Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

05.02.13Sultanna Noormuhammad and How to Build a Teaching Community

SultanaThis blog post is about a powerful—and simple, and short—email a great leader sent to her staff and how she packed value into a few short sentences….

A few weeks ago I blogged about the challenges of doing TLaC “on an island”—what it was like to trying try to implement a TLaC-ish approach as a lone and sometimes isolated teacher whose classroom was an island within a school not necessarily thinking or implementing in a similar way or at least without a nexus of shared, building-level systems to support and help.

Another way to think about that question is to look at the converse.  What does it look like to try to refine and develop teaching techniques in a school that sets out to support you, help you get better, and to help all teachers do those things in a coordinated way that builds synergies and mutual support?  What, in other words, is the opposite of an island?  Call it a “community” with the understanding that the community aspects—the mutual support and the inter-classroom systems—are most likely supported and developed by an insightful and growth minded administration … but that communities could plausibly take shape in other ways … among peers in a school, or across schools, for example.

When I think of an effective teaching community one of the schools that jumps to mind is Leadership Prep Bed-Stuy, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. The principal there, Sultana Noormuhammad, is one of the most effective school leaders I know at building a staff culture that’s positive, optimistic, rigorous and team-oriented.

A friend recently forwarded an email from Sultana to her staff that’s pretty indicative of some of the ways she 1) intentionally builds teaching capacity among her staff in a positive and efficient way and 2) uses that process to build a positive and supportive overall school culture. I thought I’d share her email… as well as some of Sultana’s reflections on it, which she was gracious enough to share.

Some context:

“On Monday,” Sultana notes, “We took some time as a staff to identify concrete action steps to tighten up our classroom cultures so that we can end the year as strong as we started. People shared awesome reflections, like the fact that we must be as much “on our game” in May and June as we were in September and October. We reviewed the school culture rubric to identify the specific action steps that we would take to tighten up the times of day that were no longer as strong as they were in September and October. Many folks settled in on Do it Again as a key technique to use.”

A couple of thoughts about the context Sultana provided before I return to her reflection.  I think it’s both effective and indicative of Sultana’s manner of leadership that the conversation started with the staff brainstorming together ways that they could all sharpen up.  In the best schools you see that constant narrative of shared ownership—it’s our school; we’re going to make it better; we’re going to do it together; we’re accountable to one another at least as much as to the administration; the teachers as much as the leaders decide on how to accomplish goals.  “Many folks settled on Do It Again as a key technique,” Sultana notes.  She set the challenge; they identified solutions.  Also, in the best schools I think you also see positive framing that acknowledges and appreciates things teachers have achieved.  In this case Sultana wants to ensure that her staff finish the year as well as they started it—instant credit for good work with the suggestion that they honor success by seeing it through.

It’s also typical of a good school to step in early.  Great teachers, we often note in our classroom culture workshops, “catch it early.”  They fix issues when they are small with minor corrections rather than waiting until they have gone really bad and require a major intervention.  Sultana and her staff do something similar here.  This is minor maintenance before things get rough to make sure we KEEP things form going wrong and stay at the top of our game… and while the fix is pretty easy.   Catch it early applies to more than just teaching, it turns out.

More from Sultana:

“First thing on Tuesday, I did a walkthrough to see how people were translating their reflections into action, and I saw some really effective Do it Agains in action. One thing that can be a persistent teacher struggle is perfecting the language of the Do it Again so that it is positively framed and doesn’t yield the loud sigh from students that it can if not done right. That’s why I captured the exact language that some of our teachers used when doing it again, so that others could have some specific words to add to their toolbox.”

Three things jump out at me here:

1)      Aligned observation.  As soon as they talked about something in a meeting, Sultana went out and observed for it, transparently so.  It helps people to do more than just talk about something in a meeting but to talk about it and then provide them instant feedback on how they’re doing.

2)      Manage your strengths.  The first thing Sultana notes about her walkthrough is that she saw a lot of positives.  This isn’t coincidence.  Knowing Sultana, she was looking as much for positives as for struggles because building off of your successes—managing your “bright spots” to use a term from the Heath Brothers—because understanding and replicating success is among the most productive management actions you can take.  What goes well is at least as important as what doesn’t.  It’s also great for building staff culture and making people feel appreciated.

3)      Detail oriented.  The best coaches are all about the nuances—the technical details that take you from good to great to world changing.  The differences in the language used to describe and frame the Do It Again—the “phraseology” as Sultana puts it—are where the game is won and lost.  And Sultana is all about that kind of excellent detail.

Sultana makes some of these points as well in the last part of her reflection:

“Overall, one thing I’ve learned about leadership is that praise is powerful. Public, positive praise goes a long way to ensure that folks that are doing an awesome job feel truly celebrated. Also, if my team is on the right track, but not yet all the way there, as was the case this week with strong Do It Agains but a need to increase our non-verbals, praising the one behavior can help the other one slip into place more easily. Also, staff culture is a tenuous thing. We had a great vibe during our staff meeting on Monday, so I sent the email to keep that positive momentum going strong.

Anyway, at long last, here’s Sultana’s email to her staff:

From: Sultana Noormuhammad
Sent: Tuesday, April 30, 2013 01:00 PM
Subject: Do It Again Phraseology

Hi all,

Yesterday, you brainstormed how to make the next 9 weeks the best 9 weeks by bringing as much urgency and joy to our instruction in May and June as we did in September and October.  We committed to Positively Framing our Do it Agains and you were champions of that today. Here was some of the do it again phraseology that I heard this morning that worked like magic:

For tracking, Kosty used: “Warriors track fast. Try it again.”

For choral responses, Anna used: “I need to hear everyone. One more time.”

For participation, Naama used: Teacher look. “All Bear hands.”

As we work to master the fundamentals this week, one thing to remember is that non-verbal is optimal. For the remainder of the afternoon, increase your use of proximity and non-verbal corrections to keep things running smoothly with minimal language from you. Just as Nyla Westbrook is working to share the talk time, we can keep working to decrease the teacher talk time. During breakfast tomorrow, let’s continue to tighten up our threshold by using only non-verbals to monitor student behavior and facilitate the morning transition. This morning breakfast felt calm, so tomorrow let’s shoot for super calm!


Managing people 101… in 8 sentences or less. J



More about Sultana and her school:

Sultana Noormuhammad is the principal at Leadership Prep Bedford Stuyvesant Elementary Academy, an Uncommon School.  Before this role, she was the Dean of Students as well as a Founding Lead Teacher for Leadership Prep.  Ms. Noormuhammad was also a first grader teacher at C.S. 50 The Clara Barton School in New York City and served as a Program Coordinator for Global Learning in Liberia and Costa Rica before she joined Uncommon Schools. She holds a B.A. in International Relations from Wellesley College and has studied at Casa de las Americas in Havana Cuba.

Click here to learn more about Uncommon Schools.


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