2020 Florida Principal of the Year – Sarajean McDaniel (PART 2)

This is the second part of our two-part interview with Sarajean McDaniel.

In this part you will learn how Moseley implemented Student-led Academic teaming. How it builds mutual respect across the board for staff, teachers, students, and the community. How it helps get students engaged and super excited about learning. How even the most reluctant students want to participate and get involved.

Learn how it grows all children. If you missed Part One of the interview and would like to read it, please click here.

What is Academic Teaming? How did you implement it? And what were the results?

It’s easier for me to describe what it is not.

It’s not quick and it’s not something you go observe then turn around and make it happen in your classroom.

Some people may mistakenly relate Academic Teaming to the old “cooperative learning.” In that model you put four desks together and students might talk about one thing – but Academic Teaming is so far beyond that.

It is an organized way of work where students depend on each other. It promotes student autonomy.

Best of all, it’s not always the attention-seeker that is the one that’s doing all the talking. It’s not your smartest child that is leading the group.

“It’s a way for all students to have a voice and all students to participate.”

Everyone has a role.

It builds mutual respect with everyone.

It teaches teachers to let go. And that was one of our biggest challenges. To have teachers let go and release to the students.

Everyone wants to have a voice. Everyone wants to participate. And they’re going to find a way to participate.

It was incredible. It was respectful acceptance.

It was not, here’s the right answer and let’s all copy and turn this in. It grows all children. It taught those that did get those answers faster to be patient and work with another student.

“Everyone wants to have a voice. Everyone wants to participate. And they’re going to find a way to participate.”

They ask questions like, “Why did you get that answer?” “What was your thinking?”

Everything is celebrated. Correct answers and participation.

One of the biggest benefits are the common practices.

We can apply it across all teams and grow throughout the year. You can go across grade levels and students can observe other students, teachers can observe other teachers… it’s a way for all students to have a voice and all students to participate.

How did students and teachers respond to Academic Teaming?

In my prior schools we didn’t have a common practice. Every class looked different. We didn’t have a common language. So, we really couldn’t build on anything.

Our professional development wasn’t focused or tailored for everyone because everyone did their own thing. That would affect kids. They would get used to one teacher’s style, and then the next year, have to make a shift to learn a different set of rules. It was not easy for them. But with a common language and common rule set, students can spend more time on learning than adjusting to new environments and rules. The difference is remarkable.

“If you promote something as positive, then people respond. They will rise to the occasion.”

As far as the teachers?

They really appreciated common focus brought in by LSI. We were all starting over.

Teachers did bring their practices and experiences, so while everyone was learning the same common practices, we did see some teachers move further along than others. But that was OK. It was accepted and supported.

Keep in mind this was our schoolwide practice and focus. It was an expectation.

Everyone jumped in and tried it.  

There were a couple of times at the beginning where there were questions like, “What if students don’t respond?” “What if they’re not a good team member?”

We decided to focus on that if it happens.

Once teachers started getting a little praise, celebration, and attention – the students responded. Like I’d mentioned earlier, at the leadership level, if you promote something as positive, then people respond. They will rise to the occasion.

How has your partnership with LSI helped enhance your process for new and novice teachers improve the rigor of their instruction?

We have a fairly young faculty at Moseley. We brought them in from all over. Our mission was to get in passionate people that love children and we can grow them.

What LSI did, was it gave them the strategies and the framework to teach. This way they are not going in looking at the classroom management and focusing on that – with a secondary focus on, “what am I teaching?”

Instead the new teachers were digging into the standards and learning the standards. They were planning with their team and knowing what they’re teaching.

The result was that their classrooms were so focused!

We were managing the faculty like you want your classroom management in your classroom. They didn’t have to worry about the things first-year teachers often experience because they were so well planned, planning with their teammates, and releasing to the students.

“It was never, ‘I want to be like teacher X’, instead, it was ‘I just want to better myself.’”

I remember one teacher; she was a first-grade teacher. I saw the turning point in her. We had done some observations.  

At first there was a lot of teacher talk, students were a little antsy. After we had those coaching conversations, she just switched.

It was almost instantly, her whole classroom management changed.

Later she came to us almost crying because she was so excited about the change.

When those teachers just release and believe. Or say to themselves, “Let’s just try it. Let’s just do it.” and continue to grow together, that’s important.

In fact, we were able to create cohorts with our teachers. It was never a competition with each other, but a competition within themselves.

Once they started getting recognition the fires started getting bigger. They wanted to be better.

It was never, “I want to be like teacher X”, instead, it was “I just want to better myself.”

Even our head custodian got fired up about it. He’d been in classrooms enough that he understood the language, and he created success criteria and learning targets for the bathrooms!

We were even able to use the new learnings on field trips. For the lunch lines. All over the school. It’s great!

Now whenever there is an issue or problem, there is a very clear expectation in terms of the success criteria. Everyone knows what’s expected and how to accomplish it.

What would you tell other districts or schools considering a similar partnership with LSI?

I would say, go all in. Since our transformation, we’ve had so many visitors and observers walking through our classrooms.

It’s not something you can look at, take notes, and apply turnkey.

It is a whole process.

It has become that second order change at Moseley.

“If what you are doing is not yielding the results in student achievement, along with great teacher support and training, why not have everyone on the same page?”

LSI provides incredible support the whole way.

I just can’t imagine having only two or three teachers and supporting those two or three “stars”.

You can’t just do a little piece of it.

I love how we did it at Moseley. I’m so thankful it was schoolwide.

So, what would I say to administrators? I’d say why not?

If what you are doing is not yielding the results in student achievement, along with great teacher support and training, why not have everyone on the same page?  

Something you can focus on and support and have a partnership.

And it is a true partnership all the to the school district.

We had support from that school improvement coach, our superintendent would come and do walks with us. Being able to support this common practice is huge – and LSI did everything possible to help us you there.


Meet Sarajean – virtually! – at the 2020 Building Expertise Educators Conference

Sarajean and her team and students will be presenting a live virtual session titled Moving Mountains – How can Empowered Students Maintain School Culture in a Virtual Environment at the 2020 Building Expertise Virtual Conference on June 17-19, 2020. Learn more and browse the other 30+ expert-led sessions here.

How to Partner with LSI

If you are interested in learning more about LSI, Student-led Academic Teaming and how it can help your school or district, please follow this link and complete the contact form, an LSI expert will get back to you right away!

About Sarajean McDaniel

Sarajean McDaniel was selected Saturday as the 2020 Florida Principal of the Year by the state Department of Education.

McDaniel was recognized for her role in improvements made at Moseley Elementary School in Palatka. The school was removed from the state’s turnaround list in 2019 when it improved to a C rating.

Putnam County School Superintendent Rick Surrency said McDaniel “exemplifies excellence in educational leadership.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis made the announcement Saturday on his Twitter page, tweeting: “Congratulations to Ms. Sarajean Branam McDaniel, Florida’s 2020 Principal of the Year. Her hard work and commitment have made a difference in the lives of the students and staff at Moseley Elementary School and the community.”

Surrency said McDaniel’s honor was “a great day for Putnam County.”