Shannon Buerk is the Founder and CEO of engage2learn, a leading provider of Education Intelligence through smart professional learning, job-embedded coaching, and related technology solutions since 2011. Educator turned entrepreneur, she has emerged as a thought leader on educational leadership, organizational culture, and systems thinking. Buerk recently published Connect the Dots: Utilizing Education Intelligence to Accelerate Growth, Retain Talent, and Optimize Outcomes.
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Connecting the Dots and Meaningful PD
What makes professional development effective? In my origin story, I often talk about PD that is too little, too late, unhelpful and disconnected. It was focused on the three pillars of education, academics, attendance, discipline, all very important by the way, but just not why I became an educator. You see, I was interested in topics like, how do you craft a meaningful school vision that actually guides the work of a school that people are actually excited about making a reality? I don’t know about you. I absolutely hate hard conversations. They’re difficult, they’re uncomfortable, and I have to do a lot of work and practice to even have them and have them hopefully effectively. And then there comes to the idea of equity. We know that inequitable systems exist in school. Ages ago when I became an educator, it wasn’t so sexy to talk about, but I wanted to make school a place where all kids could succeed and thrive.
Nobody was having those conversations back then. I wanted to make a ruckus. We’ve created a community that offers responsive, relevant, and results-oriented pd. But today’s guest, Shannon Buerk, who is the founder and CEO of Engage to Learn, wrote a wonderful book called Connect the Dots. It’s all about and focused on providing great development for our teachers, the biggest lever in our building that can create the most impact and add the most value to our school community. Hey, it’s Danny, chief Ruckus Maker over at Better Leaders, better Schools. Thanks for listening to today’s podcast. This show is for Ruckus Makers, those leaders who are investing in their continuous growth. They are challenging the status quo, and they’re designing the future of school now. We’ll be right back with our main episode right after some messages from our show sponsors.
Take the next step in your professional development with a Harvard Certificate and school management and leadership. Learn from Harvard Business and Education School faculty while you collaborate with a global network of fellow school leaders. Programs run from February 15th to March 15th, 2023. Apply by Friday, February 3rd, enrolled by Thursday, February 9th. For our upcoming cohort at BetterLeadersBetterschools.com/harvard. School Leaders know that productive student talk drives student learning, but the average teacher talks 75% of class time. Give your students more opportunities to learn in class by monitoring the talk time for teachers and students. Check out Teach FX for yourself, and learn about our special partnership options for Ruckus Makers@teachfx.com/blbs. All students have an opportunity to succeed with Organized Binder who equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning, whether that’s in a distance, hybrid, or traditional educational setting. Learn email@example.com. Here we are with another Ruckus Maker, Shannon Buerk, the founder and CEO of Engage to Learn, a leading provider of education intelligence through smart, professional learning, job embedded coaching and related technology solutions. Since 2011, educator turned entrepreneur, she has emerged as a thought leader on educational leadership, organizational culture, and systems thinking. Buerk recently published Connect the Dots, utilizing Education Intelligence to accelerate growth, retain talent, and optimize outcomes, which of course, we recommend all ruck speakers Pick up a copy of Connected Dots. Shannon, welcome to this show.
Thank you, Danny. I’m excited. We’re gonna have a fun time.
We are already having a fun time. This is great. Shannon, you and your sister had massively different experiences in school from what I remember regarding our intro calls. Do you mind just telling us that story?
Of course. My sister’s 15 months younger than I am, and we grew up, I would say we were poor. My parents were young and scrappy, and it was kind of the luck of the draw, what teachers we got in school. They didn’t request teachers or anything like that. I had a really good school experience. I loved school and I had a really good experience, and my sister didn’t have the same experience. She asked a lot of questions, she was curious minded, and she ended up dropping out of school and I was valedictorian. If you believe in IQ, which I don’t know that I do, but we are only two IQ points apart.
IQ wasn’t that issue. Obviously, it changed her life trajectory, when you’re a high school dropout, you have a different life trajectory. When you’re a valedictorian and first generation college student. So that really inspired me to become a teacher because I know what her gifts are. She is a brilliant, empathetic, very empathetic person, very charismatic. She just has a lot of gifts to give to the world. What inspired me to become a teacher was knowing I could help students that maybe didn’t fit the mold discover their gifts and be able to use those in the world. That was my inspiration for saying, ” I wanna do that.” And then I learned, after getting into education, you can even have impact beyond that.
In terms of getting into education, helping students figure out their gifts and that nobody falls through the cracks kind of thing. Reflecting back, did it influence you in any other ways that maybe you haven’t considered in a minute or that kind of thing?
A great question. I would say “yes,” because it caused me to really become a fan of, and a student of neuroscience and mental health. Again, my sister’s trajectory has been different than mine. She’s dealt with a lot of mental illness, addiction, and a lot of things. It put me on a path where I also wanted to understand nutrition. How the brain works, how does sleep impact the brain? What addiction is really about mental wellness and mental health and how that impacts people. I’ve studied those things for a long time. It’s great to learn also about how different people learn. I studied learning styles back in the day, intelligences and how their brain works and what we can do to truly engage all learners.
I applied that in my classroom, and then of course, in my work now, in making sure that we’re really doing what we need to do to differentiate the overused word, but to truly engage all learners that may be thinking in learning in different ways. And that’s been really fun to see how that impacts folks. Even in my first year of teaching I applied that and it was really, really great to see students who maybe had been in the system the whole time as seniors, finally getting the aha and feeling I’m not dumb. I learned differently. Those kinds of things. I would say that’s a great question that you asked me and I hadn’t thought about it that way, but that really inspired that kind of work and study as well.
Thanks for the gratitude around the question. I appreciate that. What’s interesting is, I don’t know that it’s super consistent, but certainly in classrooms educators are doing more differentiation and trying to personalize for learners. What do you think going on though with adults? There’s such a gap. We’ll do it for students, and then I stand in front of my staff and I just give this terribly boring lecture.
You’re going down a dangerous road with me.
Come on, let’s go, let’s!
That is the ruckus that I wanna make. Thankfully it’s amazing. We are now seeing all kinds of tools and strategies and people are so much more aware of and implementing how to personalize and individualize and differentiate for learners. It’s kind of like a given now. I used to ask a question when I would meet with communities and parents and say, how many of you have more than one child? People like, raise their hand? How many of your children think and act exactly the same? It’s a crazy thought. Of course not even twins don’t. But then in adults, professional learning is still so bad.
That’s a simple way to say it. People just dread it. You sit there and it’s like, how do we expect people to do something different in their classroom when what we’re modeling at the PD level is that? How do we expect to meet? The adults in that room are even more differentiated in terms of their needs than in a classroom, because you’re talking about all different levels of experience and age and every, all different kinds of assignments and life experiences and all the different things. To think that one size fits all is gonna work for adults is yikes,
Yikes, that’s right. I talk about my origin story and that kind of thing, and people have heard it enough. I’m not gonna go through the whole deal. When I think about the professional development I was experiencing and then why I started this show, to talk with people smarter than me like you, and learn from your stories of success and failure and take action on something you taught me, I figured that would make me better. I had a name for that kind of pd, I would call it too little too late, unhelpful and disconnected. I think that summarizes that experience. I don’t know if you have a word for it actually, throw that away cuz what makes PD more effective you think? Consider it sometimes a relic of the past. How can we make it meaningful for adults?
Okay, well this is what I’ve spent basically my 30 plus years in education focused on. I think you and I both agree on this,, the most important lever is the teacher. And the most important thing we can do is to make a system better and to make it better for the people is for people to have an opportunity to grow. We have clients like you said, Relic from the past evaluation, pd, all of those pieces are really outdated modes that we need to throw out. I’m gonna tell you a super quick story that I heard the other day that just drives us home again. A friend of mine was telling me about his father who is a 30 year special education teacher.
He has been teaching for 30 years and special ed. He told his son when he was about to retire, he said, this year I’m not gonna go to PD cuz I’ve wasted 30 years. I’m just not showing up. In my last year, I’m choosing this year. And it’s like this band who has done an amazing thing in meeting the needs of special needs students for 30 years has been projected to be irrelevant and a waste of his time. How hard that job is. It brought it home to me once again. I was just like, oh my goodness. Your question was not why is it so bad, but what do we do differently? There’s three things.
The first thing is you have to strategically abandon what’s not working, which includes that one size fits all pieces. It’s easy enough to differentiate and it’s very difficult to do in terms of systems. The first step in that is looking at the system as more competency based. Saying, what are the competencies? And there’s a ton of research out there on that. Of course we’ve curated the research and we’ve built out competencies. Those are available to folks in that way. But there’s a lot of other people that have done a lot of work around this too. Here are the competencies and then building those out in like levels so that there are standards and ways for people to get on the competencies and then aligning every, all the professional growth to that.
It’s not super difficult to do this. It does require redesigning the PD system. The reason why competencies will make a big difference is because it gives me a progression over time. It gives me agency over my own professional growth. It gives me the opportunity to differentiate for every person if I’m the PL provider. Like everybody’s competencies, but they might choose different ones depending on what’s relevant to them. They might self-assess and say, I’ve got these four down, I still need these seven, whatever it is. And then they can even within the competencies, set goals okay, I wanna work more on, let’s just say everybody knows this is an important one, formative assessment and feedback, sure of a competency. I wanna work more on that. I set a goal, I self-assess, and then I have really clear tangible behaviors of how I can move through that process and resources align to it that I can apply and practice.
So the first thing is, you make it all competency based. The second thing I think we really have to do is provide some equitable systems of support. We talk about equity for learners too, but what about equity for adults? We talk about agency for learners. What about agencies for adults? In professional learning providing that support, it doesn’t have to be a person all the time, and it doesn’t have to be a coach all the time. There’s other people in the system who can provide peer support. There’s automated ways of getting support, there’s resources, et cetera. But aligning all of that to competency. I’m seeing a progression over time. And then the third thing is creating a growth based system where I’m recognized and valued for the growth that I’m making as a professional rather than an evaluation system that basically is deficit based, I guess you would say a growth based system. I’m getting recognition as I’m making that progress. Those are the three things I think we need
Makes a lot of sense. I think you hit it on the head. I really appreciate that. And you’re talking about how to differentiate PD for educators there, which is super cool. Let’s talk a bit about the book. You see it on the shelf there, connect the dots. What are the dots being connected?
Great question. I’ve tried to dig in and been in the business for a long time, it’s just like saying, “okay, where can we change something, make an elegant solution?” We need an elegant solution, whatever we wanna do to change the system. I appreciate the Ruckus Makers, we can’t add a lot more to the plate because people are overwhelmed, overloaded and that doesn’t help. What’s an elegant solution? And I feel like when I really analyze that over time now, it’s like, okay, so if we want it to be a growth-based system, we need to measure what we really value, the way the system is set up. Now we’re measuring or we’re really not measuring educator growth at all. We’re really not measuring anything for educators. The idea of Connect the Dots is we’re doing all this student data analysis.
Which it’s crazy, but actually there’s reports that say that doesn’t actually do anything that business review came out and said all the student data analysis and data driven instruction isn’t actually impacting student outcomes. But the reason I feel like is or what the research is showing is because it’s not actually connected to the inputs. So we are looking at all this student data, but we’re never saying, what are we doing? So you can figure out where the gaps are in the student data, but you don’t know what to double down on, what to do differently, what to keep doing. But if we connected growth and competencies to the student outcomes, then we could say, oh look, when someone has these competencies, they get these outcomes when they’re growing and progressing on this, on this spectrum and then you know what to do on the front end.
You know what the inputs are, you know how to change it. So it really just connects the dots. It is about connecting the inputs and the outcomes so that people have access to insights, not just, oh, this is where the kids didn’t get it, but also, what can I do differently? Every educator wants to know that instead of that being random or I’m just searching for it online, I actually have a way to see, because of my measurable educator growth, I can see the connection and I can makedecisions based on those insights. It’s kinda like business intelligence. The idea of education intelligence is. Let’s have those connected
If you or or your team could maybe send that, if you know where that HBR article is, I’d love to read it and pass it on along to the community. Again, encourage all the Ruckus Makers to pick up, connect the dots. But I love what you were riffing on in terms of the inputs. That’s something I’m always talking to Ruckus Makers about, because we’ll set the goals and they’re good goals and we want higher student achievement, better attendance, all that kind of stuff. But you actually don’t control it. That’s the joke. You know what I mean? But you do control your what you put into it and that’s where the focus needs to be. That’s what you measure. Those are the things you could tweak.
I love to use it as just an example of a scale because everybody thinks about weight and that kind of stuff, but if you have some sort of goal, right, fitness-wise, by the time you step on the scale, it’s too late. You can’t do anything about it. But you can choose what you put in your mouth, you can choose how often you work out, and those are inputs and you know, people tend to get that example. Appreciate what you were sharing there. Earlier you talked about teachers, right? Being the leverage point and teachers as talent is something you believe. How can a Ruckus Maker, leading a school, really communicate that we believe you’re the foundation of the school? That you matter a lot. Us developing you and making sure your job’s not more difficult than it needs to be. You are talking about adding to the plate. How can they communicate that and act in ways that are actually received?
I love that question. It makes me sad when I hear, and we do hear it a lot because we work with a lot of teachers and a lot of schools that they don’t feel valued or they don’t feel recognized for what they’re doing. I think the first thing is evidence-based recognition. It goes a long way. It impacts the culture. It communicates that you’re valued and not just because of a popularity contest or because I like you, but because your work is really aligned to these outcomes. And I value what you’re doing. I value how you’re growing as a professional. I think evidence-based recognition is really critical and can be a complete game changer. You also mentioned that analogy, and I love that analogy too. I talk about it a lot. Likewe all want biofeedback right now.
How many steps am I taking today and all these things? And that helps me to grow in the ways that I have set my goals for. Again, the same thing in education as a leader, if I can find ways to actually give valuable feedback every professional really wants that specific valuable feedback. Every educator wants that, but I don’t believe this is another kind of what not to do. I don’t believe that going into people’s classrooms and looking over their shoulders and whispering in their ear while they’re trying to teach is the way to do it.
I’ve actually even heard people say, well, there’s this thing called whisper coaching. I’m like, what in the world!What professional should be subjected to that? None. The idea of evidence-based recognition and evidence-based feedback based on evidence of practice is what I think can truly change the culture. It puts, again, the agency back in the professional’s hands and you’re saying like, oh, here’s a piece of evidence of practice that I’d like feedback on, and they’re giving feedback. I mean, that’s very different than I’m gonna pop into your room and surprise you and tell you something and give you that kind of feedback. I think changing it around to where it’s recognition for the work that they’re doing, but it’s evidence based and elevating teachers’ talent always. Obviously collaborating with them and having a role in decision making and those kinds of things as well. Really important.
Yeah, super important. That specific and genuine praise. I really appreciate you sharing that. We read a book ages ago in the Mastermind. Radical candor, general feedback. Like, you’re great. Okay, that’s really nice but you’re great because in showing that you’re really paying attention that matters a lot. We might have to do a second show on whisper coaching, potentially.
We’ll see about that. Shannon, I’m really enjoying our conversation. We’re gonna take a quick break here for some messages from our sponsors. But when we get back, I’d love to hear about your perspective around teacher prep programs, certification and evaluation. They’re not as successful. Navigate change, shape your school’s success and empower your teams with Harvard’s certificate and school management and leadership. Get an online PD that fits your schedule. Courses include leading change, leading school strategy in innovation, leading people, and leading learning. Apply today at BetterLeadersbetterschools.Com/Harvard. Teachers have the power to impact children’s lives in almost immeasurable ways. And as an instructional leader, as much as you’d love to provide every teacher the support they need to learn and grow, you can’t be with every teacher in every classroom and whispering to them either. Teach FX is a whole new way to provide instructional leadership at scale and in a way that’s teacher centered.
Teachers use Teach FX to record a lesson and automatically get personalized private feedback to guide their own self-reflection. See Teach FX for yourself and learn about special partnership options for blbs firstname.lastname@example.org/BLBS. And today’s show is proudly sponsored by Organized Binder, a program which gives students daily exposure to goal setting, reflective learning time, and task management, study strategies, organizational skills, and more organized binders. Color coded system is implemented by the teacher through a parallel process with students, helping them create a predictable and dependable classroom routine. You can learn more and improve your students’ executive email@example.com. We’re back with Shannon Buerk, founder and CEO of Engage to Learn, and we highly recommend you check out her book, Connect the Dots, utilizing education intelligence to accelerate growth, retain talent, and optimize outcomes. Shannon, you have a Ruckus Maker perspective when it comes to teacher prep programs, certification, and we’ve heard a bit about evaluation, but can you tell us that perspective?
I have never met an educator that felt like including myself and I went to a great school, but that felt like they were prepared for teaching from their teacher prep program. All candor, I how could you, right? How could I be prepared prior to getting in the classroom, even with an internship or whatever. Again, we’re in a time where we really need to be thinking about these things seriously and thinking about them from the Ruckus Maker point of view. What can we do differently with those? Funny story, my daughter is actually, who is a college graduate, was in residential architecture design. Now she wants to become a teacher. She said, mom, I know you’ve always said that you can’t get prepared for it through a teacher prep program.
You’re really not prepared for it. She said, I think I wanna become a teaching assistant and like, get in the classrooms and see what’s really happening and that’ll help me. Which she’s doing right now. She’s been doing it for two weeks and already she’s like, “oh, wow, I get it now.” Like, like how could you get prepared outside of that. I really feel like we need to take a hard look at this where we can do a lot more on the job embedded coaching, king of the master teacher, mentor teacher idea, but getting folks, again, based on competencies, but while you’re in that mode of actually being able to apply it as you go along, because the time, money and energy that it takes to go through those programs and really not getting the results.
Everyone knows the issues with all as well. It’s a step in the right direction because taking being able to say, well, I already have a degree and now can I quickly accelerate into a teaching role because a lot of folks with another career do have great perspective to bring to the classroom. I think it’s fabulous. Again, the kind of the jump through the hoops part of that is a barrier that I don’t think we need to have. We need more folks in the classroom. We know we’re in a crisis and a shortage, and if we can provide the one-on-one support, individualized support going forward based on competence as people are applying ’em in the classroom, I think we’re gonna get a lot farther, we’re gonna have better results, and folks are gonna feel a lot more prepared. We worked with a lot of all teachers and that we’re struggling mildly. Not saying that just because they’re all cert, they will be, but just within a year of supporting them on competencies, they’re like confident, ready to go. Here we go. So let’s take off the barriers why do we have to do, why do we have to pile more on instead of piling more on let’s the barriers and just do that competency based job embedded piece?
Yeah, I don’t always ask my guests this question, but I suspect I’m gonna enjoy your answer. Hopefully that’s not setting you up, but, so part of being a Ruckus Maker, is investing in your continuous growth. I’m genuinely curious,Shannon working on her mindset and skills?
That’s a great question. In our organization, that’s one of the foremost things that’s like, what are you doing to grow all the time. I always gotta get better. I would say I mostly grow from interacting with amazing people and learning from people like you and people on my team. I learn from every person I meet. I get to work with a lot of superintendents. I just was working and doing a superintendent kind of thing this week and hearing from them. Also I read everything. Right now I’m reading, Being Wrong, I’m reading the book called Deep Work Newport. I’m rereading the Knowing Doing Gap. The advice trap is always like, oh my nightstand, because we gotta keep reading that one over and over. I’m constantly reading and then of course, podcasts and learning. I like to learn from social media. I think there’s a lot of great stuff on Twitter and LinkedInt that are quick bites as well. . I would say all those avenues.
Cool advice. I forget his first name. Is it the Michael Bunge standard? Is that him? He did the coach habit too. Another phenomenon.
Yes, which is great. I love it. I love the questions, that book is fabulous. Advice trap is a good great follow on that helps you get to that next piece of it as well. And you know, if you implement those, you’re learning from everybody all the time because you’re not trying to give people advice. You’re like trying to take stuff in more open up
This is advice as a call to action Ruckus Makers. So go get, Connect the Dots, one, two, then get my book mastermind job with the school leader, and then get the coaching cabinet in the advice chair in that order. Okay. What message Shannon, would you put on all school marquees around the globe if you could do so for just a day?
Well, of course it would connect the dots. Educator growth. It would connect the dots: educator growth always leads to student growth, and it’s true. If people understood that they would invest more in educator growth and they would understand that, they would understand the connection. I do feel like, like I said, because we haven’t connected the dots, a lot of times it feels like programs or technology or all these other things get the credit for the student outcomes, but then if it doesn’t go right the teacher gets the blame for not implementing it with Fidelity, but really it’s the teacher the whole time either way. Connect the dots:Educator growth always leads to student growth.
And if you’re building your dream school with no limitations in terms of resources. Your only limitation was your imagination. How would Shannon build her dream school? What would be the three guiding principles?
Such a great question. I’ve actually worked with a lot of architects and a lot of design work over the years. I actually worked with an architecture firm for a while. I think the normal response might be about the learning environment and all the technology and all those things, but that is not what I’m gonna answer. I’m gonna say there are three things, and if you put these things in place, everything else will happen. Everything else will come. One is a culture of growth. That’s a guiding principle that everybody’s always growing. If we do that and we’re constantly iterating, we put the culture of growth in place, which includes the recognition for that. And that’s what we’re measuring, that’s what we’re looking at. That’s gonna, that really makes a difference. It’s gonna lead to a thriving community, I would say.
The second is agency making sure again, that every human in that system is able to set their own goals and kind of drive their pathway with support and resources and all those things being part of that, because you put those two things in place. Of course, connected data so that we’re looking at the whole picture. We’re using data to inform what’s happening, not drive it. I do not believe in data driving things, cuz there’s a lot more to the picture and the context. But Connected data allows us to really have insights and not spin around analyzing the data all the time, but seeing what’s, what the connected data is happening. We cannot also in education wait for reports to be research reports and control studies. I mean, yes, we need those and we have those, but we need to be able to be agile in the moment and have some formative connected data as we go along.
Brilliant. Well, Sharon, you’ve been a lovely guest. We covered a lot of ground in everything we talked about today. What’s the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember?
I would say that every educator needs a coach, not a critic. Support needs to be scaled across all of education and we have to convert PD from a burden to a benefit for people.
Thanks for listening to The Better Leaders, Better Schools podcast Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel@BetterLeadersbetterschools.com or hit me up on Twitter at @Alienearbud. If the Better Leaders, better Schools podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode. Extra credit for tagging me on Twitter at @Alien earbud.
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