Instructional Partners Network: The Next Generation!

By Dr. Robbie Smith
Orange Beach Middle & High School
Baldwin County (AL) Schools

Go back a few years with me. 2011 to be exact. I was a new principal at Discovery Middle School in Madison City and received word I would be attending an Instructional Partners Network retreat. Huh? What in the world was that?

Your instructional partner (coach) will attend 3 days and principals will attend one. The location was the beautiful Children’s Harbor on Lake Martin. I walked in without much of a clue about what we were doing and what was happening, but I walked out a much better administrator with a new mindset – instructional focus and teacher growth. Many more excellent retreats followed in those 2 years of IPN, but this first meeting of the first cohort was the most memorable for me.

That first cohort was a special group. We were a mixed bag of principals, teachers, coaches and district office staff. Most all of us have moved on to other positions in leadership, a few are consulting, and some have journeyed into retirement. But during that cohort year we formed a special bond both professionally and personally – and I know we all went on to make an impact in our schools.

As an educator, I find being around like-minded people is invigorating. As in all areas of professional life, there are those individuals who can drain you of your enthusiasm and even attempt to crush your spirit. IPN gave us a place to dig deep into the work and fuel our passion for our profession.

Fast forward to Fall 2021

I received a call from Cathy Gassenheimer at the Alabama Best Practices Center about the Instructional Partners Network making a comeback and would my school like to send a team? Before she got it out of her mouth I was responding with a big Yes!!!

I did not attend the first meeting in December, but sent two teachers and our curriculum leader. They could not contain their enthusiasm! We’d already started some things that are going to improve our school, and I couldn’t help but smile when I got pictures and texts of the wonderful things they were learning at this year’s first IPN session to further our initiative.

Just last week I was able to attend this year’s second IPN retreat at beautiful Camp McDowell. It is still SUCH a special group. I soon realized as I met all the participants that I was the last still-attending member from the 2011 cohort. My colleagues from a decade ago would be proud of this crowd.

What an honor to work alongside younger folks who have the passion to improve! Who understand the importance of peer coaching, feedback, and sound teaching strategies. I felt like a proud mama as I observed the group in attendance – administrators, instructional partners and coaches, district office people – the same mixed bag Cathy and her colleagues had gathered back in 2011, with the same goal to improve education for Alabama students.

As we learned in our two days of discussion last week, there are some amazing people doing amazing things in our great state. If you don’t believe me go to Oxford City or Jefferson County or Attalla City or Athens City or Tuscaloosa County or Russellville City or Elmore County or Choctaw County or Talladega County or Orange Beach (humbly) or Madison City or Madison County. See for yourself what is going on and how we are working to improve instruction and student success.

And Just What Is This New IPN All About?

Thank you for indulging my walk down memory lane. Now you’d probably like to know what exactly is going on in this IPN world?

Have you ever seen a basketball game in which time was running out and the team with the ball was down 1 point with only a few seconds left? And that team executes a last shot play perfectly to get the opportunity to win the game? The shot may go in or they may miss, but the execution is what gave them the chance.

In the Instructional Partners Network, we look at the execution – in this case, at the instructional coaching in our school. Just as that last play looks differently for teams based on their personnel, coach’s philosophy and preparation, the same holds true for execution of the proper coaching of teachers and how it works in each school. The goal of IPN is that we have the knowledge to execute the best play we can. We take that knowledge and mold it to fit our particular situation.

In our 2011 IPN cohort I was introduced to the work of Jim Knight. Our guiding text was his now-classic book Unmistakable Impact. We spent time exploring the Partnership Principles of Equality, Choice, Voice, Dialogue, Reflection, Reciprocity and Praxis and how these principles impacted adult learning.


How would we (my school’s Instructional Partner and myself) use these principles to create an environment of growth and trust in our school? I will tell you that – to be effective – a good partner/coach has to find their place and first build relationships of trust. Understanding Jim Knight’s principles is key to securing that trust.

In 2021/2022, as the Instructional Partners Network resurfaces to serve a new generation of professional learning leaders, Jim Knight is our guide once again – this time with two texts, Unmistakable Impact and his 2017 book The Impact Cycle. Choosing to use Knight’s impactful body of work once again really underscores the importance of understanding those Partnership Principles and that they have withstood the test of time.

To give you a taste of what the IPN work comprises, this is just one of three PPT slides outlining the learning targets for our first 2021-22 IPN retreat this past December.

The Instructional Partners Network is the type of training you want all your coaches and teacher leaders to experience. The networking and conversations that happen in these two-day retreats do not happen anywhere else. It is an opportunity with one focus and one outcome – improvement.

The Work Is in Good Hands

So, as this proud mama sat in that room last week with all those young and exciting educators, I was feeling many different emotions, but mostly pride. Pride about the decade of “unmistakable impact” that the Instructional Partners Network has already engendered. Pride in the fact that I am part of this new IPN leadership wave. Pride in what we are accomplishing and pride in my team and the great things that will be reflected in our school. Pride in the future of education and my profession.

As the membership of IPN/The Next Generation sets out to launch new adventures in educational excellence, I have a full heart – knowing the work is in good hands.

Supporters of the new Instructional Partners Network

Dr. Robbie Smith has been a principal in Alabama public schools for 11 years. During her long educational career she has has led the transition of two schools – one from 7-9 to 7-8 and another from 6-8 to 7-8 – and in 2019 opened a new school in Orange Beach (a combination middle/high) from the ground up with the goal of “growing teachers into teacher leaders.”

Her experience in elementary and secondary education has included roles as classroom teacher, guidance counselor, instructional coach and administrator. She earned an EdD in Educational Leadership and Administration from Phoenix University and a Master’s in Secondary Education and Teaching from Jacksonville State.