Cathy’s Goodbye: “Round and Round in the Circle Game”

By Cathy Gassenheimer
Executive Vice President
Alabama Best Practices Center

“And the seasons, they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return, we can only look
Behind, from where we came
And go round and round and round, in the circle game”

—Joni Mitchell, The Circle Game

The lyrics of Joni Mitchell, one of my very favorite musicians, came to mind as I thought about writing this, my last post for the ABPC Blog.

Looking Back from Where We Came

It’s hard to imagine that I’ve been with the A+ Education Partnership for 31 years, and the Alabama Best Practices Center since its inception in 1999. Can I now admit how frightened I was to start a brand-new organization designed to serve educators when I had never taught K-12?

Fortunately, countless educators stepped up to advise and help me. I learned then the valuable lesson of listening to the wise advice of those doing the work and trying to shape the organization based on what they wanted and needed.

When we started the Best Practices Center, the state of professional learning, or “inservice” as it was mostly called back then, was pretty dismal. There were lots of summer one-shot workshops, after-school “make-and-take” sessions, and well-meaning inspirational speakers, but not many offerings that honored the knowledge of participants and focused on pressing instructional issues.

Around that time, Learning Forward, then known as the National Staff Development Council, released new professional learning standards. Those standards helped the ABPC focus on the main thing: professional learning. With the help of consultant Dale Hair, we developed a self-assessment process for teacher teams in schools. The self-assessment led them through a facilitated dialogue where they discussed their current professional learning against the NSDC standards. These discussions were truly powerful conversations.

Starting the Networks

We convened the first 16 schools that participated in the self-assessment to get feedback about next steps. They wanted more. They wanted to meet and discuss instruction and professional learning with each other on an ongoing basis. That was the beginning of the Powerful Conversations Network. Creation of the Key Leaders Network followed shortly thereafter as school-and district-based administrators expressed their desire to have a forum for ongoing networking and learning.

Learning by Doing

Knowing that my learning curve was still very steep, I read every book about professional learning, professional learning communities, and instruction that I could put my hands on. And national consultants like the late Rick DuFour, educators across the state, and my good friend, editor and mentor John Norton, were very generous and responded to my questions and recommended additional readings.

But my greatest learning came from the networks themselves. Listening to educators who worked every day in schools and districts talk about their successes, challenges, needs, and desires helped me grow and learn how to connect them to the type of professional learning they wanted and needed.

Yet, I still didn’t feel qualified to do what I was doing – think the imposter syndrome. And that’s when I met Jackie Acree Walsh. At the time, Jackie worked with one of the federally supported regional education labs. Living in Montgomery, she was ready and willing to work closer to home. Jackie joined the ABPC as a senior consultant and became the primary designer and developer of the network’s professional learning. She also became a key mentor to me. With her addition to the team, our networks participation more than doubled!

Our Second Decade

Then, in 2011, we added a new cutting-edge network to our portfolio: The Instructional Partners Network (IPN). Thankfully, Jim Knight, an expert on instructional coaching and author of numerous books on the subject, helped guide us in its development. Jim’s influence on the IPN is immeasurable: he introduced us to the partnership principles and the type of instructional coaching that works!

Our work took another leap forward with the happy discovery of EL Education founder Ron Berger’s revelatory book Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools Through Student-Engaged Assessment. Ron, a lifelong educator who began his teaching in a small school in rural Masschusetts, crafted a roadmap for educators to help them engage students deeply in learning. For nearly a decade now he has been generous with his time and advice and has visited Alabama many times, most recently to help celebrate ABPC’s 20th anniversary. His influence on our work and Alabama educators is immeasurable!

Jackie and I enjoyed so many opportunities to learn from some of Alabama’s best educators. Here’s one example – the Mindful Facilitator Institute in Summer 2016. What a powerhouse collection of educators this was!

May We All Keep Learning

My long-time editor John Norton suggested I close this last post with one of my favorite things – reflection – in this case, some of my “lessons learned” over two decades engaged with our amazing networks. I’ll keep them succinct:

  • You can learn in many wonderful ways, but you can learn the most by listening to those you serve.
  • Educators are knowledge workers and don’t like being told what to do. Instead, they appreciate and welcome opportunities to learn collaboratively with their true peers – and they thrive when they do so.
  • Never stop learning. Spend as much time as you possibly can reading, studying, seeking the latest best research and practice, and learning from others.
  • Embrace high expectations for yourself and everyone around you – your students, your colleagues, your leaders.

As I write this blog during my last week as ABPC’s leader, I am eternally grateful for all those who have made this journey so rewarding. The list is long, and I hope I have the opportunity to thank many of you in person as we all continue to travel on the carousel of time.

I leave with a full heart knowing that Stoney Beavers, with the able assistance of Suzette Johnson and Dakota Punzel and members of the networks they serve, will take the ABPC to even higher levels. I’ll be cheering them on from the sidelines!