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Straight Up Conversation: Skyrocket Founder Michael Sonbert

Michael Sonbert is the founder of Skyrocket Educator Training, which trains teachers and leaders in 300 urban and turnaround schools. Before starting Skyrocket, Michael was a teacher, instructional coach, and director of strategic partnerships for Mastery Charter Schools. I recently had the chance to chat with him about Skyrocket, the work they do, and what he's learned along the way. Here's what he had to say.

Rick Hess: So, what is Skyrocket? Can you talk a bit about the guiding philosophy behind it?

Michael Sonbert: The big picture is that we're training school leaders to be laser-focused instructional experts and coaches. We designed a teacher coaching model that allows even brand-new leaders to think, talk, and act like instructional experts a few days after beginning the program. This quick path to expertise allows these leaders to coach their teachers more effectively than before. Their language and approach becomes more precise and easily digestible and most importantly, simple. We like to say that we're radically disrupting the current system through simplicity.

RH: Those are some bold claims, given the disappointing track record of so much leadership training and teacher development. Break this down for me a bit, if you would. If a school signs on for Skyrocket, what exactly are they getting?

MS: They're getting a step-by-step program. At the heart of it is our rubric. We've distilled all the "stuff" teachers do in the classroom down to three strands, each of which corresponds to a student outcome such as being on task, mastering content, and doing the majority of the cognitive lift. We train leaders to walk into any classroom, look at what students are or aren't doing, use that info to land on the correct strand—one, two, or three—and then choose the biggest lever teacher action from the list we've provided. Conversations go from sounding like, "I think some students may have had trouble mastering today's lesson but I'm not totally sure," to, "Two of eight students sampled were making significant progress toward mastering today's content. This is because students had a common misconception that wasn't picked up on. We're starting in strand two with teacher action nine, checking for understanding."

RH: So on the school level how does this all work in practice?

MS: We run a one-day training on the model for all their school leaders. It encompasses all three phases of the Skyrocket program: classroom analysis, hyper-focused training meetings, and intense follow-up support. It includes using data, designing practice, real-time coaching, and a simulation where we watch a video of a teacher and put all the components together. We're then onsite throughout the year, for approximately 32 hours per month, to support school leaders as they're coaching teachers. We run a monthly responsive professional development for leaders based on trends in the school. We do video review, phone calls, and really whatever it takes to make sure the school leaders are feeling supported.

RH: Walk me through what a day might feel like for coaches and staff?

MS: It's specific to our current focus. For instance, if we're working on real-time coaching, we might shadow a leader as she's observing a teacher. We'll give feedback in the moment about places she can step in and provide coaching. We may even do it ourselves. We'll debrief after, sharing data on "glows and grows" and then scripting and role-playing different strategies. We might leave there and sit in on a coaching meeting to watch the leader share data and run their practice session. And afterward, we provide feedback for the leader and action-plan some next steps. There's very little downtime. We try to maximize every second.

RH: All right, so when did you launch Skyrocket? How did the idea come about?

MS: We launched in June 2016. I was supporting school leaders around the country when I was with Mastery Charter Schools. Three things became apparent in that work. The first is that some school leaders didn't have any guiding frameworks or rubrics that they could use to drive instruction and teacher coaching in their buildings. The second was that some school leaders did have these frameworks but they were so dense and inaccessible that the leaders weren't masters of them. The result was that leaders were talking timidly about instruction, when they talked about it at all. And last, schools were plucking different strategies out of this text or that and using it to train their teachers, whether it was the right thing to do or not. For instance, I recall when one of my schools in Detroit ran a training on cold-calling. I asked teachers if the training was effective. Most replied that what they really wanted, instead, was training on how to get their students to sit down. I thought, "There has to be a better way to ensure schools are working on their most important next steps."

RH: Given that data and experience tell us that most professional development is a waste of time and money, why should people trust that what you're doing is any different?

MS: You're right, most of these are a waste of time and money. Because the model is confusing or there's no model at all. The "coaching" is really just a bunch of suggestions that leaders and teachers can do—or not do. It's low-touch for leaders and for teachers. So the trainer comes by every once in a while and their time is spent talking and maybe they get into a class or two, but when the trainer leaves, it's back to business as usual.

We are shifting the way schools and entire networks think about teacher development. To partner with Skyrocket, you have to adopt our model and approach. Because of the stuff I mentioned a moment ago, it just doesn't work otherwise. Imagine I designed the perfect workout regimen for you. But then I didn't set up a plan or hold you accountable for actually going to the gym or eating well. What would happen? You probably wouldn't get the results you want. And maybe you'd become disinvested and then move on to trying something new—which is what's happening with all the waste-of-time-and-money models you're talking about. We ask our school leaders to leave every meeting with teachers being able to answer yes to the following question: Did that teacher just get significantly better at something? If their answer is no, the meeting was a miss. We use the same approach with our trainings. And we're almost always able to answer yes.

RH: In the rubric that frames this work, you have three different kinds of goals. For each, there are up to 11 different actions you want to see. How do you keep folks from getting overwhelmed by complexity?

MS: The program is designed to not overwhelm teachers or leaders. If a teacher is working on strand-one skills, we're only looking at how many students are on task throughout the lesson. A teacher who's working on classroom culture isn't going to get feedback on lesson design or their questioning techniques. This is a major difference between us and most everybody else out there. They're training teachers on everything at once. We're working on one or two things at a time until they're mastered. And it's all about the student outcomes. I jokingly say that I don't care if a teacher is juggling flaming chainsaws while standing on their desk if the students are achieving at the highest level. The teacher actions are the levers that lead us to the student outcomes. But at the end, the outcomes are what we care about.

RH: At this point, how many schools are you working with?

MS: Close to 300 schools have adopted the model. We're closely partnered with about fifty. Of those, we have largely charter and faith-based schools. But we don't discriminate. It's all about implementation. I've done training for some of the largest school districts in the country and for a stand-alone Islamic school in West Philly. We work with two cyber-schools, as well.

RH: And how do you find these schools? Do they come to you, or do you seek them out?

MS: Usually word of mouth. But interested people should email or call me. I'll talk to anyone. We don't partner with just anyone, but I will have a conversation with anyone. In a five minute conversation, I might say something that sparks something for a school leader or they'll spark something in me. I'm lucky to be able to continually learn from the people I meet in this work. So yeah, readers can send me an email at [email protected] Let's talk.

RH: So how do you know if any of this is working?

MS: Three things. The first is around the day-to-day implementation of the model. Are leaders coaching on the right stuff? Are their meetings succinct and practice-heavy? Are teacher practices shifting? We're onsite, so we know. And we provide feedback on what's working and what can be more effective. Next is through the use of surveys for both leaders and teachers. These are invaluable when gauging the effectiveness of the work. The last and most important piece is hard and fast data, such as interim assessments and state tests. But even on the micro-level, on-task data and content-mastery data help us gauge success. We'll even track the percentage of teachers moving from one strand to the next. Leaders love to see this as it's a pretty immediate and direct result of their work with the teacher.

RH: Now, as I understand it, you're just starting to get into leadership training. Can you talk a bit about how that came about? Do you evaluate and coach leaders the same way you do teachers?

MS: We're launching the Skyrocket School Leader Academy this summer. It's a two-year program for current and aspiring school leaders. We created it after I realized how many school leaders just weren't clearing the space for teacher coaching to happen at the highest level: foundational things like creating a vision for their schools, holding adults accountable to meeting schoolwide expectations, designing and holding weekly leadership team meetings, creating and sticking to a daily calendar; and more advanced things like using data to inform the design of responsive PD. To be clear, teacher coaching is still the heart of our work. And we designed the leadership academy so we can help create the space for that work to happen. The approach is the same in terms of three tiers with leaders moving from basic to advanced skills. And with each strand there is a corresponding leader outcome—all designed to set leaders up to be able to spend most of their time in classrooms coaching.

RH: So it sounds like you guys are growing? How big would you like to see Skyrocket get? How many schools or systems can you handle before you're forced to compromise or dilute the model?

MS: It's about having talented people on the team who live and breathe the mission—and training them up. Our goal is to go national, because we think this is the best thing out there and we want to impact as many students as possible. Scaling will likely lead to the dilution you mentioned. But again, with the right people, we'll have less of that. And, I'll put our 85 percent against anyone's 100 percent any day.

RH: Finally, what have you learned along the way? What's one thing that you've seen which has surprised you?

MS: I'm not a huge systems person. I'm not big on creating documents and spreadsheets and all that stuff. I assumed people would be excited by the lack of paperwork associated with this model. And some are, but others have asked repeatedly for these tools. We've designed some along the way and we're designing the rest this summer. So next year we'll have an entire toolbox for schools. The big thing is seeing a school leader, who always had a ton of smarts and get-after-it, now talking about instruction and coaching like a seasoned veteran is pretty amazing. Watching them coach up a teacher and seeing the students in that class benefit is even better.

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