How Learning to Drive Taught Me about Alignment!

How Learning to Drive Taught Me Alignment

It was the summer of 1976 and Bob, a good friend and classmate, was teaching me how to drive stick with an old 1956 pick-up (since I was born in 1956, I no longer agree with that being old). Bob was a big, easy going Californian and no matter how the gears ground, he showed no signs of discomfort. He just kept telling me to work the clutch slowly until I got the feel.

“Get a visual of the gears meshing and aligning as you release the clutch. Feel the gears engage.” I felt like a character out of “Caddy Shack” listening to Chevy Chase tells me to “be the ball.”

My first solo flight out, in the midst of trying shift gears and make a turn, I side-swiped one of the new trucks on campus. The bursar, Fr. Stella, a short but energetic man, called me into his office. I knocked with trepidation. He looked up from his work and yelled, “If you don’t know how to drive, why are you driving. Stay away from the truck!” Needless to say, I did—for at least a week.

So here is the analogy. The truck is your school or any organization. Unless factors are in alignment, you either don’t move forward or your lose control.

Five Steps of Alignment

Step One: Identify

Before you can align factors, you need to identify those factors. Start with your vision and goals and then work backwards. Some questions you should reflect on:

·       Where do you want to be by the end of the year (or whatever time frame you are exploring)?

·       What behaviors do you want in place by that time?

·       What kinds of skills are needed to get there?

·       Can we break those skills down to their smallest units?

Step Two: Assess

Once you have an idea of where you want to go, you need to assess what resources you have to help you get there. Those resources can be materials, facilities, partnerships, time, and of course, your staff. You identified the skills needed in the reflection exercise above. Now assess your staff to see what skills they have and/or their level of expertise with those skills, as well as what materials/resources they need to reach the goals and objectives you identified.

Step Three: Design and Develop

Based on the assessment, develop professional development (this can be done in-house, but often is better done by an outside objective group, at least at the start) that targets the specific skills needed to reach your goals and meet your staff members at their individual levels of expertise. This is best done by creating tiers of staff, grouping them by skills level. Go back to content that was developed and tweak it to meet the needs of each of the tiers—in other words provide differentiated instruction. If you are going to use a professional development company, look for one which works in conjunction with you, as partners, as opposed to a group that works in a vacuum and just delivers professional development without your input.

 Step Four: Implement

There are three major phases of the implementation:

·       Schedule time for the training and gather resources/materials participants will need

·       Conduct the training (the training should be interactive and be a combination or presentation, group discussion and activities (case scenarios, role plays, etc.)

·       Evaluate the training (data collected should help determine if you met the needs of each tier and like any formative assessment guide future training)

Leaders should attend all training. Not only does this send the message that professional development is important, it also allows leaders to be active participants. They can enter into discussion with staff clarifying ideas and goals. It also lays the foundation for effective monitoring, since both leader and staff are sharing and hearing the same information about expectations.

Step Five: Monitoring and Support

The focus of monitoring and support should be on the information trained—another level of alignment. This doesn’t mean you ignore other pertinent issues that you see. It does mean you go in with both the teacher and the administrator sharing an understanding of expectations—there are no surprises. It is a team approach to making sure each teacher is successful in their classroom or stated another way it ensures there is an effective teacher in every classroom. (Note: if you see a pattern of other pertinent issues this should be documented and should serve as a basis for the next round of professional development)

Training, even the best, only relays information, it doesn’t guarantee staff will use or implement it correctly. Remember, what is monitored and supported grows. There are two strategies which increase the chances of implementing training with fidelity.

First, the research is pretty clear. We learn more effectively and efficiently when the items that are trained are embedded in the daily routine (another example of aligning your efforts). People also are more successful at implementing new skills when they get immediate and accurate feedback while they are using those skills. Coaching is proven to be an effective form of support. Who and how you choose and support coaches is a topic for another post.

Second, leaders need to monitor staff as they visit the classrooms and meetings. Here is where participating in the training pays off. Look for the strategies that were trained. Provide supportive supervision. What does that mean?  See if the strategies are being implemented and if they are being implemented well. Reinforce staff when they are implemented well.  If they are experiencing difficulties, discuss the difficulties with them and explore solutions. Document your visits and the successes and difficulties you see. Look for patterns. Use that information to guide both individual support via coaches and future professional development.


A recent study found that educators failed to make connections between student performance and what they as teachers needed to learn in order to raise student achievement. Although it is true that educators, like any professional is in need of ongoing professional development and support, offering professional development that is not aligned with school and student needs is akin to prescribing medicine without first understanding a patient’s symptoms. If we do not connect professional development with school improvement needs, our efforts to advance learning and teaching in our schools will not be completely successful.

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