SEL is More Than a 3-Letter Word: District approaches to intentional integration


Most educators would agree that social-emotional learning (SEL) needs of our students have been increasing in the last five years.  As we cope with how to better support our students to better develop their competencies such as managing emotions, building relationships, solving interpersonal problems, and making effective decisions, it is important that the concept of SEL does not become one more acronym of an initiative that is placed upon our shelves or worked into the schedule once a week.  

Schools need to think of SEL not as a new or additional initiative, but something that is woven into the daily fabric of all that we do in schools. Peter Greene wrote, “Just as some teachers try to accommodate for different learning styles, it’s helpful to remember there are different social styles.” This notion is impossible to refute. Jeff Veal said, “Not every kid has the same experiences, but every kids wants to be loved, accepted, affirmed and challenged.” These are not things that are “add ons” but these are things that need to be a part of every classroom and school. This is the heart of what SEL is all about!

media-20180225 (1)Additionally, it is important to partner with parents and local community groups to address social emotional learning.  Social emotional learning cannot rest solely on the shoulders of the schools and, indeed, the school’s success in supporting staff and students in SEL is enhanced by community understanding and participation.

There are helpful procedures and steps that districts can take to work deliberately on strengthen SEL in their systems.  

Step 1–Self-Assessment:  How do we know what our staff and student needs are?

media-20180225 (6)In order for teachers to lay the groundwork for embedding social-emotional learning into their classrooms, they must first have a sense of their own SEL competencies, because their own competencies will have a direct impact on how they work with their students.  Furthermore, they must understand how to best implement effective strategies to support their students competences.  Therefore, beginning a district SEL implementation process typically should begin with some self-assessment activities.  Our districts have used a number of SEL self-assessment tools to set the foundation for future work such as K-12 Insight Climate and Culture survey (Mendon-Upton Regional School District), Metrowest Health Survey Data (Ashland Public Schools and Mendon-Upton Regional School District, Milford Public Schools), and Panorama Survey (Ashland Public Schools).  

If a district was looking to dive deeper into the competencies and teaching practices, one tool that comes highly recommended was created by the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders, and is a tool for teachers to self-assess social and emotional instruction and competencies.  This self-assessment helps educators to reflect upon their current teaching practices that impact student SEL, as well as their own SEL competencies. Through a series of self-ratings, teachers can self-reflect on their social interactions, as well as their own competencies.  Here are a few examples from the tool to illustrate questions that teachers would rate themselves:

Student-Centered Discipline Examples:

  • I have discussions with my students about how and why classroom procedures are implemented.
  • I ask my students to reflect and redirect their behavior when they misbehave

Responsibility and Choice Examples:

  • I let my students help plan how they are going to learn in developmentally appropriate ways
  • I arrange experiences that allow my students to become responsible (e.g., classroom aides or jobs, peer tutoring, specific roles in group work)

Self-Management/Emotion Regulation Examples:

  • I effectively use multiple strategies (e.g., breathing techniques and mindfulness) when I have a strong emotional reaction in the classroom (e.g. stress, anger) when implementing social teaching practices.

Classroom Discussions (SEL Instructional Practices):

  • I help my students identify how to listen (e.g., tracking the speaker, making mental connections)
  • I help students learn how to respond to and learn from their peers’ contributions during a discussion.

Step 2–Communicating a Vision:  How do we prioritize and communicate our SEL integration plan to all stakeholders?

media-20180225 (5)Communication is one of the keys to ensuring that all stakeholders have an understanding of the goals and rationale for social emotional learning in one’s district, school, or community. This can occur in a number of ways including presentations, through building-based weekly or monthly emails and newsletters, as well as through social media.  It is important to present SEL as part of what you do and not just another new initiative that will eventually go by the wayside.  Any communication should incorporate how SEL becomes a part of school culture, curriculum, and how you operate.  Districts need to identify why they are making SEL a priority?


 In the Milford Public Schools we emphasized SEL as one of our four strategic focus areas that drives our three year strategic plan:

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According to CASEL Social Emotional Learning competencies include self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, social awareness, and relationship skills. How are these competencies integrated into school or district-wide expectations, practices and policies, and curriculum instruction?  In the Milford Public Schools we focused on developing SEL competencies in faculty and staff to ensure a welcoming and supportive environment for all students; increasing communication with families and the community; and building SEL skills and competencies in students to support both their academic learning and growth and emotional well being.  Whenever there is an event, highlighted project, or program we share that information with the community and all of our stakeholders.  Additionally, we linked our school improvement plans and budget proposals to the four strategic focus areas to ensure continuity and the integration of SEL as well as the other three strategic focus areas.  Again, the objective is to integrate SEL into what we do and make SEL what we are about.


Ashland is not any different than Milford. We too have incorporated SEL as one of our 4 improvement priority areas in our Blueprint for Continuous Student Improvement.

Our Improvement Priorities remain consistent from year to year. However, every summer at our retreat we modify or strategic actions based on the needs of our students, staff, and community.  The following is an outline of the Ashland Blueprint, which includes SEL priorities:

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Similar to Milford and Ashland, the Mendon-Upton Regional School District also included SEL into our district strategic priorities and action steps.  In particular, for this school year we identified one of our goals to be solely focused on social-emotional factors in our schools.  As a result of this priority, we are also a member district of the ExSEL Network, which is a resource that is helping us to improve and refine our SEL goals for future planning. To support this SEL goal, our district has had several years of ongoing professional development opportunities to create a supportive SEL culture.  Below includes our current descriptions of our current district SEL goal:

Strategic Objective:  Instructional Excellence

Goal 2:  Review, develop and implement supports for all students to promote social, emotional, and academic success.

Key Actions:

  1. By October 2017, a revised District Curriculum Accommodation Plan (DCAP) will be disseminated to faculty and staff, reviewed at a faculty meeting, and implemented district-wide in classrooms, child-study meetings, and in the Response to Intervention (RtI) process.
  2. By December 2017, complete an audit of K-12 support services.
  3. By January 2018, review and revise, the K-12 Response-to-Intervention (RtI) process at each level as needed.
  4. By June 2018 ensure that growth mindset messages/reminders are implemented at all levels:  elementary, middle, and high school.
  5. By June 2018, provide at least three opportunities for parents and community members to increase awareness of and ability to support students’ SEL needs.
  6. Throughout the 2017 – 2018 school year, build partnerships at every school level with outside mental health agencies to provide services to students and their families.
  7. Throughout the 2017-2018 school year, provide professional development to teachers, staff, and paraprofessionals in social-emotional learning.
  8. Throughout the 2017-2018 school year,  the District’s Health and Wellness committee will identify resources to promote social and emotional behavioral health.


In Natick, SEL is approached in strategic ways, with a slightly different focus–embedding SEL to other work ongoing in the district.  With social justice and service within the community as core values for our students, we attach our SEL learning to these core values.  We work with our SPARKindness community partners to develop programming for teachers, students and staff / the larger community, designed to promote SEL for all and develop resilient parents and students  Our high school has decided to focus on identifying and connecting trusted adults to all students. Our middle schools use advisories and mentor programs to encourage relationships and provide a warm, supportive ecosystem for learning and the cultivation of social emotional skills.  In addition, our work in building resiliency and understanding, the district has prioritized personalized learning goals that allow student to take more responsibility for their own learning.  District goals around student self-determination and student-led IEPs work hand and glove with our work on personalized learning, project based learning and individualized competencies enhanced by our blended learning instructional model.  Social-emotional learning, therefore, is at the core of our instructional model–the growing medium that allows students the most access to their zone of proximal development–the sweet spot of learning.  It is important to note, that even in a highly digital district like Natick, there is no substitute for the learning accelerator that is trusted relationships between adults and students.  They are the basis of all learning and the core of SEL.

Step 3–Programming for Staff:  How do we embed ongoing professional development for our staff?

media-20180225 (4)Schools have been doing professional development for several years in order to help staff be better equipped to understand and deal with the ever changing issues that face out students.

Professional development can be broken down into these categories:

Social and Emotional Issues that Students Face -DBT Training

-How to Support Those at Risk of Suicide

-Book Studies

Social Thinking Conference

-Second Step Social Skills Curriculum

-Zones of Regulation

Dealing with Anxiety -Jessica Minahan, strategies for working with students

-Book Study:  The Behavior Code

-Anxiety and School Performance (1/12/18)

Mindfulness -Mindful Mondays in schools


Mindful Educator Essentials (MEE)

Guest Speakers -Jessica Minahan

-Ken Ginsburg

-Lisa White – Mindfulness in the Classroom

-Dr. Robyn Bratica – Diagnosis vs. Classification

-Rebecca McCall, LMHC – Trauma-informed classrooms

-Pam Garramone, Positive Psychology

Building resiliency with students -Ken Ginsburg

-Growth Mindset

-Grit/Drive/Flow research by Duckworth/Pink/Csikszentmihalyi

Promoting Positive Culture -Seeds of Happiness

Building Our Kids Success

-School-based faculty t-shirts

-Increasing student voice

-Highlight student and faculty accomplishments through recognition programs or social media

-Certificates in Positive Psychology

Teaching about Service and Justice -Facing History and Ourselves

-Anti-defamation league

-Teaching Tolerance

-Community Service Learning

-Problem-Based Instruction/Project Based Learning

Step 4–Programming for Students:  How do we integrate SEL into our curriculum and our classroom lessons?

The CASEL website provides a very good framework and rationale for working with students with clear and admirable outcomes:

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The behavioral and academic outcomes of positive social behavior, fewer conduct problems, less emotional distress, and improved academic performance support positive school climates and cultures, college and career readiness, and a focus on the development of the whole child or student.  The accountability movement in education had a number of positive outcomes, but in many places de-humanized the educational process and many school settings.  Students became data points instead of the complex children with diverse needs and goals that educators know them to be through countless daily interactions.  A school culture that emphasizes SEL supports students in both their academic and social development and growth.
The CASEL website ( is a great resource for developing SEL programming in your school, district, or community.  The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education also developed Guidelines on Implementing Social Emotional Learning Curricula that has a number of fantastic ideas and resources (  

Step 5–Evaluation:  How do we know we have made a difference?

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According to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Guidelines on Implementing Social Emotional Learning Curricula these are some of the key outcomes of effective SEL programming or work in schools:

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Based on these four broad areas of impact it is possible to measure the impact of SEL on several potential academic, behavioral, and emotional metrics.  One resource to consider is to check out the article by Susanne Denham which includes  several resources for how schools can measure the effectiveness of their programs. There are different resources in the article and schools must find the one that best fits their needs.

In Summary…

Social Emotional Learning is a growing movement in education across the country.  The best advice we can give to our colleagues about SEL is that how SEL is executed in a district should be highly tailored to the environment and school system.  As in many aspects of school system leadership, sensitive execution of SEL–execution that is not just an “add on” –another initiative added to educators’ already-full plates–is done best with strategic stakeholder groups.  Group planning with representatives from district constituencies ensures that the SEL “curriculum” and programs is a way of life instead of an add-on led by school-only partners.  In most cases, the very SEL practices put into play for students also benefit teachers and all adults involved in the lives of our students. Investing in SEL is an investment in the total community and builds the foundation of a strong learning culture.

Student Agency: How Will You Answer the Call for Change?


What Do We Know About Student Engagement?

Administrators often talk about the importance of student engagement for student learning and growth.  When walking through classrooms there is an enthusiasm and engagement in the learning experience that is easily observable in early elementary schools that does not occur as frequently at the secondary level.  In a 2013 article Jung-Sook Lee examined the relationship between student engagement and academic performance and found that behavioral and emotional engagement “significantly predicted reading performance” (Lee, Journal of Education Research, 2013).  There are many other studies that make similar connections.  Students who put forth effort and showed perseverance and felt a sense of belonging in the classroom performed better than their peers who did not.  The chart below was based on data from a Gallup Poll and posted in an Education Week article.  Student engagement seems to decline as students progress through each grade in school.  Clearly we need to address this issue, but what variables drive this decline (secondary school culture, instructional strategies, curriculum, school structure, educator expectations, student development, parent engagement, etc.).  Why does engagement dip at the secondary level for students?


Interestingly, in a survey done by School Administrator in May 2017, 95% of kindergarteners said they loved school compared to only 37% of ninth graders.  This almost correlates exactly to the percentage of students who feel engaged in the table above.  There are a few factors that may contribute to the love of school and high level of engagement kindergarteners have, which if continued through all grades may make a difference such as:

1) ensuring the curriculum is relevant and making impactful connections between the students and the content

2) student centered learning where the students are actively and collaboratively working with the content

3) leveraging technology to support and enhance the learning experience. 

This is often easier said than done, but some of the most dynamic educators in middle and high school are doing many of these things effectively and it is having a positive impact on student engagement, a student’s sense of belonging, and ultimately their learning.  At the core of this work is capturing student’s passions and empowering them to have more agency in their own learning.

What Do We Mean by Agency?

According to Hitlin and Elder (2007), there are four types of agency that people can exhibit:

  1. Existential agency:  The idea that all human beings have free will to exert influence on our world and environment around us
  2. Pragmatic agency:  Instances when people make choices in day-to-day decisions rather than following routines
  3. Identity agency:  When people take actions to maintain their social identities or how they are perceived by others.
  4. Life-course agency:  When people take actions in order to affect our future outcomes

In applying these constructs of what agency should look like into education, student-centered learning environments are places when students have control and autonomy in their learning.  Authentic student agency places students in the driver’s seat in actively seeking learning experiences, and having choices about how and where they will show mastery.  When students have agency, they have identified their purpose in their learning.  A piece of student agency, which is really easy to increase in school environments is to capture student voice.

Student Voice is a Form of Agency


Grace Knewton writes:

“Student agency refers to the level of control, autonomy, and power that a student experiences in an educational situation. Student agency can be manifested in the choice of learning environment, subject matter, approach, and/or pace. Authentic assessment, experiential or project based learning, and mastery-based learning all provide opportunities to increase student agency. With more student agency can come higher levels of engagement and commitment to the learning process.”

So why is all this important?

important-2794684_960_720Russell Burt speaks to the fact then when students feel empowered and enabled, they perform at a higher level. Mark Osbourne refers to the Quality Teaching for Diverse Students in Schooling: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES), in pointing out that students achieve at a higher level when they are allowed to control their learning and have a voice in it. As the Raikes Foundation concurs, students feel a greater sense of belonging in a school when they have they have a sense of belonging in a class. The Values Centered Schools discovered school agency, refers to empowering students through curriculum approaches that; engage them, are respectful of and seek their opinions, give them opportunities to feel connected to school life, promote positive and caring relationships between all members of the school community, promote wellbeing and focus on the whole student, relate to real-life experiences, are safe and supportive.” Ultimately, schools want students to be successful and feel like they belong. Student agency accomplished both of these in an engaging and powerful manner.

18210221868_cb2f8b2d60_bStudent Agency is not about about removing structure in the classroom, minimizing the role of the teacher, or not teaching the standards. There is actually greater structure in the classroom, more dependence on the planning of the classroom teacher, and greater detail in following the standards.  Two examples of creating space and time for agency are through makerspaces and genius hour/20%time.

Makerspaces: Creating Space for Agency

We asked Ashland High School’s Makerspace Lab teacher some questions about his class and student voice and agency and his answers are below.  If you are interested in more information on Makerspaces, Edutopia provides a great example of what a Makerspace Lab looks like. 

Question: How these classes actually require more structure not less?

“The concept of structure is possibly misleading. Students do have more freedom of choice in some classes (Student Technology Assist Team-STAT) and more directed lessons in others (Engineering the future). However, in both situations, students are given clear expectations on what they are going to be doing as students: problem solving. In order to do this, students must have a clear understanding of the structure of problem solving, and must approach each day with the expectation on fulfilling on the goals at hand.”

Question: What is the role of the teacher in the classroom?

“With this type of structure in place, the role of the teacher is that of lead learner. We challenge students in ways that also encourage teachers to grow and learn. We can demonstrate what we know, but we can also take on the task of showing students how to learn more, how to research, and take chances. The classes are designed to be open ended. If the teacher can provide guidance, ask questions, and help push students to push themselves, then the teachers and students are often finding high levels of success in developing new skills and gaining new knowledge.”

Question:  How all standards are addressed?

“Our classes tend to cross many curriculum areas, but the key focus depends on the class. In most cases we are covering appropriate Science, Technology and Engineering standards. This is done through a series of project based, or challenge based assignments. We do not rely on lecture alone, if at all. Instead, we expect students to experience the content. Based on “Activities before Content, Concept before Vocab”. Following up key lessons by discussing and highlighting what students just experienced and learned, they will then better grasp the concepts we are trying to drive home from the standards. We also cover the newly for Digital Literacy and Computer Science standards in the appropriate courses. These new standards lay a strong foundation for all students to walk out of high school with a basic experience and framework for technology use and computer science.”

Question:  How does student voice increase engagement and achievement?

“Students are the centerpiece of these courses. They are often the ones asking questions, designing experiments and pushing into new knowledge. Not every course in the space is the same though, and each course brings a different challenge for teachers and students. Therefore, it is critical that the teachers take the enthusiasm and voice of the student and help shape their questions and insights towards the goals of each course. STAT and our future course MAKE are examples of courses where student voice is not only important, it is vital to the design of the course and experience for the students. In this model, students determine their own trajectory, and find their learning takes shape organically. From each prior day experience, students shape new experiences that may or may not match their classmates. They learn by asking new questions each day. The teacher helps shape their learning by asking key questions along the way, and helping the students develop honing skills as they focus in on one task at a time toward building the bigger picture.”

Question:  Why do students love it?

“I always ask students what they think of this class and classroom. The number one thing they love is having agency over their learning. Even our most reticent students want to learn. They just don’t always want to learn what we want to teach them. Given the opportunity to work in a space like the Ashland Innovation Center, students are more empowered to make those decisions and then put their hands and minds to use making it happen.”


Genius Hour/20% Time: Creating Time for Agency

In addition to having a Makerspace and instituting district maker challenges, another approach to increasing student agency that the Mendon-Upton Regional School District (MURSD) has taken has been to provide students time to pursue their own learning interests through instituting a genius hour or 20% time into courses.  Genius Hour originated with Google, who allows its employees to spend 20% of their time on projects they are interested in.  As their employees work creatively on their own passion projects, many outcomes such as Gmail or Google News resulted from the 20-time projects.  These principles have transferred to the classroom when teachers set aside an amount of time for students to take on passion projects.  

Some examples of this in the Mendon-Upton Regional School District include a third-grade teacher who begins each Monday with Genius Hour time for students when they return from the weekend.  In the 8th grade history classes, they are taking every class on Mondays for the next three months for students to work on Genius Hour projects.  At the high school, one teacher took it one step further and created a course called Generation Think where students are able to pursue their passions for the entire course.  

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How Will You Answer the Call?

The chart above is one of many examples of how school leaders and educators can begin to move practice for our students.  This chart displays a continuum of choice from compliant participants to bold entrepreneurial students.  Where would you like your students to be on that continuum?

One approach to look for making change is through the question posed by A.J. Juliani and John Spencer in their book Empower,  “What decisions am I making for students that they could make for themselves?  In their book, they described that all of the learning decisions were made by the teachers:  “I chose the resources.  I chose the content. I asked the questions. I wrote the instructions. I managed the project progress.  I chose the tasks. I wrote the objectives.  I picked the standards.  I decided on the format. I determined whether or not the work was any good.”  

Think about the power of switching that role.  What if we switched all of those tasks to students?  What if students determined the questions being answered, the resources gathered, or what mastery would look like?  What if students were the agents of their own learning?

We leave you with this one question, if as educators we want to feel empowered in our classrooms, why shouldn’t we want the same for our kids? We hope you empower your students, give them voice, and take that risk.



Leading with Inclusion in Mind

Students Come First in Building an Inclusive Culture

–A Milford Perspective, Kevin McIntyre

1280px-US_Navy_100227-N-0995C-010_A_Sailor_reads_to_a_class_of_kindergarten_students_at_Iroquois_Point_Elementary_SchoolAn inclusive environment is so important for ensuring that all students are welcome and supported.  Inclusion is a word that is bantered about a lot in education and can mean different things to different people. My view is that inclusion needs to be an important part of what we all do as educators.  Inclusion is not an initiative or a program, rather it is an approach, a mindset, and a culture.  

I want to talk about two ways that our schools have approached inclusion with students with special needs and English learners.  At the high school I want to focus on the Best Buddies program and how it has positively impacted the overall school culture, and at our elementary schools I will highlight how our hiring practices and instructional delivery models are supporting inclusion for English learners.

The Best Buddies Program fosters and supports friendships between typically developing beststudents and students with intellectual developmental disabilities.  High school can be a socially challenging time for all students and Best Buddies helps to create a positive climate that is easily observable in the cafeteria, hallways, and programming.  More than 200 students participate in the Best Buddies program at Milford High School where students attend monthly dances, events, and outings.  Students build authentic relationships that often continue after graduation.  Our Best Buddies Program at the high school not only benefits the students with special needs, but also significantly benefits their typically developing peers and the culture of the high school.  This program complements Special Olympics and Unified Sports and provides a number of social opportunities, athletic experiences, and friendships.  These experiences have changed the outlooks and trajectories for many of our students.  This program has built a sense of true inclusion and all of our students look forward to the events throughout the year.

For the past several years approximately 40% of our entering kindergarten classes are English learners.  Initially students received a great deal of their programming in pull out English language development classes.  A large number of our students were being pulled out throughout the day and it was having a disruptive impact on their learning and social membership in their elementary classrooms.  This has made us rethink how we provide services and inclusion for English Learners.  One move we made was on the personnel side by only hiring dually-licensed EL and elementary teachers to provide more opportunities for English language development directly in the classroom.  This also allowed us to develop some partner classes that allowed switch models where native speakers and English learners would learn and experience most subjects together.  These models are continuing to develop and evolve, but we are seeing students experience more success with more of their EL services being provided directly in the classroom.

Access and equity go hand in hand with an inclusive culture.  All students need to feel like they are an important and a valued part of the school community.  As a school district and educators we continue to incorporate more inclusive practices into our schools and classrooms.  These practices help us provide more welcoming, accepting, and supportive environments for all of our students.

Inclusive Cultures Demand Committed Leaders

–A Mendon-Upton Perspective, Maureen Cohen

“It is the principal who will ultimately make or break a school’s ability to be inclusive and to transcend from the rhetoric of inclusion to the reality of embracing the full range of students with and without disabilities as members of the general education learning and social community” (Causton and Theoharis, 2014, p. 2).

As Causton and Theorharis (2014) outline, establishing and sustaining an inclusive school culture demands strong leadership.  Whether you are the superintendent of schools and trying to build an inclusive culture in your district, or a principal at the building level, true inclusion will not occur without your leadership.  It takes strategic planning, a clearly articulated vision, and shared values to drive the decisions that build an inclusive culture.  The following are some steps that a building or district leader should take to lead a shift towards increased inclusion.

1.  Identify your Values about Inclusion

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The first step in leading with inclusion in mind is to identify your core beliefs and values about what inclusion means to you as an educational leader.  You will be tested in this process and these values will drive your decision-making moving forward.  In thinking about your own values consider the following questions and what you would need in your school environment to make these beliefs take hold:


  • Do you believe that every student can and will learn and succeed?
  • Do you believe that each student has unique contributions to offer other learners?
  • Do you believe that we are all enriched by diversity?
  • Do you believe that students are best served in the least restrictive environment?

2.  Setting an Inclusive Vision

The second step in leading with inclusion in mind is to expand those core beliefs, and to engage stakeholders in a visioning process for what your goals are for an inclusive school environment.  This is your “stake in the ground” moment as a leadership team because your values and decisions will be challenged along the way.  However, by having a well-communicated vision, your district will keep moving in the right direction for your students.  In my district, this has been part of our five-year district strategic action planning process and has driven our decision-making ranging from new staffing and professional development to related service providers and scheduling decisions.

3.  Examine your Current Structures and Staffing

Once a vision is established, the leadership team must examine current structures to identify whether it meets the goals for inclusion.  In our district, we examined our service-delivery grids, I.E.P. processes, room locations, and personnel.  In particular, we determined that we would develop co-teaching instructional teams of general educators and special educators.  As a result there we identified a need to both reallocate staffing and bring in new staffing.  We added a number of special education teachers over a few years to establish co-teaching teams across grade-levels.

4.  Build Capacity in an “All Hands on Deck Model”

handIn addition to adding or reallocating staff, it is important to look at all of your staff to identify new configurations that create an environment where all hands are on deck to support all of our students.  In the past, special education students were relegated to separate settings to only be supported by special education teachers, but through an inclusive model all students are our students.  We must move our cultures away from “your students” or “my students” to a culture where they are all our students.  In doing so, we look at all of our staff members including academic tutors and paraprofessionals to maximize our personnel resources and create an environment where we can reduce adult: student ratios and increase student support. For this to be effective, it requires a lot of capacity building and ongoing professional development in inclusive instructional practices.  In our schools we have co-teaching mentors who train new co-teaching teams, as well as ongoing inclusion professional learning communities that meet monthly to share resources.

It takes time, strategy and effective leadership to create a systemic shift towards increased inclusion, co-teaching teams, and ongoing professional development for teachers and staff, but the social, behavioral, and academic gains have proven to be immediate as a result of this shift.

Building Inclusion Throughout the Community

–An Ashland Perspective, Paul Vieira

Love, Inclusion, and Trust

Last month we had Jamele Adams come to speak to our high school students and parents. He delivered a powerful keynote address centered around an acronym he created L.I.T. which stands for Love, Inclusion, and Trust. He is a believer, as am I,  that when we come together we are truly limitless in what we can accomplish. In order to create an inclusive climate in our schools it is critical that we include our community in our discussions. During Jamele’s keynote, he highlighted the following:


love-2611967_960_720-Love is at the core of everything we do and feel passionate about

-If we have love we do not want to see anything or anyone fail

-We want to nourish it and see it succeed

-If there is a challenge we will meet it and work through it


-Inclusion is what keeps us togetherinclusion-2728130_960_720

-It does not feel good to be left out

-We must remember to include everyone



Trust-Trust is the byproduct when love and inclusion are present

-When you have trust you allow yourself to recognize that you are part of something much larger than yourself

-You feel valued and have a voice

-You are willing to sacrifice for the greater good

Regardless of our role in a District, we are all responsible for creating a LIT culture across our schools. Bus drivers, custodians, secretaries, cafeteria workers, para-professionals, teachers, and administrators all play a key part in creating this culture. As leaders we want our entire school community to feel included. That word “inclusion” is packed with meaning and some people may believe that it is overused and become somewhat of a cliche at this point. But I challenge you to think differently. At our core, we all want to be included and feel like we are a part of something. If that is true for us as adults, it is even truer for our kids. As we think about creating an inclusive culture in our schools, we must do so for ALL of our students, across ALL settings. It is our job and it is our responsibility. Our kids deserve it.

So, I ask each of you to create a L.I.T. culture in your schools. Love what you do and feel passionate about your beliefs and core values, include everyone all the time, no matter what, and have trust. With all three you are LIT and you can and will do great things! And remember that it does take a village.

Extending Inclusion into the Larger Community

–A Natick Perspective, Anna Nolin

Schools are strong purveyors of values in a community.  That is why, in the discussion of inclusion, the schools are often looked to take the lead in difficult times. The past year has been a challenging one for our country in terms of various, much-publicized incidents that involve issues of social justice. As the media swirls during these moments, school systems and other community outlets have often been called upon to make formal statements of values to counter these incidents and make local sense of the news cycle. It is important that the the school values around social justice, inclusion, and equity are made clear through such statements in difficult times. However, while we communicate when we believe it will assist in understanding or reducing fear, schools need to recognize the need to share a wider overview of work and values in social justice and inclusive education to demonstrate to all community constituents–on a regular and ongoing basis–what inclusion means to education every day.  Schools need to ask themselves if their messaging, curriculum decisions, hiring, and induction practices are steeped in inclusive values of the system.  

  • Can children hear inclusive messages in what they read? Study? In how they see themselves portrayed in media and texts?
  • Do they have a voice to discuss their concerns?
  • Can the community see your values in action beyond just being stated in your mission statement or on your district letterhead?  
  • Are your district school staff and principals collaborating with key constituents and groups in the community that inclusive practices can be observed?


Social justice education as part of the curriculum schools deliver every day and how leadership conducts its collaborative business plays a major role in sending a message about inclusive schools. The manner and method of teaching and involving the community in the teaching of humanities, civics, critical thinking, reading, and writing–and doing so in meaningful ways that resonate with our students–places inclusion at the heart of what we do:  teaching and learning.

Giving staff, students and community members alike training from organizations like the Anti Defamation League, Facing History and Ourselves, Northeastern’s MVP program, Open Circle and Primary Source ensure educators PK-12 are trained in cultural competency and social justice themes and ideas so they can live the inclusion ethic in how they structure conversations with students, how they address themes of social justice and conflict in students’ daily lives, and how they choose materials for use in their classes.  

Recently, during these difficult times in our education communities, two of us have begun partnerships with inter-faith clergy and community organizations to develop (Community of) United groups.  These groups serve to create a mechanism for schools to collaborate with other key community groups to systematically carry forward the message of inclusion and equity across our towns.  These are not small acts –joining together in this way takes the onus of responding off of any one cultural institution and aligns a community around inclusive core values.  

“If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.”

 African Proverb

Building Leadership Capacity One Teacher at a Time: Unleashing the Teacher Leadership Bench

“The giant resource of teacher leadership must be unleashed in support of school change.” (Katzenmeyer & Moyer, 2001, p. 16).

As district leaders, one of the most important functions of our roles is building leadership capacity across our school districts.  When we begin each school year, set goals, and therein set in motion the work of the year, it is important to consider how we will feed and fortify the culture while we ask the organization to implement new initiatives.  Each of us hopes that the work we do, the initiatives we implement and the culture we cultivate lives beyond our tenure or beyond the goal cycle on which we are currently working.  In order to do so, we must deliberately consider how to build leadership capacity in our organizations. To that end, we share some thoughts on the topic.  We plan to explore how to identify and select potential leaders, distributive leadership, creating a leadership ladder, modeling and mentoring, and women in educational leadership.


Selecting your Bench

Leadership capacity building begins with selecting the right people to take on formal leadership and support roles.  

As Jim Collins described in his book Good to Great, it is essential to get the right people on the bus, if you want to steer your organization in the right direction.  In considering future teacher leaders to be on your bench, have you considered what you value in a teacher leader?  Which of the qualities below are your own non-negotiables?  Are there currently people who are in those positions, who do not meet your criteria?  

The following are a list of typical qualities of effective teacher leaders:

  • Ability to collaborate with others
  • Consensus builders
  • Respected by peers for instructional skills
  • Open-minded
  • Has positive relationships with others in school
  • Optimistic
  • Enthusiastic
  • Confident
  • Display initiative
  • Expertise in specialized areas such as curriculum, assessment, instruction, content, data analysis, etc.
  • Understanding of adult learners

Superintendents often lament that it is difficult to find quality candidates for building leadership openings.  This is partially due to the fact that we want our leaders to have all of the qualities and strengths that we see across the best leaders, which is unrealistic.  It is also a function of the nearly impossible expectations we can have for our leaders.  Building a “bench” of potential building leaders is important work for a district so that the vision, mission, and strategic plan can move forward without the disruptive stops and starts changes in leadership can sometimes cause.

Identifying, selecting, and supporting future leaders can be a tricky business.  Effective teaching practice requires a skill set from educators that can be different than what is necessary for successful leadership of a department, school, or district.  Leading educators and providing actionable feedback to adults can be very different than teaching and leading students.  For example, Milford Public Schools runs a seminar series that allows aspiring educational and instructional leaders to explore the roles, responsibilities, and realities of building and district leadership positions.  The honest conversations with their building and district leaders provide a window into the principalship and assistant principalship.  These programs led some teachers to pursue an administrative license program and others to reflect that either this was not the right time or the right path for them.  Both are equally valuable.  They also support aspiring school leaders in one district (and in some cases other districts) by allowing shadowing and practicum experiences.  These experiences, seminars, and conversations can also provide a glimpse for both the aspiring leader and the district in terms of fit at the school, district, and leadership team levels.

Leadership development can require you to self assess or assess the team.  When selecting your bench it is also important to hire people that complement your weaknesses. It is only natural to want to hire people like you, who may not threaten or challenge the way you think and lead. However, it is critically important to change this mindset and do the opposite. Eric Bloom writes:

Regarding hiring to your strengths, it’s of course, extremely important to always hire great people. However, if you only hire people that are just like you, namely with your strengths, weaknesses, experience, and perspective then you open up yourself and your department to:  

  • Quality issues caused by overall skill set deficiencies  
  • Reduced possibility of innovation due to a lack of team diversity  
  • Experience and knowledge gaps in potentially important functional areas  
  • Reduced team flexibility caused by all of the above

As Lolly Daskel writes, “There is a great difference between knowing yourself and understanding yourself. Take the time to reflect on what your deficiencies are and what you need in a particular position on your team and go out and hire the best people to fill that role.”  This type of introspection can be challenging and requires vulnerability and honesty.


Distributing Leadership

Those on the bench and those who might have potential to sit on the bench in the future need to be given agency and opportunity to participate in leadership work even if they do not hold the “formal” role.  


In order to be an effective leader and grow an organization, you must build your bench and empower others. It takes a strong leader to get others to join your team and help you accomplish your mission and implement your vision. The above graphic helps to illustrate many attributes a leader must possess in order to create that capacity in a school to have others want to participate in the vision. What do each of these 10 traits mean do you? How do you personify them in your school day?

Outlining Your District’s Career Ladder

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 11.38.20 AM

All staff, from day one of their time in your organization, should know the leadership steps and ladders available to develop themselves in your district.  Is this discussion part of your hiring process?

Part of your new staff orientation?

Part of your on-boarding/induction programs?

If not, it should be!

Defining options for all types of leaders and learners in your district ensures that more people share the leadership vision for the district and see themselves as having a place and a future place within the organization.  

Defining options for growth and development mean that district leadership can be owned across more sectors and generations of the district.  When Collins talked about seats on the bus….people need to know what seats exist so they can understand where to sit!

Guiding Questions

In helping to build your district’s leadership ladder, it is important to provide guidance to your potential teacher leaders as they consider new opportunities.  Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf, in their book Lead Like a Pirate, talk about knowing when to take the leadership leap. Not only must you know the steps to take, but you need to know if you are ready for the leap; both go hand in hand. The following questions by Burgess and Houf are helpful guiding questions to consider before taking a leap:

  1. What is the purpose for wanting to make the leap?
  2. Are you moving into a situation that matches your passion and workstyle
  3. Who will this position change the quality of your life?
  4. Do you have supports in place to make this leap?
  5. Are you making the leap to have a greater impact of students or for personal gains
  6. What does your intuition tell you?
  7. How does your district systematically provide support for those making the leaps?

It is critical for teachers to answer these questions before moving up the ladder. Doing it for the wrong reasons can be disastrous to kids and to themselves personally.

Modeling and Mentoring

In the leadership realm, in corporate, creative and educational settings, the research literature on the power of modeling, mentoring and being “tapped” by a model leader for mentoring and leadership capacity building within an organization is deep.  

Modeling and mentoring are a deliberate process. It’s not enough to just have a newer leader observe and follow a more seasoned leader around.  There have to be conversations asking the leader to break down the layered and often internally-conducted processes of leading.  Demystifying the leadership process, having leaders break down their frameworks for thinking, ethics, sharing or decision-making help newer leaders use leadership templates from mentors to help shape their own emerging leadership repertoires.


Developing future educational and instructional leaders is important and essential work for current leaders both at the building and district level.  Schools require leadership focused on student growth and learning in positive and supportive school cultures. Identifying and providing opportunities for potential leaders within your district not only supports the career growth for these aspiring leaders, but it also can provide the continuity that supports success for your schools and district.  Allowing these leaders opportunities to engage in authentic tasks and make mistakes to reflect upon, further builds a culture of continuous learning, failing forward, and reflective practice.  

A Word from A Women’s Perspective on Capacity Building, Modeling, and Mentoring

      By Anna Nolin and Maureen Cohen

Research and popular media portrayals of women in leadership indicate that women are not tapped for leadership positions.  This is also true for women in educational leadership positions.

In fact, evidence indicates that at the superintendent level women participation is also significantly less than male counterparts. In a 2015 study of superintendencies by AASA, they found that only a quarter of superintendents were female.  Additionally, the study analyzed whether superintendents were hired from within the district or from a different district and determined that males were hired from inside their district at higher percentages than female counterparts.

Some reasons cited for this gap of women in leadership roles include:

  • Longer time spent by women in the roles as teachers than men, and a more diverse route taken to leadership positions than men
  • Many women choose to pass up opportunities to take on leadership roles due to a growing family
  • Underlying bias about what leadership should look like

Keeping all of this in mind, what can we do in our capacity building to ensure that we are encouraging and mentoring women to take on leadership roles?  

“Here is our story.” 

First, we had many mentors along the way who tapped us for leadership positions.  They literally tapped us on the shoulder and said, “You’d be great at this role, why don’t you try it?”  Maureen stills remember the moment one department chair handed her an application in the hallway and said, “You need to apply to be part of this leadership cohort.” Anna similarly remembers her director of human resources insisting she be included in principal training, leadership meetings and strategic planning conversations because he knew the district would benefit, even when her principal said he felt she should have children first and then consider leadership roles.

Second, women leaders need to build a network of support for younger women who might aspire to leadership positions.  

Maureen:  One of my greatest mentor is a colleague on this blog, Dr. Anna Nolin.  It was in my leadership cohort that she stood before me and shared her own research on how women can have a family and be a leader and be great at both.  It was because of her, that I learned that I did not have to put my career on hold just because I was having a family.  Men didn’t do that, why would I have to?

Anna:  Dr. Maureen Cohen and I have worked to capitalize on the network idea and have created a small women’s superintendent support network in our region.  This group is important to us and in our meetings, we are able to explore topics and needs we may not be able to explore within other state and district leadership meetings.

Third, women need to be offered a seat that the table.

Anna:  This is critical….like Maureen, I have been the beneficiary of many mentors who tapped me on the shoulder (men and women) and men who made a space for me at the right meetings, on the golf course and in training to lead in all aspects of the district.  Often times women suffer a confidence issue because there are not other women or few other women at the meetings to provide support or encouragement.  So being offered the seat and invited to participate, the confidence boost is there.  My current boss is masterful at this–he consistently puts me (and others he mentors) first to speak or points out the strengths we might have relative to the conversation or ideas at hand and generally makes it easier to be confident.

Maureen:  Not only do they need to be offered a seat that the table, but they also should be given a voice.  Sometimes a little bit of encouragement can go a long way in giving new women leaders the confidence they need to lean in and share their knowledge and opinions.  I have benefitted from people who have encouraged me after meetings by saying, “You should contribute more often to the conversation, as you have a lot to share.”  

We hope that you consider these personal reflections as a window into our personal experiences in leadership as you grow your own leadership ladders in your school districts, keeping in mind the importance of fostering women leaders in your process of unleashing your leadership bench.


The Power of Relationships

 “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” — James Comer

Coffee and Relationships:  Why Both Matter!

coffeeThere was an idea over morning coffee, maybe not a great one, but an idea; what if I was to get a group of colleagues to collaborate on a monthly blog. Would it work? Would people read it? Would there be value in it? Hey, at the very least it would be a reason to get together over dinner and exchange some ideas and catch up on the month. I had written a few blog posts throughout the summer and have read hundreds throughout the years. I have always found them to be insightful and thought-provoking and I always chuckle when someone would retweet or like one of my posts. It was an acknowledgement of what I said mattered or resonated with someone. So I floated the idea, and it was met with a resounding YES! We met over dinner, came up with a group name (very important), a catch phrase (Collaborative Reflections from Passionate Leaders), and decided on our first topic. What follows are our collective reflections on the importance of relationships as we start the school year.

The Power of What You Value

One of my tasks each year is to meet with new teachers at the start of the school year. Each of us in our roles as leaders has the chance to spend time with new teachers to kick off the school year. I truly enjoy this part of my job. It is an opportunity to welcome them to my district and community. They are eager to get to their classrooms and get started, but it is important for us to spend time as a group sharing our vision, team building, and getting them ready to start the school year off correctly. This introductory meeting is step one in building relationships with teachers and having them see the power of relationships.

How do you introduce your teachers to your district and school?  How do you share your values and beliefs with them?
'Worth' highlighted, under 'Value'Last week we had our new teacher induction program for almost 20 new teachers. As I spent time over the summer preparing for this introductory meeting, I made sure the focus of the time we spent together was centered around the importance of building relationships; this was critical to me. We did various team building activities to help staff get to know each other and also to help them begin thinking about what matters to them as teachers and educators. These activities helped people to get to know each other, think about their own core values and beliefs, provided them with some practical examples to implement with their students, but also focused on the importance of building relationships with kids. As we all know without those relationships being built and formed limited learning can occur. As Rita Pierson so bluntly put it, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”

How do you build relationships with you students on day 1…day 2…throughout the year?
importantAt the end of the first day,  I did an exit ticket with teachers and asked them for their takeaways. When I asked for a volunteer to share out, one hand went right up and said, “The Ashland Public Schools places significant value on building relationships with kids.” My mission was accomplished; they got it! As we start the school year, get to know kids, share something about yourself with them, show them you are human, make those connections, and build those relationships. The time you spend the first 3 days doing that will positively impact the other 177.

The Power of Your Name

Remember when you were in your own middle school years?  I can remember it like it was yesterday.  I was incredibly nervous upon entering my junior high school for the first time.  However, one person stood out, whose priority was making his students feel warm, safe, and welcomed, and that was our principal, Mr. Joseph Bishop.  He knew that the foundation of building a safe and welcoming environment for students was to connect with each student with intentionality, beginning with their name.

“Good morning, Mo!” he declared with a big smile as I entered school.

bishopYou see, Mr. Bishop used to stand outside my school entrance and every day as we entered the school as shy, slightly uncomfortable, awkward pre-teens, he would greet us with a big smile, give us a hello, and use our name.  I remember the first time he called me by my name,  and thought “How does he know who I am?”  When I realized he knew every student’s name…I was in awe.  Completely in awe. Thirty years later….I’m still talking about Mr. Bishop, a celebrated Gardner, MA  principal for over 25 years, because he took the time to learn my name.  

Many years later, at the age of 23, I started my own teaching career in an urban Massachusetts high school.  At this school, I had a morning duty in a hallway and was overwhelmed by the hundreds of students who passed me by and a veteran teacher provided me with some sage advice, which echoed the practice of Mr. Bishop years ago:

 “You have to learn their names, use their names, every time you see them, without fail.  It makes all the difference that you are noticing them and showing you are caring about them.  Even when they look away, or try to avoid you. Use their names. It shows that they matter.”

These stories came up in our new teacher orientation this week in Mendon-Upton, where we discussed the significance and impact of learning students’ names on the first day of school to build connections.  I asked our new teachers to picture in their mind someone who is really charismatic, warm, endearing, and fills the room with joy.  The kind of person you just want to be around.  Everyone closed their eyes and could quickly pinpoint THAT person in their mind.  

storyWhat qualities do these people exhibit?

  1.  They use your name, frequently.
  2.  They ask you questions about your life and they want to hear YOUR story
  3.  They listen with intentionality
  4. They provide positive feedback

What if we were THAT person for all of our staff and students?  What if we are Mr. Bishop standing at the doorway everyday greeting every student by name?  What if we are the teacher truly getting to know their students and take time to learn their stories? What if we are the building leader who listens with intentionality?  How far will a little positive feedback take our students?  

This year, the challenge is to be THAT person, for every child, on every day.

The Power of Community Learning

If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.

 –African Proverb

communityIn my role as assistant superintendent for teaching, learning and innovation, I am often asked what I do in my school system to help educators “innovate.”  The answer is not a sexy, shiny, high tech idea.  It’s a rather old-school one, but most important in a day and age when society defaults toward division, specialization and over-reliance on technology to do what people should still be doing.  Cultivate an authentic community of learning and you’ll find the ideal conditions to brew innovation–which I define to mean making adaptations in our profession that yield higher results for students in a more creative and satisfying manner than before.

There is no substitute for the learning relationship that exists between teachers and students and that relationship is enhanced when the teacher is part of a professional learning community (PLC) that moves beyond calling itself a PLC in name only.  The conditions for the highest quality teaching and the most innovative teaching are simple to recreate as noted in the graphic above.  A sense of community is established when, as Hill, Brandeau, Truelove and Lineback (2014) indicate, there is a clear sense of purpose within the learning organization, there is agreement on the what and why of shared values and the norms for engaging as professionals are defined.  These are simple ways to ensure that staffers can collaborate with each other in meaningful ways and in doing so create the most innovative learning environments for kids.  Innovation, therefore, rests on relationships.

Relationships Really Really Matter:  Treat People Well, Be Kind, and Listen

Relationships matter almost more than anything else.  Education at its core is a people business, and at the core of human interactions are relationships.  I once read somewhere that people do not really remember what you say (which in my case is often a very positive thing); they remember how you treat them.  It can be very powerful to purposefully treat everyone well.  This sounds easy, but when you are faced with competing priorities and multiple deadlines it can be challenging.  In education, particularly in larger schools or school districts, it can be very easy to forget that every student is the most important person in someone else’s life.  In the age of big data and data driven instruction the recent push for social emotional learning is a positive and important movement that is essential to teaching and developing the whole student. Every teacher is potentially a partner, parent, brother, sister, best friend, aunt, uncle, or grandparent.  This makes every teacher also the most important person in someone else’s life.  So the conclusion is clear, everybody is important and we need to treat them like they are important and treat them well.  If we all focused on this simple premise a little more our schools would be better places where positive interactions with others and customer service were an expected norm.  

The Dalai Lama said, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”  

Every interaction can be driven by kindness.  There are simple things we all can do to build relationships, make those connections, or show some kindness.  Sometimes we all forget a simple hello in passing, asking about someone else’s day or about some key aspect of their work can have an impact.  It does take a little effort, but the payoff is well worth it.  That being said, kindness should not be seen as transactional and a calculated game of quid pro quo.  This becomes quickly apparent if there is a lack of sincerity.  If you are kind to others the benefits will come back to you in building and supporting a positive climate and culture.    


In my role as superintendent I do a great deal of listening.  I regularly attend large, small, and individual meetings and listen to proposals, issues and problems, conflicts, new ideas, and for many other purposes.  It is very easy to become inattentive and drift to emails, texts, or social media.  It is much more effective and often more difficult to focus and listen attentively; but this is also when the best outcomes occur and the most positive relationships develop.  Active listening is becoming more challenging in the age of digital distractions.  As a leadership team we are all making an effort to be present and engaged during our meetings, and I am hoping this carries over into all meetings.  There are also times when the problem is not really solvable but just hearing someone can have a positive impact.  Sometimes just listening is enough and that is all a person needs.    

So to summarize, treat people well, be kind, and listen.  These three things can provide support and build positive relationships with others.  These are also things that are being taught in preschools and kindergartens across the country; the more we internalize those early lessons, the better off we will be.

Never Underestimate the Power of a Positive Relationship

I was lucky enough to spend the majority of my summer weekends on the Cape. Labor Day is always the symbolic end to summer. The air is different, days get shorter, nights get cooler, kids and teachers are back to school. This weekend was my “last weekend” on the Cape. Sitting with friends by the fire on Sunday night, they asked how the start of the school year had gone. I told them fantastic and gave them some highlights of the first week. As the conversation shifted, I had the moment to reflect on the start of the school year. Fresh starts, hope, optimism are just some themes that came to mind. But seeing the kids faces as they came off the bus, greeted by friendly and familiar faces of principals, assistant principals, teachers, staff, and faculty, I was reminded of the importance of relationships.

Good luck to everyone as we begin the 2017-2018 school year and remember to never underestimate the power of a positive relationship.