CharterFolk Contributors Alex Horowitz and Deandre Williams – Continuously Improving Faculty Experience

Good morning, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Alex Horowitz, Chief Growth and Strategy Officer and Deandre Williams, Director of Human Resources for Impact Public Schools.

I provide Alex and Deandre’s bios below.

Alex is the Chief Growth and Strategy Officer for Impact Public Schools, where he oversees talent, human resources, communications, and partners with the Co-CEO on development and strategy goals. When leading strategic planning, Alex loves to guide teams to find opportunities in constraints. Under Alex’s leadership, Impact Public Schools has expanded its staff during a national teacher shortage, implemented new and proactive communications campaigns, and developed competency-based promotion pathways to retain and “level up” key internal talent. 

Prior to his work at Impact Public Schools, Alex gained a track record of achieving mission-driven outcomes. At Summit Public Schools Washington, Alex led regional college programming efforts; 100% of seniors in Summit’s founding classes in Seattle and Tacoma gained admission to college. Alex also designed Summit’s regional push to improve state assessment outcomes, and his efforts resulted in significant growth in student achievement across Summit’s campuses.

In his spare time, Alex loves to make music, explore the great PNW outdoors, and of course hang with his wife, son, and puppy.

Deandre is the Director of Human Resources at Impact Public Schools. He has over 10 years of school operations and human resources experience, all with public-charter schools. Deandre has expertise in human resources, operations, people management, and organization culture building. He holds a Master’s of Science in Administration with a concentration in Human Resource Management from Trinity Washington University in Washington, DC and a Bachelor’s from Morehouse College where he majored in Sociology and minored in Leadership Studies. 

Prior to working at Impact, Deandre led in top performing charter schools and nonprofit organizations in both Washington DC and Chicago, IL. He effectively managed school operations through guiding teams in goal and vision setting, communication strategy, and fiscal responsibility. In Deandre’s current role at Impact, Deandre oversees compliance and policies, employee relations and works closely with Impact’s finance team on compensation and benefits. He also serves as a strategic thought partner to the Chief Growth and Strategy Officer on all things talent. Deandre is a world traveler, so when he is not working, he is planning his next vacation.   

Continuously Improving Faculty Experience

The headlines have been dizzying. Articles like America Faces Catastrophic Teacher Shortage and K-12 Workers Have Highest Burnout Rate in US have dominated the news cycle since the early days of the pandemic. While these stories capture a real challenge facing public education, staffing crises are not inevitable; with the right strategies in place, teachers succeed, and attrition can be minimal.

At Impact Public Schools, a charter school network in Washington’s Puget Sound region, we’ve leaned on inquiry to consistently identify opportunities to best support faculty. Our team has leveraged continuous improvement cycles to study how to meet teacher needs while remaining steadfastly committed to scholar outcomes. And the payoff has been profound.

Before looking at our continuous improvement work from 2022-23, it is helpful to first rewind the clock a year. We entered the fall of 2021 optimistic about our team and excited to start the year in person after extended statewide school building closures. The truth is, we were surprised by the teaching exodus that we observed locally and nationally and quickly strove to buffer our campuses from these trends.

We moved expeditiously to update as many teacher-support initiatives as possible. These included a new benefit program to provide faculty with access to counseling services, formation of a university partnership for continuing education, tuition reimbursement on certification programs, adding retirement options in collaboration with the state, and of course no shortage of “coffee cart” days. These initiatives, while helpful and creative, fell into the euphemistic category we affectionately called, “Throwing spaghetti at the wall.” Yes, we were successful in further building our Employee Value Proposition. And we also knew we could be more focused in our approach.

Entering 2022-23, we were committed to being a true leader in the educator satisfaction arena. The vast literature on teacher retention is often uninspiring. “Improve work conditions” and “promote a culture of teamwork” are great catchphrases, but the accompanying playbooks are often overly simplistic. We needed to dig deeper.

The first step was to craft our own research question. How do schools ensure that teachers are thriving while remaining unwavering in their commitment to student success? The question is complex: sure, we could add in more half days and extend prep periods, but would that center student learning? Probably not! We rolled up our sleeves and got to work with a multi-phased plan.

Part 1: What would our faculty say about teaching in our schools?

The first action that we took was to set up a listening tour. Our senior leadership team committed time to each campus, offering 1:1 conversation with any teacher who would speak with us. Before getting to the meaty research question above, we first had to more deeply understand the daily lived experiences of our teachers. Org leaders  spent close to 11 hours holding these conversations. We did not ask the standard questions, “What’s going well and what would you change?” We wanted to probe beyond the surface. “When do you feel successful? When do you feel unsuccessful? What were your expectations around your experience going into this year? Have your expectations been met, why or why not?” We leaned in, we listened, and we wrote down everything we heard.

Part 2: Is what we heard consistent with what principals are seeing day in and out?

After these 11 hours of conversations, our senior leadership team collaborated with all principals to review and synthesize notes. We celebrated strengths: there were moments where people expressed feeling tremendous success – what’s behind that – let’s leverage this! We also dug into areas where people felt less effective, or where their hopes did not equal their experience. From here we crafted problem statements and classified challenges as simple versus complex. What can be solved quickly and easily? What is a true dilemma that requires more exploration? Principals were instrumental in this process, offering their insights from supporting teachers every day.

Part 3: We think we get what teachers are saying, but can we be sure?

Focus groups were perhaps the most interesting component of this plan. By now our team was eager to dive into solutions, and historically this is where we would have started problem solving. But to do so would have been premature. We first hosted a second round of listening, this time in the form of optional focus groups. The team essentially went back to teachers and said, “Here is what we heard in our listening tour. We think we should spend time solving for x, y, and z. Did we get this right?” The focus groups ensured that we identified the correct problems before jumping into solutions.

Part 4: The Solutions

This was the fun part! Below are a few of the changes we made as a result of steps 1-3.

  • Coverage: The teaching shortage is in many ways a substitute shortage. And this shortage was especially hard felt in the fall of 2022 when COVID, RSV, and seasonal flu were working their way through our schools. This challenge also highlights some of the gaps in the literature on teacher satisfaction. The best culture plans on the planet could not make up for the exhaustion people felt from having to cover classes. While finding external subs remained difficult, we nonetheless sprang into action and reallocated money from our substitute budget to significantly increase compensation for teachers who provided internal coverage. Our message was, “We hear you; this is burning you out. Here’s all we have done to try to find more external subs, and in the interim, let’s honor all the work you are doing each day….” Two months later, leaders report that this change has had a noticeable impact. And, we’re still trying to find those external subs!
  • Curriculum Feedback: Teachers expressed significant appreciation for all of the curricular materials that they are provided and for the quality of curriculum that Impact’s team produces. And, teachers noted feeling less successful during assessment periods – particularly due to how time consuming our reading inventories were. The academics team jumped into action and researched reading assessments that provide excellent scholar data and that are less burdensome to administer. This process has led to various proposals with possible updates to the assessment model next year.
  • Special Education: Our teachers stated a strong desire to feel even more successful in supporting scholars with IEPs. And this definitely overlaps with our core values and mission! Org leaders immediately put special education office hours on the calendar, whereby teachers could drop by for on-the-spot coaching with in-house experts. PD calendars were revisited, and special education supports are slated to receive increased time and attention next year. Additionally, we looped back with our university partner to ensure that teachers enrolled in their certification program can add a special education endorsement – at no extra cost – to build more expertise in supporting all scholars.
  • Time and Collaboration: Teachers noted feeling highly successful because of Impact’s intentional professional development structures. At the same time, between coaching, weekly PD, Grade Level Team meetings, and faculty SEL time, teachers also reported feeling fatigued by their after school commitments. This was coupled with statements like, “I feel most successful when I can just walk down the hall and informally chat with my grade level team partner after school and work through tomorrow’s lesson.” Our PD team has been hard at work identifying opportunities to consolidate meetings and leverage asynchronous practices to create more flexible time after school for teachers to collaborate, all while maintaining the critical components of our PD model. There will likely be some changes next year!

The above examples capture just a few of the ways that our team is striving to be responsive to teacher needs while implementing solutions that continue to center scholar outcomes. And now that we’ve started putting solutions into place, our next step is to test these ideas. We have more rounds of listening tours, surveys, and observations that will tell us if we’re on the right track, or if we need to continue to iterate. The work has only just begun, and the impact is already noticeable.