Field Trip: How to Do More with Less
The financial crisis in 2008 left many school districts scrambling to work with smaller budgets, save jobs and move mountains for teachers and students. Here’s how one district overhauled their teacher induction process, introducing virtual onboarding in the middle of the most difficult crisis they had ever faced — and didn’t spend an extra dime.
In this conversation with Angela Cooper, Chief Human Resources Officer at Lexington School District Two in South Carolina, and with Kevin Smoak, Coordinator for Evaluation and Effectiveness, we examine:
- What they did to save teachers’ jobs as the recession hit
- The duty Lexington Two’s HR department felt to keep innovating, even in the midst of crisis
- Why they chose to move to a virtual, blended learning style of teacher induction — and why teachers prefer it
- Why this virtual model of onboarding is now used as a teacher recruitment and retention tool at Lexington Two
For further reading…
Employee onboarding is a great place to slash paperwork. How do you do it? Our white paper, “The Onboarding Opportunity,” looks at how to support strategic human capital management from the day new teachers and staff walk through the door.
Leading schools, and leading school districts, is never easy. And sometimes, it becomes exquisitely difficult.
ANGELA COOPER: I began to receive letters in my position from some employees telling me their personal situations that I might not have been privy to. You know, “I’ve just been married. My wife has a medical issue. We just got coverage for my job. I know that I’m one of the last ones hired. I know I’m going to lose my job. What will we do? And I’ve absolutely got to have this job in order to keep myself and my family afloat.”
But sometimes, difficult circumstances become the very thing that incredible ideas need to take root and grow.
KEVIN SMOAK: I want to do everything that I possibly can to support all of our teachers, and I feel like this virtual learning is just one small way to do that. I receive feedback from teachers each year how much they appreciate this and how much they would far rather have it this way than traditional learning.
From superintendents to principals, from Human Resources to Instruction to Special Education, we’re talking with people who have stories to tell in education. And we’re sharing those conversations here.
From Frontline Education, you’re listening to Field Trip.
It was autumn of 2008. You remember — Barack Obama was running for president against John McCain. The housing bubble that had fed off of easy credit had peaked a year or two earlier, then burst. Home values sank like rocks, and homeowners found themselves owing more money than their homes were worth. Thanks to their adjustable rate mortgages, they were looking at new, higher interest rates, and couldn’t afford it. Instead, they walked away from their homes.
Banks like Lehman Brothers failed. The government saw a crisis coming, and couldn’t stop it. On September 17, the whole economy just about buckled.
People lost jobs and retirement accounts. Nearly everyone felt it in some way. And school districts were no different.
ANGELA COOPER: What I saw this doing to schools was looking at a building level administrators who had been in their position, seasoned building level administrators who absolutely did not know which way to turn.
That’s Angela Cooper, Chief Human Resources Officer at Lexington School District Two in West Columbia, South Carolina. They have right around 9,000 students. Angela says the district has a small community feel, that they have a heritage of successful students and successful staff. And in 2008, the financial crisis for the country brought with it a crisis for Lexington 2 as well.
ANGELA COOPER: I came about it after the budget had been set. We were into the school year. What I saw was, um, a lot of anxiety and just unknown. I mean, there’s a lot to be said for, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” And that was certainly the case here. What I saw as time went on was, for lack of more specific understanding and not knowing what additional budget cuts are coming, was, “What are we going to do?” There was a lot of fear. There was a lot of chaos.
Fear around funding is what you’re saying it sounds like.
ANGELA COOPER: Absolutely. Yes. Yes. Around funding and what that would mean for the schools, for the principals, for everyone. Yes, absolutely.
Sure. And at the same time, the early 2000’s were the focus of quite a bit of education reform. In 2001 we saw No Child Left Behind rolled out. In 2009, President Obama announced Race to the Top where there were teacher evaluation reform efforts. It sounds like this was a difficult time for a funding crisis to hit.
ANGELA COOPER: Yes, it absolutely was. And while there is no perfect time, it was very difficult and completely, to a degree, unexpected in terms of the impact that we eventually had. Yes.
Kevin Smoak also works at Lexington 2 as the Coordinator for Evaluation and Effectiveness. He has a history at the district.
KEVIN SMOAK: I am a former student of this district. I live in this district. Both my children have graduated from this district. My mom and dad graduated from this district. I was a teacher and now I’m a district administrator. So I’ve been in many roles in this district.
Kevin was a teacher at the time the financial crisis began, and I asked him to describe what it was like to go through that time as a teacher.
KEVIN SMOAK: I was a middle school science teacher at that time. I was not affected much. I was a middle level math, middle level science and there’s always a great need for math and science as there is even today. So I wasn’t negatively affected by those times, but I do remember teachers being moved, transferred from one school to another and I knew, from a teacher perspective, there was the unknown, and there’s enough stress and pressure to be a teacher, but just to have those unknowns, where are going to be next year, what’s going to happen, puts an additional stress on you.
Remember, this is a time when schools were already being asked to do more, especially in terms of evaluations. Think Race to the Top, evaluation reforms, higher compliance burdens. But when the Great Recession began, there were more immediate concerns.
ANGELA COOPER: Well, I can tell you from where I sat at that point in time, honestly, the focus was on keeping jobs. And the evaluation process was very important, but it was secondary to the process of living through this experience and, to the greatest degree possible, making sure that everyone retained a position. When it comes to the evaluation component, we were using a different model at that time, using the same standards. But our focus honestly was not on that. Yes, we did meet the requirement, but the focus took a life of its own and that would be making sure that employees didn’t lose a job at the district. It really was a focused effort. You could not focus on anything else. So it took a back seat. I’ll just be honest with you about it.
And just to clarify, when you say making sure employees don’t lose jobs at the district, you’re not talking about trying to retain a underperforming teachers. You’re talking about, “Hey, funding issues are meaning we’re having to cut positions,” right?
ANGELA COOPER: That’s exactly right. And that is exactly right. And it meant the unknown of maybe implementing a reduction in force that, you know, we were not well versed in and would not want to be. But the unknown was there and it seemed inevitable and it would eventually come to pass. So that was the focus, every day, all day, for a long time.
Angela and the other district administrators were looking at some hard decisions.
ANGELA COOPER: Well, because we had already been into the school year, those things that the district had prepared to fund over and above staff — programs, I mean things such as grill guard crossings for elementary schools. Those things that you never thought you would ever have to consider cutting. I mean, it was like cutting off your arm. The conversation began, well, you know, if we turn out all the electricity in the schools, etc., we absolutely knew we were down to people. And so it was grueling. There were mandatory meetings with the superintendent and building level administrators where we sat together and we tried to come to consensus, we certainly did collaborate. And Dr. Holland, our former superintendent, would say, “Okay, so we need to choose what we’re going to do. Are we going to drink this hemlock, or what are we going to do?”
There was no good answer. There was a lot of anxiety. There was a lot of fear. I saw a lot of crying. I saw crying from administrative staff. I saw principal meetings turned upside down over concern and fear of losing jobs. I began to receive letters in my position over from some employees telling me their personal situations that I might not have been privy to. For example, “I’ve just been married. My wife has a medical issue. We just got coverage for my job. I’m the last one…I know that I’m one of the last ones hired. I know I’m going to lose my job. What will we do? We relocated here. We put our children in the school district, we’re in the process of buying a house,” or “We’re in the process of getting our situation in order and I’ve absolutely got to have this job in order to keep myself and my family afloat.”
Very, very hard stories like that. Knowing that when it came to looking at staff, it simply was a matter of an excelsior list and our policy just said “It’s last hired, first out,” technically speaking. It had nothing to do — it did not speak to certification area, for example. So I’m giving you those examples because there were not a lot of happy moments during that time. But as a district, we were very purposeful in our collaboration. When the conversations began to take place that needed to take place, they were in person. It was an intentional effort to have a face to face conversation. All the while knowing that if we found ourselves in a situation where we had to separate employment, then we had to have, our plan was to, at the next moment that we had the opportunity, we want to reemploy this person. So we were walking that plank knowing that it was about to fall off in the water, at the same time trying to develop a renewal plan, a re-institution to that gainful employment. It was very, very difficult.
Angela is no stranger to difficult employment decisions. She came into education from the manufacturing world, and at one point, when she was still working in business, her facility was downsized. She had to lay off every single employee… including herself.
ANGELA COOPER: Sometimes people look at folks in HR and they think we are separate, you know, that the policies and the rules, in this case RIF policies, that they don’t apply to us, but they do. We’re all employees. We all have a hire date. That human component there, when I began talking to employees, they were just struggling, just scared to death, just like, “Please hear me.” It was intense, and it was something that the district has never experienced and I pray we never do again. But I have had that experience myself.
KEVIN SMOAK: I do recall the superintendent coming to our school and saying the possibility that this could happen next year. And I remember colleagues were thinking, I remember talking about when were we hired, who was hired when and so forth. And we were aware as teachers. I also remember the beginning of one year where a teacher was involuntarily transferred from one school to my school. I remember this teacher in tears the first few days of school, not that she didn’t want to be at our school, but she missed her previous school. And so it took some adjustment. So we were compassionate for that and it worked out, she was thankful she had a job, but even with a job, being in a different school, a different environment, you know, it took some adjustment. But, teachers, I remember as a teacher, we took up for one another, we helped one another and that’s what makes education so great. Teachers stand up for one another and help one another and support one another.
That sets the stage for what we’re really here today to talk about, and that is how Lexington 2 approaches new teacher inductions. Angela and her team in Human Resources still needed to move forward with the business of serving the staff who were there to educate kids. The district as a whole felt a duty to keep innovating. They still had to come into work each day and ask the question, “What can we do to support the teachers we have?” And since teacher turnover is expensive, “What can we do to keep our great teachers that we need so desperately, in the middle of all this uncertainty, all of this chaos? How do we do continue to improve? And how we do that on an incredibly tight budget?”
And one thing that’s vital to teacher success and retention at Lexington 2, is the way that they onboard new teachers.
ANGELA COOPER: The induction program is critical. It is our goal to work with new teachers who have graduated from a teacher ed program or who may be going through an alternative certification program to prepare them to move successfully through a formal evaluation that next year, and research shows that a successful and effective mentor, assigned to these induction teachers, and ongoing support from the district, as in an induction program, is critical to their success.
The problem — and you know what I’m going to say here — was funding.
ANGELA COOPER: And one thing to remember about that was also during that time, the allocation for that program per teacher was cut. I can’t be specific about how much it was cut, but just substantially as a result of the funding cliff for example. So that is an area that we knew that we could not negotiate on. However, I can’t tell you that it had all the funding that it required. We knew that we were going to have to look for additional ways.
But Angela had an idea. She want to her superintendent and said, “I think I have a way to fund our induction program without costing the district one extra cent.”
ANGELA COOPER: So we already had research out there. We knew what we were looking for. So we were well on our way with that. What we had not planned for was, “How are we going to offer our induction classes?” In addition, this particular situation and funding cliff forced us into thinking in other ways, thinking in ways that we just never would have imagined, which led to the research about blended learning, synchronous learning and now what we have known as virtual learning, which led to a plan, we developed a three year plan, phase and plan. And I went to the superintendent and I explained to her that while we were going through these budget cuts, etc., and here is the allocation that we are expecting for the induction program, I thought and I believed then, and I know it was true now we’ve been successful, that we can roll out an induction program in the midst of this! Induction program and a program to grow the employees that we have, and not cost the district a dime while we’re moving through this significant funding cliff. And we were going to write a grant to do that and I explained to her the benefits of our research and blended learning, moving to a formal virtual learning process.
To which she said, “Angela, I don’t know exactly what you mean by all this. But I can see that you really believe in that and I appreciate the fact that you are not asking for additional money and if you believe you can do that, then I’ll support you in doing so.”
And so, they started writing grants, focused on professional development.
In order to be effective, Angela and Kevin knew, professional learning, including onboarding, has to be specific to where individual teachers are. It has to take into account whether they’re early childhood teachers, elementary, middle school, or secondary teachers, and a plethora of other variables, too.
ANGELA COOPER: We should not provide a general program for everyone, because everyone doesn’t need the same thing. So we believe in that personal connectedness for the individual teachers. We believe that if you’re onboarding processes are not efficient, you’re going to lose specs. There are too many options out there. We talked about that all the time. Um, we believe that if our induction process isn’t flexible and meet the needs of the individual teachers, they will not stay with it, perhaps, or they will not be successful in going through a formal evaluation process.
You might have caught this earlier. The idea at Lexington 2 was to move to a form of virtual, blended learning for their teacher inductions. They wanted to get away from the model where teachers would come to the district and sit in a lecture for two hours. And they wanted to do it in a way that preserved the kind of personal connectivity and relationship that facilitates learning.
I asked Kevin, if I were a new teacher coming to teach at Lexington 2, what’s it like?
KEVIN SMOAK: Well, our induction program, obviously at the beginning of the year, it does involve a face-to-face orientation to get to know one another and spell out what we’re going to do. But then our induction program, the blended learning, I meet with the induction teachers once a month, and we use the WebEx platform, and it’s not a webinar where I just speak and they just listen. I use my experiences as a teacher, knowing what is good pedagogy, what are the best practices in teaching students. I use that same technique, same strategies, in teaching teachers. So although we’re not in the same room together, we are virtually in the same room, where we have cameras, I can see everyone, they can speak, they can virtually raise their hands, they can interact, I can separate them into groups, small group learning. And so I’m able to do this by helping them save time.
They don’t have to drive to the district office. They’re able to actually save money as well, if you look at the big picture. But I remember as a teacher, the one thing that I wanted more than anything was more time. And so now in my role here, I was like, “How can I help teachers save time?” And when I came into this role, although the induction program, the blended learning, it was beginning, I took it to the next level and made it more virtual learning, where I’m able to help the teachers save time, but I’m able still to support them in a timely manner. So instead of driving 30 minutes to the district office, having an hour meeting and then driving away, they simply turn on their computer. We’re able to interact. We’re able to go over what they need to do, answer questions. We’re able to dive deep into what they specifically need so that they do pass the formal evaluation that next year, and ultimately that’s the goal. But the bigger picture is that we want to grow our teachers so that they can be more effective, so that they can teach our students. And I’ve had really good responses, feedback from the teachers, how they appreciate our flexibility that they have and that they can just log on and learn virtually.
Clearly flexibility as well as time savings are benefits that this brings. Teachers don’t have to spend time traveling. What else? What are some other benefits that come from a blended learning environment like this?
KEVIN SMOAK: I’m able to share data with them and they’re able to reflect on that, you know, in a platform this way. I’m able to, even during the month, send out emails or use Google Docs, whatever we may use, but I think we’re able to get the information out quicker. They’re able to be more prepared when we come to meet, we’re able to share screens, with cameras I’m able to see in the classrooms from one teacher to another. Other teachers are able to share their classroom with other teachers. If they were to come to the district office, you know, they don’t know what the other teachers’ classrooms look like. I actually have the ability and in one of my classes, I actually have them show the rest of the class: “What does your classroom look like?” We talk about classroom environment. We talk about with the purposes of setting up the tables or desks the way they do and they’re able to see what other teachers do.
I have found out that teachers appreciate hearing from other teachers more than they do from me most of the time because once you become a teacher, you feel isolated. I remember when I was a teacher, I never saw another teacher teach because I was too busy teaching myself and even learning strategies. And meeting virtually is a wonderful way to share strategies, but also to see what they’re doing, even down to classroom management strategies that they’re able to see how they did in their classroom. So that’s a benefit that I see with the virtual learning.
And so each teacher logs in from their individual classroom then?
KEVIN SMOAK: Yes.
I know that blended learning has a component where people will engage in learning, whether that be reading a book, watching videos, taking some sort of instruction individually and then coming together to discuss and apply it. Was that a component of what you’re doing here too?
KEVIN SMOAK: It is. And it’s not only just reading something, but even having them do something. One of my activities is I have them videotape themselves and they’re to reflect on their lesson that they saw them teach, and they complete some forms and so forth. And I compile data for them to look at, but they’re also able to share that information when they come to the class. So yes, it does involve them doing something prior to each class and I usually give them some type of homework to do. Usually I try not to give them homework like just busy work, but something that they can apply in their classroom, come back, share about some strategies you’ve used that are most effective with classroom management or questioning or something related to our rubric that we’re required to do. I’m also able to a combined compliance from state department of education with practical application in the classroom. So it’s not just looking at data and how are they improving so that there’ll be able to pass formal evaluation, but how can they use this in the classroom? So my homework or activities or readings or assignments will be related to improving instructional strategies, instructional practices.
How often do you meet and for how long after a new teacher comes into the district?
KEVIN SMOAK: We meet once a month, and what I do is, I divide our teachers up. So I don’t meet with all of our induction teachers in one meeting. I felt it’s more important that I meet with my elementary separate from my secondary, even separate from, sometimes, special education or even special areas like guidance counselors, reading specialists. So I meet with them once a month and it’s typically between an hour, an hour and a half long.
I meet with them once a month for the entire first year, but I also meet with their mentors, and I think that’s a real critical part of this. We’re partnering with their mentors who meet with them in the building on a regular basis. So I meet with the mentors separately to discuss broad issues that apply to maybe all the elementary teachers, and what can I do from the district level to provide support not only to the induction teachers, but support to the mentors who then have that face-to-face mentoring or support for the teachers.
And you’re meeting With the mentors virtually as well or do you bring them into the central office there?
KEVIN SMOAK: I meet with them virtually as well. And there have been some occasions that I’ve taken a small group of teachers and meet with both the teachers, induction teachers and the mentors because we felt like that was the best fit. So there’s not only flexibility for the teachers, there’s flexibility for myself, flexibility for the mentors, and I’m always looking at ways that I can best meet the needs of the teacher instead of just doing it the same way each year. I reevaluate after each meeting and after each year and try to improve the program. And I have made changes each year based on feedback and based on ways that I feel like it’s going to best support our teachers.
I’m glad that you mentioned data a few minutes ago. I’m curious what kind of data that you collect and how you use it.
KEVIN SMOAK: Sure. In South Carolina, we use the South Carolina Teaching Standards 4.0 rubric. And it’s required by the state department of education that we evaluate teachers on a regular basis using this tool. When mentors are required in our district to observe teachers at least twice per semester, administrators observe them at least once per semester, and there may be additional. Each teacher reflects after each observation using the same rubric. So I’m able to compile data based on this rubric on which indicators are teachers, you know, thriving in. They may be really good with classroom culture, which I see a lot, or teaching the content area, very strong in that. But I may see some weaknesses or areas of improvement in areas like questioning or thinking or even classroom management. So I’m able to look at that data and not only share it with them and have them reflect on it, but I can look at it and find out ways that I can differentiate the mentoring and differentiate the teaching for my teachers in the areas that they specifically need versus just coming in to meet and say how’s it going?
I have a purpose in our meeting and I have a plan on where to go based on that data. So the data drives the instruction. It’s the same strategy I used when I was teaching middle school science. I use the assessments and data to help me inform my instruction. I’m doing that now using the South Carolina Teaching Standards 4.0 rubric.
The fact that this funding crisis led to your creativity in coming up with alternate ways to do induction and trying to still focus on the things that you believe are really important, even though your resources have been pulled back, that really makes me think of the quote, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Were you confident that you could do this? Had anyone that you knew ever done something like this before? What was it like to be in your shoes and to make a commitment that you could do this without adding to the budget and then going out and making it happen?
ANGELA COOPER: Well, I’ll begin. I was absolutely confident that we could do it. Did I know anyone who had done this? No. We had our local research and state research, regional research. All the way to international research. I had talked to numerous stakeholders because that type of collaboration and conversation is imperative. And at that time I was a former South Carolina Association of School Administrators president of our division. There are certain things that we had established, for example, the online teacher application that had its day and it was very, very, very important and we all have benefited from it, but it no longer served a purpose. But just knowing that that will be one avenue, for example, that was one hurdle, just one that we would need to bridge and explain why and explain how we can move into something that was for the greater good of all employees.
That all by itself was to be, I won’t say a battle, but it was a political conversation. So knowing that for me, was I… yes, I was absolutely confident. But I knew that it was going to take a lot of work, a lot of conversation, and I was dedicated to that. We did it. No, I didn’t know anyone else who was willing to do to do that. I did discuss it with a couple of people, but you know, there’s something to be said for, there’s comfort in numbers and it’s like, “Why don’t you go ahead and do that, school district A, and whenever you’re successful, then maybe we’ll look at it.” We feel the same way about a lot of things, but this is just something that, from my perspective, I felt very, very strongly about and still do.
We have reaped the benefits of what we intended to reap and more, so it was a calculated risk for me. Okay. But the number one thing was I knew how we would fund it, I had the support of the superintendent, I would bring everyone else along from the cabinet level and on, but I will not tell you that it was a walk in the park because it was not. It was calculated. I think the risk, it was time to do that, we had to do something. And it wasn’t the greatest time. Ideally we would have been in a situation where we had plenty of money, there have been certainly no risk of or discussion of anyone potentially losing a job. So yeah, the timing, there was a lot to be desired for the timing.
I mean, it could have been less stressful if it had been in another kind of a budget scenario. However, the change orientation part of it would have been just as hard. A significant stout budget year would not have changed the anxiety and so forth that we, I mean educators, people who have been around a long time would have to learn how to work. For example, we had to commit to being trained to learn how to facilitate in the virtual world. And Kevin is very, very good at that. He and I both have been trained in it. He spends a lot of time in it now, I don’t. But he makes it look as easy as making a pie, and it isn’t. It is another way of facilitating and we didn’t expect our principals to be that adept, but we did have to bring them on board to this way of thinking and support. So it was, like I said, it was a calculated effort. But yes, I absolutely knew that we’d be successful. I knew that it would come with a lot of work and effort and we measured our progress along the way. And was, I — I don’t want to say frightened — but I did I know I was stepping out there? Yes, I did.
KEVIN SMOAK: I’d like to add, I had the perspective and the opportunity to be a teacher when the district started the blended learning. And so I was a mentor several years and I think the first year they implemented that in the district. And so I was on the other end of it before I was where I’m at now. So I saw the perspective as a teacher and how it saved time. But I also had the perspective of whenever I became part of human resources, what can I do to improve it? And I remember what it was like on the other side of the camera, if you will. And so that perspective has been very beneficial for me. My time as a teacher has been extremely beneficial. So I can see through the lenses of a teacher whenever I’m developing the program, whenever I’m developing a class and so forth, I’ll be honest with you.
It’s actually more work for me to, to facilitate the virtual learning than for me just to have every teacher come to the district office. But it’s worth it for me to be able to save time for our teachers because that is so valuable. I remember as a teacher, if I could have more time and it’s so valuable. So it’s worth it for me that I feel like I’m able to give back to the teachers and going the extra mile, going the extra effort to be able to support them. I want to do everything that I possibly can to support all of our teachers, and I feel like this virtual learning is just one small way to do that. I receive feedback from teachers each year how much they appreciate this and how much they would far rather have it this way than traditional learning.
That’s interesting, because we began our conversation today hearing about not just the funding shortfall but also the fear that was in the district, and of course we know that there were ripples in that, and that funding meant some difficult decisions, however, it sounds like you were able to take that and actually provide something that is ultimately working out better for your teachers.
ANGELA COOPER: Yes. Yes. We believe yes.
Now, it needs to be said: virtual onboarding didn’t isolate Lexington 2 from the financial earthquake we all experienced in 2008. Positions were cut. But the way that Angela and Kevin and their team looked at that enormous problem, saw the need to continue growing the capacity of teachers in the face of a budget that had shrunk, that played out in ways beyond teacher inductions. While some teachers were involuntarily transferred and rehired, others had to get additional certification in order to remain employed… and ultimately, as Lexington 2 rolled with the punches, continued to innovate, continued to grow, they were able to rehire everyone who had been laid off, who was still available to work. AND they went on to hire more. In a place where there had been fear and doubt, now Lexington 2 points to its flexibility and innovation as a way to retain teachers… and hire new ones.
So now that we’re in 2018, what do things look like at Lexington 2?
ANGELA COOPER: Well, Kevin mentioned earlier, he’s always responding to or we are always responding to our end of the year data. We did that formatively as well. We’re always looking to continue our innovation, our evolution. What do things look like now? Well, we tend to be well-versed in virtual learning and preparing lessons and being able to connect individually as well as collectively. We are proud that we now realize a group alike is maybe not as effective as or is more effective than the whole group. You know, just learning what’s more effective and in our environment. But we’re excited about the evolution of, for example, just one portion of our daily operating procedures and we’re looking to innovate our onboarding processes right now to even more mainstream them into the growing of our capacity. Kevin talked about growing our teachers, and that’s part of our platform, if you will. So that’s what we look like now. We’re looking to take it to the next level.
KEVIN SMOAK: Yeah. As I mentioned earlier, this is a community district, and I believe in continuing that community and the relationships with all of our staff, especially mentioning our induction teachers and mentoring, and by continuing to find ways to support them, in ways to take something off their plate. We mentioned evaluations and different types of compliance coming from the South Carolina Department of Education, and I try to be that filter between what’s compliant and the teachers receiving that, and how can I put it in a way that’s going to be effective? I always try to find the most efficient and effective ways for our teachers and I’m always striving to find new ideas, new ways. I’m not afraid to step out on the ledge and look for new ideas and new ways to ultimately support our teachers and to build on what we have right now.
What would you say makes your district most attractive to teachers right now?
KEVIN SMOAK: I recruit regularly and I talked about flexibility, and the support, and I really talk about that flexibility and support and I hear about the benefits from teachers at the end of the year and so forth when we ask them. So I feel like we do support our teachers. I wish we could support them even more. That’s why I’m trying to find more ways, but I think we’re doing a really good job of that.
ANGELA COOPER: One thing that I hear often is, that I think they may be surprised, we’re not a very large district, but we’re not small either. We’re an average sized district for the state of South Carolina, but maintaining that… we do work very hard to maintain that level of relationship and it can be so easily lost. So I hear a lot of, you know, “I appreciate that email,” or “I appreciate you taking the time to connect with me separately if I was having difficulty logging into Kevin’s class,” for example. We reach out there. We do not let people flounder around on their own. We still, and we always will, hold onto those relationships, because they’re important. That’s what we’re about.
Every school wants to continually improve and demonstrate better results and serve kids better and plenty of schools, of course, are dealing with funding shortfalls. If you woke up tomorrow morning and went to work in one of those other districts, what would your takeaways from your time at Lexington 2 be?
ANGELA COOPER: I’m always one for pushing the envelope. Kevin is, too, but he can talk about that. In the world of education, you know, I came from another background, Kevin actually did, too, before he began teaching. And often we hear about innovations and innovators and folks who are stepping out and embracing that. One thing I have found in education is that is not so much the case. We are more often inclined to just maintain the status quo. So I would be a proponent of change. I would be a proponent of embracing what we’re able to do and helping to move forward. Because you know, the fear of doing anything at all is still a decision. So I’m a change proponent. And not everything is exactly appropriate for every district, but if you are not innovative then you are already behind. So that would be my mindset and I would work to help establish the plan and how we would get there, because to do anything else, as I said earlier today, I feel like it’s negligent. I mean we’re here to advise, counsel and guide, grow our employees, and make sure that we’ve got the best person in the classrooms. And education is big business. We have an obligation to do that regardless.
KEVIN SMOAK: The biggest thing for me is, I’m always — and I’ve said this several times — looking at the perspective of a teacher. The teachers are our backbone of our district. They are the ones on the front line. They don’t get the credit they deserve. They deserve more credit than they receive, I should say. And I would always strive to do what’s best for them to help our students. Because ultimately, the students are the whole reason why we all are here. I’m always trying to find innovative ideas, but I am willing, as Dr. Cooper mentioned, to push the envelope, find new ways. Again, I did not start off in education. I’m a career-changer. I have a business background, I have other backgrounds that I bring with me and I don’t always do it the same way it’s always been done because that’s the way we’ve always done it in education. I’m always trying to find ways that to improve in every area that we do, always looking to be more effective.
We have been speaking with Dr. Angela Cooper, the Chief Human Resources Officer, and Kevin Smoak, the Coordinator for Evaluation and Effectiveness at Lexington School District Two in South Carolina. Angela and Kevin, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today.
ANGELA COOPER: Thank you for having us.
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For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.