Voices in Education

Five Top Challenges for New Leaders of Instructional Rounds
My favorite quote comes from the iconic American Will Rogers: “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.” This has proved true throughout my personal and professional life. I found through rounds that much of what I thought to be going on in teaching and learning turned out to be not so. The disciplined observation and analysis of the rounds process turned my thinking upside down. Knowledge and insight gained from rounds compelled me to reshape my career and become determined to help others do rounds work. After several years as a network participant, and even more as a leader of rounds and mentor to new facilitators, I am committed to doing more to support rounds work. You might wonder whether you have the ability to lead instructional rounds, but I’ve helped many others who doubted their capabilities to do so successfully. If you have the desire, and my new book on facilitating rounds, you can do this.

Many years ago, immediately after I accepted a request to lead my first network in instructional rounds, I found that while my confidence in the rounds process was sky-high, my self-confidence in leading rounds was shaky. I thought, “Am I sure I can do this?” The answer was “no,” and I had a number of restless nights. But I had a lot of help from the Harvard team who pioneered the rounds process and other colleagues; much of that help is now available in presentation materials and book form. I’m sure glad I didn’t back out when my nerves were tested.

Those I’ve mentored and to whom I’ve served as a critical friend have gone through these same fits of self-doubt and worrisome periods of learning how to lead rounds. But it is work that can be learned, and that is why I wrote Leading Instructional Rounds in Education (Harvard Education Press)—to share “our” experiences and help others gain confidence in becoming skilled rounds leaders.

Here are five of the top challenges you may face:

1. How do I begin? I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing….
When I began facilitating rounds, the first book on the subject had not been written. I was scared even though I had first learned to conduct rounds as a participant in a network led by Richard F. Elmore and the Harvard team. Perhaps their leadership made it an even bigger challenge for me because they were so adept, and leading rounds is different than participating in it. However, since that time, the seminal work on rounds was published by the Harvard team (Instructional Rounds in Education, Harvard Education Press), although it was not written as a facilitator’s guide. I wanted to fill that gap in my new book by explaining in detailed, step-by-step procedures how to go about the work and reduce the learning curve. For sure, things will go awry at times and still do for me. I remember scrounging for presentation materials, hunting down old agendas, and hoping—lots of hoping. I wanted to make sure the way for others is made easier by providing everything you need to get started. Feel free to contact me if it will help you.

2. How can I get all network members to become active participants?
The spirit of rounds is that all participants begin as colleagues of equal status, each contributing as they may. This egalitarian approach applies to you as the leader as much as it does to the network members: superintendent, principal, academic coach, or teacher. Titles are left at the door. Ironically, it is usually the teacher or coach who has the most difficulty ignoring titles; superintendents and principals are often willing to release the burden of their titles. As a leader, you should model collegial relationships to set a good example; for instance, first-name-only name tags will help set up equal footing. But it will take more to establish the give-and-take necessary for honest discussion. My book offers many tips for doing so. The culture of “nice” in education is strong, and it is not until all contributors and viewpoints are honored and fully considered that a network can mature into a productive force for improved learning.

3. Do I need to have all the answers?
For sure, there will be questions asked of you that you cannot answer. Don’t panic. There is a tendency to feel as if the leader should have all the answers, but in fact, you should refrain from providing answers to most participant questions. It isn’t until you accept your own lack of knowledge that you provide the model for the culture necessary for productive rounds. We learn how to do this work by doing it. Throw the questions back to the group, ask the members to jot down a question in their notes for later reflection, or suggest the participants give it a try to see how it works out. You will want to make it safe by creating a sense of trial and error and exploring what is not clear. This approach to leadership—that the leader’s job is to ask good questions and not to give answers—helps many (in particular, principals and superintendents) regain their stride at work so they can feel more confident in leading others in follow-up work.

4. What if things go awry or get out of hand?
Time runs out, side conversations occur, members participate unequally, and unexpected events happen. The process is dynamic and messy. I’ve faced all sorts of challenging moments, and in my book I offer illustrations, quick fixes, and workable strategies to help you along. Your job isn’t to tell people what to do; it is to help the members follow through on well-tested protocols that will guide the action. Participants will learn for themselves as they do this. Rounds is designed for participants to take responsibility for the work, and they will help develop the network and their own capabilities if you give them a chance.

5. How do I know if this is working?
Sometimes it is difficult to tell, especially in the beginning when network members are trying to learn how to conduct the process of rounds as well as internalize what they are learning about themselves, each other, and new insights into teaching and learning. The session feedback forms provided in the book are of enormous value. Administered after each session, these short surveys help you get to know how the network members are faring and what you can do to help them along. There are several other suggestions in the book for additional assessments of network progress, but results are far from instant. It will be two to three years before what participants learn from rounds shows up in the classroom.

About the Author:  Thomas Fowler-Finn is the founder of Instructional Rounds Plus. He is a former superintendent of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, public schools. He is also the author of Leading Instructional Rounds in Education, and can be reached at tfowlerfin@gmail.com.