School District Unplugs to Get Teachers Talking

May 2, 2016

When Mesa County Valley School District 51 wanted to get their teachers talking about large initiatives like performance-based learning, professional learning, and educator effectiveness, they faced a challenge — their size.

D51 is the 12th largest district in Colorado. Reaching out to staff at over 44 sites seemed daunting — until they partnered with The Colorado Education Initiative’s Accelerator Liaison Project. It’s designed to equip teacher-leaders with technical support, best practices in professional learning, instruction, and data analysis, and networking opportunities.

D51 middle school teacher Paula Cooper spoke with us about her role as one of the district’s teacher liaisons who helped create an innovative solution to gather honest feedback from teachers across the district — it’s called D51 Unplugged.

How did CEI’s Liaison Project help you design the D51 Unplugged idea?

We started out talking about our D51 liaison cohort as a way to create an honest conversation between all stakeholders, and creatively line up action plans with district initiatives. When we started to work on our action plan we came to realize that communication between district leaders and teachers was missing. We began to talk about how we could develop a two-way communication cycle and use our district liaisons to encourage the idea with our teachers. That’s when we came up with D51 Unplugged.

How were the events structured to get the most valuable feedback from teachers?

We deliberately did not invite district administration. We didn’t turn them away, but our first phase was focused on listening to the teacher voice. We tried to create a neutral setting purposely designed where people could be vulnerable, but still feel very safe to share their concerns and frustrations. Our chief academic officer had a specific question at the first event about professional learning and wanted to hear honest feedback. We wanted people to come to talk, but we didn’t want it to turn into a gripe session, so we asked them to come prepared to talk about possible solutions. We always receive district newsletters and other information about the great things going on in our schools, but face-to-face conversations allow us to really listen and ask clarifying questions.

What was the reaction from teachers?

We weren’t sure how many teachers would show up. Forty teachers showed up to the kickoff event, and we were pleased with the conversations we started. From their feedback we decided to hold another event to build on that momentum. Everyone has a different perspective and we need to get all stakeholders involved — we are all the district.

What’s your advice for colleagues on facing change in their districts?

Be brave and be bold and take the risks — it takes one pebble to start a landslide. You have to find the ways to move levers to make change happen. We’re excited about carrying on these conversations with key people involved in our district. The conversations are the first part and then we will use design thinking to find creative ways to address the problems we identify.