This post is the second in a three-part series highlighting lessons learned this past year from LIFT, a network of district, school, and classroom leaders from across Tennessee who have been working since 2016 to overcome the literacy crisis by providing teachers with high-quality instructional materials (HQIM) and aligned supports in English language arts (ELA) classrooms.  

As a member of the Leading Innovation For Tennessee (LIFT) network, Marshall County Schools began implementing CKLA, a high-quality ELA curriculum, in 2018. In the 2019-20 school year, they expanded that work to grades K-3 across four elementary schools. Through this work, they’ve learned many valuable lessons, chief among them the importance of having engaged district leadership that keeps teachers, leaders, and schools focused on the end goal of outstanding literacy instruction.  

We spoke with Jacob Sorrells, Marshall County director of schools, and Tammy Lewis, instructional supervisor, about how they work together to bring strong literacy instruction to all students in Marshall County. They emphasized the need for strong leadership and having clearly defined roles in order to successfully improve literacy instruction.  

Strong Leadership 

The need for strong leadership and ongoing planning is vital to this work. As other district leaders seek to leverage HQIM to improve literacy instruction, Jacob recommends that they first create a leadership team to ensure that everyone is on the same page. 

“Identify your obstacles and create a plan with your team as to how you will overcome them,” said Jacob. “Communicate the ‘why’ with your school board and keep them updated along the way, so they have ready answers to questions or concerns they may get from staff.” 

As an instructional supervisor, Tammy stressed the importance of having the support of the director of schools as she monitors and supports instruction in schools.  

Our director is the gatekeeper to improving instruction; he sets clear expectations for school leaders regarding professional learning communities (PLCs), ELA walkthroughs, and unit and lesson preparation,” said Tammy. “His commitment and expectations lay the groundwork for me to come into the schools and do the detailed work specific to individual school needs.” 

Defining Roles 

Those clear expectations are key, and Jacob recognizes his responsibility to ensure they are established and communicated.   

“My role is to set the expectation that teachers will use the adopted curriculum, that we will work together as a district to implement the curriculum, and that principals will be the instructional leaders,” he said. “We set the expectation that the curriculum supervisor will work with teachers to implement the curriculum with fidelity, as well as create space for professional growth.” 

Tammy said her role is to support principals as they build their toolbox to support their teachers in improving literacy instruction.  

“The principal is the driving force for improvement,” she said, “but I am here to coach them and support them in any way needed.” 

I organize and attend professional development opportunities for our teachers, which not only strengthens my practice but shows our administrators and teachers that I am learning alongside them and am committed to supporting strong implementation,” she said. 

Tammy’s work also involves attending state meetings and trainings so that she can share information with stakeholders and ensure coherence. She regularly assists with ELA walkthroughs with the instructional coaches and principals and collaborates with them to provide strong feedback to teachers. 

To learn more about the lessons learned through the LIFT network, read their latest annual report

Janelle Brown is SCORE’s K-12 program director.