Where should administrators be prioritizing their efforts to make the biggest impact? And most important, how can they drive transformation at scale so that their efforts are felt by every student and teacher they serve? This is "What I Want to Know."
Kevin: And today, I'm joined by Dr. Ann Chavez to find out. Dr. Ann Chavez is the co-founder and CEO of Modern Teacher, an organization that helps district leaders improve their approaches to teaching and learning. She is a veteran public school teacher and administrator who has seen district governance from every angle. And she's with us today to discuss what we can learn from the nation's most forward-thinking leaders and educators, as we seek to drive the transformations that will make our schools stronger. Ann, welcome to the show.
Dr. Chavez: Thanks so much. I'm thrilled to be here.
Kevin: So, Ann, you are all things education. You got your start as a public middle school teacher right out of college. Why was that an attractive choice for you? I hear various stories about how people got in education, but you, some drift into it, but you seem to always wanna go there.
Dr. Chavez: Yeah. I was one of those that, and I feel really lucky, that I knew. You know, early on, I was the one playing school with all of my stuffed animals. But I also struggled in school. And so there were things that were easier and things that were really hard. And when I started to look at how you teach things and how you can look at things in different ways, I got super excited. And that's where I really wanted to go into education.
And then the last piece of that that was a huge influence in my life, I have a special needs brother, and in that process, understanding how you support families, and in our house, and I was taught this very early by my parents, focus on what Chris could do, and we're not gonna worry about what he can't.
And we just enhanced his strengths and beautiful things happened. And he's had an amazing life. He currently lives with me. And so supporting families to find their child's passions and then to elevate them to whatever they want to do, it's pretty cool. Like who wouldn't want to do that?
Kevin: I don't wanna go too much into the then versus now, but I still think it's important to hear you talk about what school district leadership and administration was like when you started compared to the way it is now.
Dr. Chavez: It's been complicated and we've kept it complicated. And what I mean by that is we lose focus on those big outcomes for kids and what we're actually preparing them for. I often ask leaders to reflect and say, "What in school and the experiences we're creating mirror what they're graduating into, and the things and the careers and the way in which things are changing?"
One of the things, you know, when I was reflecting and getting ready for today, 100 years ago, schools looked a lot like they look today. And that's a big concern now. It's not everywhere. It's not everywhere by any means. But we have to shift how we think about things. And really understanding how quickly change is happening, and I think it hit all of us in the last couple of years. They've been really difficult and stressful on education. But this idea that every 10 years, the world and society with technology and the speed of things is changing massively, yet education...
You know, it was keeping up. I'd say maybe it was about the '90s that I think we stopped being able to keep up with society's needs and the pace of the expectations and the jobs and the skills that were needed. But from then on, the world's taken off, and education has stayed pretty steady.
Kevin: Some have said that because the pandemic has accelerated this opportunity to transform education, but cynics will say, "Really?" Because as you work with school districts, and I've heard some leaders say, "Well, even in the midst of the pandemic, we were waiting we'd go back to the old normal." And so, are we really entering an age of transformation in how school districts operate?
Dr. Chavez: Yeah, great point, because I constantly say we had...we were catapulted in many ways through the pandemic because we had to do certain things. And by the way, when we had to, and everybody had to do it, we did it. We did it. But we did it in different ways, right? And some were more ready than others. And I don't think any of us wanna reflect and say, that's how we would do things on a dime, but we did it.
It also had some experiences that weren't positive. It was very difficult. We saw lots of inequities that rose up. And so as much as it moved us forward, it's moving us back as well, like you said. And that worries me. That gap right there on letting the things that didn't go well...because my gosh, it was a pandemic. Nobody knew what they were doing. Even the most prepared districts with some blended and virtual programs and devices, even they weren't doing school the way we had to do it on an instant flip.
And so everybody learned. Those folks I think are moving forward and I'm hoping they're just more ready to look at how do those different pathways...not every pathway is for all students. We had to go everybody virtual. That's not choices and options, right? That's not pathways. We would want that, but we would really want to have blended, we wanna have a virtual path, we wanna have an all in-person path, and then high-quality because we had to do what we had to do.
And, man, kudos to the entire education world because it took a lot to get to today. And I love that we're also really looking closely. What came out of this is the need to meet the social-emotional needs of students, understand even more the inequities, and then understand how technology can actually help us be more efficient and give options, and that it's not as scary as it seems. You can hand a kindergartner a device and it's gonna be okay. It's not gonna be all the time, but we can do it and we can do it at all levels.
Kevin: We've been talking about what a modern school district should look like. So, recognizing your years of experience, recognizing some of the challenges and opportunities that came with the pandemic, what would a modern school district look like? I mean, what would school districts be doing differently?
Dr. Chavez: One, I would define a modern school district where it is blended, personalized, and competency-based. And then choices on pathways on the delivery model for families and students. And so, all virtual works for some, needed for some, blended, sometimes I'm on campus, sometimes I'm in my community, and sometimes I'm virtual from wherever that might be, and then that all in-person, but modern and high-quality across all three of those.
Dr. Chavez: The biggest piece I think for me is leaders stepping up and leading through a vision, and a vision that's about big student outcomes versus around programs, or initiatives, or things. And not intentionally. I mean, I walk that walk and it is so hard. We get caught up in the complexities of the job because we will always need to meet many demands in public education. But the leader in the system and whether...you know, whoever that is, not worried about titles, but someone's leading teaching and learning and has that focus.
Kevin: You know, I love this idea, and we'll talk about, you know, what you do at Modern Teacher, of mastery and competency-based because in its purest form, correct me if I'm wrong now, Ann, but in its purest form, that means you're shifting the focus away from sort of the teachers' schedule and what they wanna accomplish to the child's schedule.
In other words, you know, the old traditional approach would be a teacher has a syllabus, they know that in one month they wanna cover this, and the next month...and then those that get it are great, those that don't, we're still moving on.
But when you're talking about individual mastery for students, it really is figuring out where students are on that scale, if you will, and making sure that the resources are there to help the teacher help the student get there. And it's a shift in terms of focus. And I think it, I hope you agree, is a shift in terms of the way the system operates.
Dr. Chavez: Yeah. And one of the reasons it's very hard to go to that type of system and where they try is the bigger system, whether it's the local, or state, or, you know, federal hasn't shifted. And so it makes it very difficult.
Kevin: And many teachers struggle with that.
Dr. Chavez: The ones out there...and honestly, like, go back to the one-room schoolhouse, and I know this, like, analogy comes up, but personalizing and understanding and moving kids of different ages and levels in a room together started as best practice or the only option practice, but there are teachers out there doing these things despite the system, because they know it works for kids, and I always find those folks.
But then it's looking at how we take that and how can that not only shift the system, but be possible in every public school classroom, every classroom in the United States, and every teacher supported to get there.
Kevin: So let me ask you about Modern Teacher because you're, as I said, the CEO and founder. What do you do, and why Modern Teacher?
Dr. Chavez: So about 10 years ago, 2 colleagues and I started Modern Teacher. I had spent 22 years in public education serving amazing communities and kids and families. And we really looked at there was this space in which we wanted districts to be able to do systemic work.
And we watched, as we did work in our own districts, why were things not sticking? Or why would we get this great momentum around something, and then it would just kind of fizzle? And how do we make sure we're doing things that are good for kids and that we're supporting teachers like all the pieces, because it's really complex when you think about transformation and you wanna change teaching and learning?
And so we started to study across the United States, what were leaders doing? Superintendents, assistant sups, curriculum directors, professional learning directors, all levels of the system, what were they doing in places that were really getting movement at scale? Because the amazing work, the innovation, the just good teachers who don't need anything, you just give them a room and kids and say, go, you know, all those things, but how do we address a system that's so important?
You know, public ed creates the leaders, creates our next generation, so how do we create a way to help all systems whether they have all the people, whether they have all the options in their district be able to do it? And so we studied and started to codify individual actions, places where they were leading through vision, places where they involved their community, places where they took people on a movement, and the things that were happening. And we built over about three years of research what we call our convergence framework.
And it really looks at the buckets of work across the school district and what's happening across stages of transformation. Because it's really easy to get unaligned. You can have an amazing, rock star curriculum writer, and you can have an amazing, professional learning person, and you can have amazing pieces, but if they're not all working together, it's not gonna move across your system. And you're gonna have the right teachers that know how to grab it and go with it, and then you're gonna have the system that just keeps churning and we gotta stop that system.
Kevin: And when you talk about alignment and, you know, in this convergence model, it is so true that there are so many strong pieces in the system, but it's so easy for them not to be collaborative and joined at the hip. What does Modern Teacher do when you talk with school districts and work with school districts to help get those pieces in sync?
Dr. Chavez: Over time when we learned and really started to understand what are all the levers across all of the, what we call drivers of the system, leadership, the instructional model, curriculum, professional learning community, the digital ecosystem, what we do is look at where they are, where they wanna go, and then we use our framework and our technology to help guide that process.
They also join a community of connected districts and leaders across the U.S. who are engaged deeply in this work, and it's the combination of those things. They have a strategy officer that is really this behind the scenes, help the district create connective tissue, and really map their journey. And districts do a ton of strategy work. We do a ton of goal-setting every year. And they become these documents and these things, and then we all turn around and at an executive team meeting say, "Okay, how are we gonna go do this?"
And there's often amazing work going on in places that can really pull that together. But I think everybody needs support and coaching. And we also need eyes on what's happening outside of our system because we can get really head down into our communities. And so having a framework and a common language and a network committed to personalized, blended, and competency-based, and modern learning that prepares students with all the competencies they need to graduate today, and for what's coming, as we see the world shifting, that's a big deal.
And so we wanted to create that world. So it started with a framework, we knew we could go in and use this framework. And we talked with districts and we were very consultative. And it felt good. It was great work, but we said, "We wanna scale this. We wanna have a national impact."
And to do that, we had to create a technology, you know, which is a theme in a lot of what we do today and need to think about across education. But we created a technology to now build those connections, share resources, have a way to track and make sure that your systems are staying aligned. And then learn from those who've walked the journey as well as feed innovation. So our stages six and seven, which is towards the farther end of our districts that are in that innovation stage, they help feed what's next and what we need to build to continue to support each other. And so that's exciting too. It stays iterative.
Kevin: So, Ann, this is what I really wanna know, let's say a school district wants to become a modern school district, they wanna transform themselves, where should they start?
Dr. Chavez: Yeah. So the biggest word there is start because we always think we have to...we're not ready, before we can do that kind of big work we have to do X, Y, Z. We haven't finished, you know, getting to standards-based reporting, and we haven't got our digital ecosystem ready, and we need, we need... You don't. You need to start.
And the start is by really building that portrait of a graduate and truly understanding based on your community, the bigger community, and the global community today, what you're preparing kids for. And when you stop and align to that and involve your whole community, and I mean all layers of your community, in what kids need, it's knowledge, it's skills, it's dispositions, really defining those becomes an anchor, and doing it in a way that that's an output, but you're gonna work on the inputs.
Because we'll build portraits of a graduate and you'll hear them called profiles of a learner, you'll hear all kinds of ways that we label them, states have done it, but it becomes that document or the binder on the shelf again. And so, we talk about it in which it's going to become what you lead through and you've got to create the inputs. And often we don't know what those inputs are. We think here it is, now we're gonna do this. And we go back to all the things we were doing before. And you've gotta understand the inputs, go create an instructional model that actually aligns to that.
And let's go create some experiences for kids that align to that portrait of a graduate. And it doesn't just happen, but when you can break it down into stages and really understand your system, and then look at the opportunity, it becomes a movement. And it really starts by leading in a different way and having somebody step up to do that.
Kevin: Ann Chavez, thank you so much. I enjoyed the conversation. And you are terrific and you're doing great work. Thanks for joining us on "What I Want to Know."
Dr. Chavez: Yeah. You bet. Thanks so much.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education.
I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #wiwtk on social media. That's #wiwtk on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Meet Dr. Chavez
Dr. Ann Chavez is the co-founder and CEO of Modern Teacher, an organization that helps district leaders improve their approaches to teaching and learning. She is a veteran public-school teacher and administrator who has seen district governance from every angle.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.