Field Trip: Culture Shift


How do you bring about school culture change? How do you boost instructional rigor in spite of a tiny professional development budget? Dr. Melissa Varley, Superintendent of Florham Park School District in New Jersey, talks about motivation, vision-casting and the challenging work of turning around a district’s entire outlook.

In this interview, we asked Dr. Varley about:

  • What it was like to walk into a school district in the middle of an affluent area that had been underperforming, compared to similar districts right next door
  • Sparking change in the hearts and minds of teachers, principals, students and parents, and what she did to make this an easy sell for administrators
  • Professional development strategies to improve instruction — on a shoestring budget
  • Their results, and what she would say to other education leaders who are facing similar challenges

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Full Transcript  

MELISSA VARLEY: I came and did a building walkthrough and I was shocked. It was still the old style way of teaching where you read the paragraph, you answer the questions, and then you get a worksheet and then if you do that worksheet, guess what, you get another worksheet.

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MELISSA VARLEY: Our teachers were left to their own devices. The general way of learning was to give them a book and they were, on their own time, supposed to go read about best practices and then implement.

People who are creatively solving problems, and making strategic decisions as they work to hire, retain, support and grow teachers and staff.

MELISSA VARLEY: We didn’t have time to wait a year, to wait two years. We had to change then. Once I got started sending my building principals out to see the levels of instruction in high performing districts that are right next to us, it wasn’t a hard sell.

From superintendents to principals, from Human Resources to Instruction to Special Education, we’re talking with people who have stories to tell in K-12. And we’re sharing those conversations here.

From Frontline Education, you’re listening to Field Trip.

My guest today is Dr. Melissa Varley. She’s the superintendent of Florham Park School District.

MELISSA VARLEY: We are located in central North New Jersey, about 25 miles outside of New York City. It is a very affluent population. We have very little diversity, but our school buildings are older. The school I’m in right now was built in the 1930s. Our newest school was built in the 1970s.

Florham Park has seen some incredibly positive things happen in recent years. Improvements in teaching practice, school culture more focused on growth and leadership, rising student outcomes. But when Melissa arrived at the district, it was a different story. I spoke with her, and asked her to tell me what changed — and how.

As the superintendent of Florham Park or chief school administrator, you were an assistant superintendent at another district in New Jersey. How did you wind up where you are now, and what was it like to get started in your role there?

MELISSA VARLEY: Yes. I was assistant superintendent in another district, which was also very affluent. The superintendent, his wife became ill so he left, and I was basically the superintendent. Then when he came back, I was used to being the superintendent. I started applying for superintendent positions and Florham Park came available. I applied, interviewed, loved the board, loved the administrators that I met and when they offered me the position I readily accepted.

What were some of the biggest differences between the two districts when you began there?

MELISSA VARLEY: There were huge, huge differences. One thing about the district where I came from, the parents were extremely focused on academics, so they would come to the board meetings, they would schedule meetings with myself, they would schedule meetings with the principals to push us to do better, to have more rigor, to have more AP classes. If our rankings went down, we would have 50 parents at a board meeting wondering why we didn’t have more children going to Ivy League colleges. Why our rankings went down, why our AP scores weren’t as high, why our PARCC scores weren’t as high.

Coming to Florham Park, there’s definitely not the same academic focus, and it was different for me to not have parents beating down my doors, discussing why their children aren’t in geometry in seventh grade.

And also the budget. Our professional development budget in the district where I was was $150,000, and that was without any extras, and I could usually get more money if I asked for it. Here, the budget was $8,000, and I can spend that in one day with one person coming in. So it didn’t leave a lot for our teachers to be trained. Our teachers were left to their own devices, from what I can understand. The general way of learning was to give them a book and they were, on their own time, supposed to go read about best practices and then implement.

How did all of this play out with the instruction that was offered? Could you observe a visible difference in what teaching looked like between your previous district and Florham Park?

MELISSA VARLEY: Absolutely. When I came, before I’d even started, my contract was signed but I had not started. I came and did a building walkthrough, and I was shocked. It was still the old-style way of teaching where you read the paragraph, you answer the questions, and then you get a worksheet. And then if you do that worksheet, guess what? You get another worksheet. We all know as adults that paperwork is not motivating, and so it can’t be motivating for our student population to get one worksheet after another. And they were using an outdated text — a basal reader, so I was really shocked and it’s no fault of the teachers.

They were never really instructed. When they had gone to college, they learned great teaching methods, but their upkeep hadn’t been done. The person in charge wasn’t embracing lifelong learning. When I walked through I said, “I’ve got big changes to make. I’ve got a lot of changes to make,” because our children weren’t motivated to learn, because that’s not very motivating to get another piece of paper to do some work with.

Melissa said that the instruction — or at least the outcomes, weren’t what you might expect from a district located in an affluent area like the one they’re in. Their test scores were more representative of what you might see in a lower income area.

MELISSA VARLEY: Socioeconomic status, unfortunately, is usually an indicator of student performance, because they have the most resources. If you have more money, you can send your children to preschool, you can have the best tutors, you can provide them with multiple books for reading, and I didn’t see that here. Our test scores were of a lower income district, lower socioeconomic level, to the point where we had 50% being proficient, which is unheard of in this level of affluence.

You looked around, you saw these issues, you knew you needed to make changes. What was going through your mind at this point? What did you do? What things really needed to change in your opinion?

MELISSA VARLEY: Well, I always had this great thought that I’m going to follow what research says: that you should come into a district, take a year to assess and then act, but I didn’t feel like I had a year. I realized, probably my second month in, that we didn’t have phonics instruction in our K-2 program. Phonics, combined with Reading and Writing Workshop project, is the way to teach. You cannot teach reading without using phonics. So I immediately gathered my supervisors together, my principal, and said, “We have got to make a change.” There was a phonics program, but no one had been taught how to use the phonics program, so it sat unused. That was my first order of business, to change that curriculum and bring in phonics.

One of the things I noticed was inconsistencies, where I had been told they were starting to have professional development on using Readers and Writers Workshop. When they were being told they were using it, I was told, “We have professional development. We’re spending $4,000 on this professional development,” which we know, in the world of professional development, is nothing. I would talk to one second grade teacher and she would say, “Oh yes, I remember learning about that,” and I would talk to the very next door neighbor second grade teacher and she would say, “I’ve never heard of that. What are you talking about?”

We know that there was extreme inconsistency. I started working to bring in an ELA supervisor because I knew enough about ELA — English Language Arts — and Readers and Writers Workshop just to make me dangerous. I needed someone who, who could do the work behind the scenes.

I asked Melissa if this was all part of a formal plan. Did she codify a plan in writing, bring in her school board and parent teacher organization?

MELISSA VARLEY: In a formal sense, I guess a formal plan, I knew that my writing and reading scores were very low. Writing and reading affects everything. You can’t do science and social studies and even math without knowing how to read and write. I knew that had to be my first order of business.

I started thinking about all the things that you needed. You needed strong professional development, so I knew I had to have more than $8,000 in the budget. I needed someone who would hold the teachers accountable but also give them the support they needed, and my biggest saying is “I needed someone who could out-English Language Arts them.”

They could give them no excuses. They knew the talk, they knew how to do it. Then I had to develop a professional development plan and get my principals on board and get my PTA. I started meeting with the PTA monthly with my administrators, and started talking about how we needed to get more books in the classroom. We needed post-it notes, we needed chart paper. All of my principals had to go to every single ounce of PD. Because how can they judge a teacher on what they’re doing if they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing? I had one principal who thought the basal reader and that way of instruction was the best way to do things.

I knew I had a huge learning curve, and then I started working with the board, telling them and showing them the difference in our test scores and the test scores of students right down the road who had the same demographic, and showing them I needed help. I needed someone who could focus our teachers and build them and conduct a growth mindset. They needed to be able to grow and they needed to be shown what good instruction is.

That’s more than just an instructional question. That sounds like it’s an entire culture shift that you saw needed to happen. Were you the only one who saw this? Did you have conversations with others? What did your conversations with others look like around that culture shift?

MELISSA VARLEY: I did have one building principal who…she was new and she said, “I can’t believe these things are happening in this manner.” I had her on my team, and then the business administrator realized that we were not quite where we should be. I started working with my supervisor of curriculum & instruction, and I started pointing him in the areas of professional development and sending him to different places to see what other districts were doing. Once he caught the fire he knew we had to change. We didn’t have time to wait a year, to wait two years. We had to change then. Once I started sending my building principals out to see the levels of instruction in high performing districts that are right next to us, it wasn’t a hard sell.

They knew we had to make changes. We still had teachers diagramming sentences, which hadn’t been done since the ’80s. It was a huge shift. Then, within that, we hired our ELA supervisor, and she came in with a great deal of knowledge and a lot of fire. She had come from another affluent district, and she knew exactly what to do. What we did then is, we knew we had to change. We had a culture of “don’t do more than you’re supposed to do, and definitely don’t do more than you’re supposed to do for free. If the board is going to pay you, we’ll do more, but you know, never volunteer for anything.”

We decided to develop a teacher leadership cohort, and we took five teachers from each building and we met with them monthly, and we brought in a professor from Columbia University.

She came in twice during the school year. We started working on changing mindsets. We started working with them on norms and the ways of knowing, and the ways of knowing are basically, “How do you see yourself?” and “What makes you thrive?”

That professor is Dr. Ellie Drago-Severson. If you’re a regular Field Trip listener, you might remember an episode called “The Glasses We All Wear.” In that episode, we interviewed Ellie about her work, about these ‘ways of knowing’ — you can hear that story on our website.

We worked on that our first year, and then our second year was teaming. Now our third year, which is unheard of in this district, is our teachers will go out and teach their colleagues on things that interest them. Things that you know will increase academic rigor. We made a huge amount of changes, and I am seeing so much growth. We’ve had some teachers who dropped out of the cohort, they couldn’t get past doing more than they should, and that’s fine.

That is fine for them, but I do have the majority who are still in there and they’re still working hard and my principals have to go. All of my supervisors have to be there. I’m there, I’m present and I work with the teachers on a monthly basis.

Something you just said struck me when you made a point to say, “I’m there, I’m present.” Talk to me about that. What does it do for a district or building staff to look and see, “Our superintendent is here, present at this training or during this time that we’re together”? What does that do for the entire program or for the entire day?

MELISSA VARLEY: I believe it shows that I am committed, and I’m holding myself as accountable as I’m holding them. One of the projects that we have coming up in our third year is that they have to be mentored by an administrator. I have opened myself up, I will mentor them, I will work with them on the professional development that they are going to provide. I get a lot of great feedback from these teachers, knowing that I’m in there every single meeting, and I clear my schedule and make sure that I’m available for them.

Let’s talk about professional development a little bit more. Obviously, more money means more resources. Before you had the extra money, how did you provide the kind of professional development that your teachers needed? How does one provide quality professional learning on a shoestring budget?

MELISSA VARLEY: Obviously, I came in to an $8,000 budget, which was very limiting. When I had been in my previous district, I had started a professional development academy and I had extremely knowledgeable supervisors who held professional development, and I did not leave that district on a bad note so they allowed me to send teachers to them and charge me a minimal fee. When I mean minimal, I mean minimal. The teachers I sent over there, they came back and taught the other teachers.

One thing, change is hard and the first statement you usually get from someone is, “They don’t have children like we do.” Well, this is the same level of affluence, same level of children as in my previous district. So what I did then is, I’m going to send them out to other buildings, other districts to see what other teachers are doing. I think that was the biggest effect I had with my $8,000, because they see these teachers are meeting with children one-on-one and learning their strengths and their weaknesses. They are listening to them read, they are watching them write. I got so much bang for my not-spending-a- buck just in sending teachers out to other districts to have them observe. I sent every single teacher in every grade level out to watch other teachers teach. Of course, I chose districts I knew, and I knew teachers within the district who were strong and who knew Readers and Writers Workshop and who knew how to teach phonics and who love children.

When people came back from seeing what teaching look like in other school districts and they came back to Florham Park, what sort of things did you hear them say?

MELISSA VARLEY: A lot of it was, “They have more resources than we do,” which was not untrue. We did not have classroom libraries. They also said, “They have air conditioning,” which is not untrue. We do not have air conditioning in my 3-8 buildings. Of course, they started with the negative, but they ended up coming around to the positive. I debriefed with every single team after they got back, just to ask them what differences they saw, and of course they brought back the things that the other districts have that we didn’t at the time. We still don’t have air conditioning — it’s going to be awhile.

But I asked them, and then they started saying, “I can pull students and do that. I can work with them individually, I can confer.” You know, in any change situation, you have some who are the early adopters, and I had that. I would have maybe two per grade level who would be like, “I’m going to do this tomorrow, I’m starting with this.” Then I had the others who were like, “I’ll wait and see. We’ve never done this before. I like the worksheets, it’s easy.” I saw the fire start just with those initial classroom visits before any real professional development had started.

You mentioned earlier that your teachers came back and are teaching other teachers. How are you ensuring that that happens? How are you promoting a culture in which teachers come back and spread the knowledge that they have around to their colleagues? Because we know that collaboration is just so important.

MELISSA VARLEY: While we didn’t have a large professional development budget, we did have enough money to hire substitute teachers. What I would do is in the afternoons or mornings, I would pull teachers for that morning block or afternoon block, and let the teacher who went out into the other professional development teach the teachers who were here. With that, I would then flip the subs over into another grade level, so that another teacher could teach the other teachers. My supervisor of curriculum & instruction was there throughout the entire thing. I was there for some of it. I wasn’t there for all of it, but I made sure it happened. I definitely made sure it happened.

We’ve been talking about school leadership and district leadership and teachers. Did you have to work to change the mindsets of your students throughout this process?

MELISSA VARLEY: Well, as I would go in classrooms and I would sit, I would notice that the students weren’t used to long periods of learning. The periods were very short, and then in the middle of the period they would have a snack, so they didn’t have to be used to it. They didn’t have to focus for a very long period of time. I started working with the principals to change their schedules and make it a working snack. You only get one snack a day. We’re not going to snack all day long. We extended math to 60 minutes and then we did reading and writing for 120 minutes. One thing I focused on when I was, in the classrooms after that, building the student’s capacity for learning.

They had to be able to be consistent and sit there. And making sure the teachers noticed, “How many times did Jimmy get up and go to the trashcan? How many times did he go back to the bookshelf to stand there and look for a book?” Some of them did not notice it until I pointed it out that our children didn’t have that capacity. This has been the past two years of working with the kids to make sure they can sit and focus and they know they don’t have an escape. They can’t go to the bathroom three times, you know? One time is enough.

As you were bringing about this kind of change, what were the roadblocks that you faced? Did you face any pushback at all? Whether from parents or from teachers?

MELISSA VARLEY: I definitely received pushback. I know the saying is, “Dr. Varley is the face of change.” I did receive some pushback, and parents, when I did summer reading last year for the first time, we had 80 parents show up and protest the summer reading assignments. Again, this is a 180 from the district that I had been in. I would have had parents coming out saying I didn’t give them enough books in the other district.

I still had parents say that, “I’m not going to have my child read over the summer. Summer reading ruins my summer.” Then in the same token with my teachers, there was a lot of pushback from a minority — it was definitely a minority — who were, “This isn’t going to work. This is not the way you teach reading. This is too hard.” It wasn’t easy. It was not an easy road but it’s what’s best for kids.

It’s really interesting to hear you talk about, despite the fact that these are two very similar communities, that they interacted with you in such different ways. It brings the question to mind, does a school district influence how a community responds to education or does the community determine how a school district educates?

MELISSA VARLEY: That’s definitely a good question. I think in this sense, I am pushing this community of parents to realize there’s more to be had in the area of education. Do I still have parents who call me and tell me I’m the reason that everyone has failed, that education has failed throughout the world? I do. But the majority of my parents who see me are like, “My child has never read so much. My child wants to read every night before they go to bed.” So that minority, I’m fine with them being upset with me that I’m making their child read.

It sounds like your answer to this pushback or answer to objections is, “Hey, the proof is in the pudding. Look at these results.” Are there other things that you have said or are there other strategies that you have, aside from simply pointing to results in order to overcome such resistance?

MELISSA VARLEY: We did a 3D strategic plan last year. I brought in New Jersey School Boards Association and we talked about the utopia of education and what could we have? Can we make Florham Park even better?

We worked with our community. I invited parents, I invited business leaders, I invited everyone, and we had a really good turnout. At that time, I had some parents who probably were not my biggest fans, who contributed. They saw that when we did our building goals, we went back to the strategic plan and focused on what our community had said was important. Granted, most of the things that our community found were important were technology that was STEM-based, and we are focusing on a STEM program going back to our 3D strategic plan, and continuing our push in reading, writing and math. That was one way to try to get them involved.

I also have superintendent forums. I have about three a year. I have my building principals, they have to have two principals forums a year. Then my supervisors each have parent nights, multiple parent nights, six or seven a year.

Are there any other stories that come to mind of either some of the high points throughout this entire process or the low points?

MELISSA VARLEY: I would say one of my high points happened this past year. I received an email from a teacher asking to meet with me, to meet with a group of teachers. And this is never good — usually, people do not want to meet with you over something positive. I was obviously preparing for the conversation and to see what was going on now. When they came in, they sat down, and it was seven of them and they said, “We are so glad you’re here. I have been waiting” — one of the teachers who had been here for years — “I have been waiting for you to come here. I’ve been waiting for an instructional academic focus. I have been waiting to be treated like a professional and to receive the knowledge that I should be receiving, and thank you very much.”

I gotta tell you, that was a huge highlight of my career having … this is a very well-respected female teacher and everyone sitting around her echoed her thoughts, and they thanked me from the bottom of their heart, that they feel like they are now a competitive teacher.

That’s amazing. Let’s look at, ultimately what we’re going for here, the results, the classroom impact. What have you seen with all the work that you’re doing with teacher empowerment, professional development, changing culture, increasing instructional rigor? How have you seen that generate results at Florham Park?

MELISSA VARLEY: In my first year here, my third grade PARC scores were at a 50% proficiency rate, which is very, very low. If you make a 50 on a test, you failed the test, if it’s out of 100. This year we are scoring 80% proficient in third grade. In my other grades, we are up by 20% in the majority of the other grades as well. We have seen a slight increase in our math and that’s probably still double digits, 10%. So it’s working.

I’ve been here three full years — this is the start of my fourth year. It’s unheard of to have such growth, and I’ve had several people, when I first started, come up to me and say, “You’re doing too much at once. There’s too much change, they’re going to revolt.” I did worry about it. It’s one of those things that I sat there and said, “You know, I am really pushing them. I’m pushing my principals, I’m pushing my supervisors. My supervisors and principals are pushing the teachers and the teachers are pushing the students,” and I wondered if it would blow up in my face. And I’m happy to say that it has not. I am thrilled with the level of achievement our students have done. They’ve done this. My teachers have done this. My principals and my supervisors. I have a great team and I’m so impressed with our academic results.

It’s hard to argue with results like that.

MELISSA VARLEY: Absolutely. We have come so far and it’s a great thing.

It’s really interesting. You mentioned that you have a great team. To what degree do you think programs impact results? And to what degree do you think people impact results?

MELISSA VARLEY: I think you can have the best program in the world, but if you have a terrible teacher in that classroom, it’s not going to help. The teacher makes the difference. Now the teacher also needs knowledge. They need to know how to teach, they need to know how to connect with children, and they need resources. I will give them anything they need to make an impact on our students.

Many leaders in schools across the country are trying to do the exact same thing that you’re doing. Some are seeing tremendous success while others may be hitting walls. What have you learned or what would you say to others who are just beginning this work?

MELISSA VARLEY: I would say that to change a school culture, you could only do it in my opinion by three ways, and that’s changing your hiring practices. I see a lot of people doing the same thing over and over again. If you don’t hire different people, you’re not going to get different results.

I also think professional development, but you have to have the right professional development.

And then, strict accountability. If you’re not ready to back up your statements by writing people up, by making sure your principals and your supervisors … I mean, I’m in classrooms, they are in classrooms. They have to know what they’re looking for, and so they have to be in the professional development too. It has to be a team effort. It can’t be one person sitting there to do everything and then not being involved. There has to be skin in the game and that’s what I would say. You’ve got to put your effort into it. You can’t be too good to sit in professional development.

The first thing you said just now was, “You have got to hire the right people.” How do you hire the right people? How do you know who the right people are for your district?

MELISSA VARLEY: I’ve made some mistakes. I’m definitely not without my mistakes, but usually I know what I’m looking for when they walk in the door. One thing I have instilled in Florham Park is, we do demo lessons. If a teacher comes in, they can interview, they can say the right words, but I want the proof. The proof is in the pudding. When you’re sitting in front of 20 kids, can you deliver? And will they connect with you? That is usually where I see the disconnect. They say great things in an interview, but once they get in front of those children and they don’t have the knowledge to teach them or to connect with them, then I know they’re not the right fit.

Sometimes I make mistakes, but I’m not afraid to let those people go who I’ve made mistakes with. One thing I tell my principals is that, “You are married to someone after the fourth year,” and if they have not delivered… and that means being professional. That means wanting to go to the professional development. That means working with children. It’s not just coming in and teaching for seven hours a day. It’s, how do they connect with the kids? What did they deliver? Are they good for your other teachers?

Once you bring who you believe the right people are into your district, what do you do to support them? We’ve talked a lot about professional development today, but are you trying to tailor for each individual teacher the kind of professional development based on their own strengths and weaknesses?

MELISSA VARLEY: Well, we do a professional development plan with each teacher, and it relates back to the district and the board goals as well as my goals, but then we tailor it too. One of the things we started looking at … If we have Mrs. Jones, and you look at her test scores, and the majority of children scored low in comprehension. Well, that means that she does not have the skill to teach comprehension. Then we turn around and try to tailor her professional development on teaching that skill, so that we don’t have another set of fourth graders who miss out on that skill as well. We all have weaknesses.

I’m a proponent of lifelong learning, and hopefully I’ve not stopped learning yet, and I tell them, every teacher I’m sending to some kind of professional development that targets a weakness. I tell them, “I have not learned everything that I need to learn, and I don’t feel like any of you have.”

My last question is this: obviously, this is not easy work. Teaching isn’t easy. Being a principal isn’t easy. Being a superintendent certainly isn’t easy. What keeps you energized and fired up about the work that you’re doing, and how do you maintain this level of commitment and momentum and passion about education?

MELISSA VARLEY: I have to say, it’s not really that hard. Just walking through my buildings and seeing eighth graders sitting on a floor together in a circle discussing a book, which would not have happened three years ago. To seeing children running out of a classroom to see me, to show me their books that they’re reading and how they’ve moved up levels. When I first got here, our BSI population, which is an at-risk population, was huge – over 20%. We’re down to 7% now who are at-risk. Just seeing that, it keeps me committed.

We’re not finished, we’re still not at the level of our surrounding districts, so we still have a lot of work to do, and I’m committed to seeing it through, to seeing our kids, the students of Florham Park, be right up there with our neighboring districts who score very well.

Dr. Melissa Varley is superintendent at Florham Park School District in New Jersey. Melissa, thank you for being with us today.

MELISSA VARLEY: You’re very welcome. Thank you so much for having me.

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