April 13, 2010 21:38 Age: 8 yrs

Keeping a Focus on the *What* While Paying Close Attention to the *How*

Category: Home, Maia Heyck-Merlin
By: Maia Heyck-Merlin

As Achievement First has grown from our flagship Amistad Academy in 1999 to 17 college-preparatory academies serving students in grades K to 12 across central Brooklyn and in three cities in Connecticut, we have become increasingly systematic about gathering data on how our AF Team & Family feels about their connection to the mission of their work, how satisfied and motivated they are with their work environment, and how they are growing and learning in their roles. We *could* choose to be an organization that focuses with tunnel vision on our bottom line -- student achievement -- and we could still be a wildly successful organization. However, we believe that view is short-sighted and will not help us achieve the level of impact we want to reach over time. We have learned that not only *what* we do matters, but *how* we get there matters equally as much.

This was definitely not the sentiment I felt when teaching in a conventional public school in Baton Rouge as a fourth-grade teacher. I felt like teaching was positioned as a punch-in/punch-out job, riddled with rules and nonsensical bureaucracy -- and that the fire I felt about social justice was dampened daily. It's this memory that has led me to push our organization to pay close attention to *how* our teachers and leaders feel in their work, how connected they are to our mission, and how supported they feel on a daily basis. Since I joined AF as the Chief Talent Officer in 2007, we have administered an annual survey to our entire network that is now over 500 full-time team members. Each winter I spend time with our school and network leaders reviewing the results and creating action plans to celebrate our points of success and tackle our areas of growth.

We have a lot to celebrate, including a few of these highlights: 95% of our team members agree or strongly agree they feel they are contributing to the AF mission; 88% of folks agree or strongly agree that in the last six months, a principal, dean or coach has helped them identify strengths and areas of growth; 93% agree or strongly agree someone at work cares about them as a person. One great teacher said, "I see my colleagues working very hard to ensure that their lessons are as rigorous and as engaging as possible. I also enjoy the fact that my school team is highly open, honest and communicative with one another. I find this hard work and communication incredibly inspiring." Another teacher said, "I have never been at a school before where I received so much feedback that has allowed me to grow as a teacher and as an individual." We are proud that our teacher retention rate has stayed in the 80% to 85% rate for the past three years – our aim is to retain every teacher who is doing a great job with their kids.

The only way to deliver on our promises to students and families is to redefine what it means to be a successful teacher and *how* teachers work on a daily basis. As the principal of Amistad-Elm City High says, "We constantly talk about lessons and great teaching together. We share files, co-plan, observe each other, watch videos of each other’s lessons, analyze student work together and even step in to help each other teach." We need to recruit and retain a team of highly effective, dedicated individuals who are excited to learn, grow and contribute to our important mission. Education should not be a system of isolated islands of greatness, and ensuring AF is a culture of sharing, reflection and rigorous growth in our craft pushes us all to be better. AF does a lot of the *what* that many successful education reform organizations put into action -- more time on task, rigorous, college-preparatory curriculum and increased professional development opportunities. Simultaneously, we have worked to redefine *how* we hold ourselves accountable to success. We want and will achieve great results -- and we will do so by ensuring our people are regularly (formally and informally) recognized, deeply connected to the emotional core of our mission, and contributing and giving input about their work environment. Achievement First cares deeply about the motivation and happiness of our team simply because having happy teachers and leaders leads to better outcomes -- and it is the right thing to do.