Oregon high school principal Charles Ransom considered himself an experienced instructional leader – until he started working one-on-one with a coach from the Center for Educational Leadership. “The coach started asking me these very difficult questions: How I was going to make changes, what did I have in mind in working with teachers, how I was going to set up their professional development?”
Having an instructional coach was like having an exercise partner who boots you out of bed and tells you to put on your running shoes, says Ransom, who worked directly with CEL Associate Director Max Silverman. “Early on, I was not clear that, as an instructional leader, I had to get out of the office and walk away from what I perceived as ‘priority emergencies. Max would walk in, ask how a project was going, and if I didn’t know, he’d say, ‘Let’s go see. Let’s go to the classroom.”
Along with refocusing his job priorities, Ransom had to reassess what was happening in his multicultural school as it worked to meet proficiency-based education goals. “If you’re going to work with CEL, you have to be prepared to be brutally honest with yourself and your system, to take a hard look at what you believe about students, teaching, and learning. It’s not a partnership where you can dance around the edges.”
Ransom is principal of the bilingual Academy of International Studies in Woodburn, a small agricultural town halfway between Portland and Salem. The academy’s students are 96 percent Hispanic, more than half are English Language Learners, and many are new to the country. Standards are high in this challenging environment, and all students are expected to participate in the rigorous International Baccalaureate Diploma program. Still, many work below grade level at the academy, as well as in the Woodburn district, which itself is 70 percent Hispanic.
The district decided to partner with CEL for intensive leadership and teacher coaching in 2008 after reading the institute’s mission statement. “It said that CEL is dedicated to closing the achievement gap, which is exactly what we’re trying to do,” says Ransom. “That excited us professionally.
In guided classroom walkthroughs with his CEL coach, the principal learned new skills for identifying best practices and providing teachers feedback targeted at professional growth. He learned to foster high-level teacher discussions and collaborations around teaching and learning. And he learned to develop consistent reform plans that were narrow enough to be effective. “The idea is to stay focused, stay intense: You pick the three important things you want to have happen and you become a broken record, insisting those things get done and following through on them with action.”
Ransom found his intensive coaching experience both demanding and rewarding. ”The chance to be coached as an instructional leader is one of the best things that ever happened to me professionally,” he says. “I’ve seen how you can accelerate your own learning and leverage that in your school to improve instruction for all students.”