An Interview with Jill Jackson: Helping Teachers Re-Tool, Re-Assess, ReEvaluate and Re-Energize

Oct 23, 2012 by

Jill Jackson is Owner and Managing Director of Jackson Consulting

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Jill, I often enjoy going to your blogs and reading your suggestions, and sometimes diatribes, and sometimes common sense stories. First of all could you provide for our readers, your web site and tell them a bit about what you do and what you try to accomplish?

Well thanks!  You can find us at – – I blog twice weekly and aim to reach leaders, principals, instructional coaches, teachers and to bring the message that with energy, intention and excellent skill we can accomplish ANYTHING with our students.  I write a lot about the things that excellent teachers who get excellent results do in their classrooms- we need to model ourselves after the true performers with results! If you know me, you know I don’t put up with any shenanigans about what education “should” be like – I deal with what it actually is.  And it’s actually a great place to be!  I also post daily on twitter and facebook – – you tend to get some unedited thoughts of mine over there, so enter at your own risk! and

2) On one of your recent postings, there were apparently some teachers discussing the coming new school year. One was enthusiastic, one was reflective, and one other somewhat pessimistic, as there have been SO many changes over the past few years. How do you support one’s enthusiasm, another’s quiet reflection, and another’s feelings of being overwhelmed?

I think the most important thing as a coach or leader is to come back.  Don’t shy away from frustration and resistance – it’s oftentimes in those moments that folks are most teach-able and ready to learn!  I heard a pastor one-time speak of the “ministry of being there” – in other words – – be alongside them.  Be present.  Ask how things are going sometimes and other times just hang back and just be.  Supporting teachers in the trenches is 50% skill (knowing how to use tools and tricks in working with people) and 50% is instinct (knowing when to push, pull, stretch and sit back).

We have to remember that we’re dealing with people and one of the most important things that leaders can do is manage the change process – – by anticipating resistance, frustration, increased work load, etc., we can help folks come to grips with it and prepare!  No one likes feeling “done to”.

3) I am going to steal a line from a recent movie- that may become a mantra in the future- but one of the characters in The Avengers said something to the effect that ” This is nothing that we were trained for”. Your thoughts?

I totally agree.  Information is coming so fast and so furiously (another movie nod!) that we’re having trouble getting caught up.  I feel for teachers and administrators, but I think we can both come together to control the onslaught of information and actually have a chance to be successful with everything that’s coming down the pike.

Let me give you a recent example.  I was meeting with a group of district coaches who were charged with “Helping teachers implement the Common Core”. Um, huh?

That is a near impossible task – especially without a plan!

What we did instead of freak out and try to go teacher by teacher and provide very disconnected support, was to break down the instructional shifts with the Common Core and then plot them out on a calendar for THE YEAR.

Not the month – not the week.  We then took one instructional shift per trimester and created a focused plan for professional development, principal observations, coaching interactions, team meeting focus areas and individual teacher responses.  In other words, we CONTROLLED THE INFORMATION.  It didn’t mean that we were going any slower, it just meant that we weren’t doing a zillion things at the same time.

So, the big lesson for educators is to assess the “bigness” of what needs to be done with any school reform effort or curriculum or standards and break it down into do-able chunks.  And then DO THEM!  In fact, I just posted a quote by Amelia Earhart: “The most effective way to do it, is to do it.”  I agree!

4) Even “informal reading inventories” seem to be permeating the schools- we have the Sivaroli, the Burns and Roe, the Cooter- Do you have a preference and do you train teachers in these informal assessements?

Yes I’m aware of those – and they will work to get a basic outline of where to start and what to do to provide targeted instruction – and that’s a good thing!  We tend to you CORE’s Phonics Survey the most – it’s easy to use and it helps break down letter naming, letter sound, long/short vowel sounds, basic phonics and decoding all of the way to multisyllabic words.  The reason why we tend to use it is because it can be given in pieces and parts, depending on what you want to know about your student. It also uses “real” words and “pseudo” words which allows us to differentiate between the student who has memorized words versus uses phonics/decoding skill on new words – the pseudo words take care of that!  We regularly teach teachers to use this tool to help design their targeted small group instruction every day.

5) Now, it seems that even the best teachers are baffled and befuddled by cyclical demands—increase comprehension, increase fluency, increase word attack—increase vocabulary —is there any ONE area that should be focused on, or should teachers just do the best they can?

I would go back and reread the last couple of lines in question 3, first of all! Just START!

However, I think there are a few ways to tackle this question.  First off, if teachers are using a research based scripted core or intervention program, then learning to teach that with fidelity and at expert levels is critical to their students’ success and WELL worth their time. The program/intervention will take care of the increase comprehension, increase fluency, increase everything under the sun kind of problem!

However, if we’re talking about targeted small group instruction, then we’re definitely looking at prioritizing the instructional need – especially for kids that seem to need help with everything.  First we start with 2+ grade kids with a phonics screener (see #4!).  We determine if they have phonics gaps – if they do, then that’s where we start targeted instruction. If they don’t have phonics gaps, then the we look at their fluency assessment results – if they are low, then we know that fluency is a great need during the targeted instruction time.  If both phonics and fluency are at the benchmark level, then we know we focus on is vocabulary and comprehension (if those areas have proven to be low). A quick-tip on working with kids on vocabulary and comprehension?  Pre-teach and rehearse the grade level core information – it really works well!

6) Now, reading and writing—if you want kids to read with more comprehension- are there genre’s that they SHOULD be reading or do your recommendations differ for elementary, middle school and high school?

If we want kids to comprehend what they reading at a higher level, then we have to give them challenging narrative and informational text and get them TALKING ABOUT IT!  They should be reading every genre – and many forms of all of them.  The other thing we want to focus on initially is retelling the most important parts of a selection.  If students can’t do that, then it’s pretty likely they’ll struggle with the heavier forms of analysis and comparison and contrast as they comprehend.

What is missing most often in comprehension instruction is the INSTRUCTION!  What should this look like?

•           Lots of the teacher showing the kids “This is what it looks like when you’re thinking about text” – the MODEL is critical here.

•           Lots of rereading text for different purposes.  For example, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to read this passage again but this time, let’s pay attention to how the author subtly lets us know that the protagonist is really frustrated.”

•           Lots of specific feedback about the discussions about the text. We should hear feedback like “Oooh Heather!  You did a great job of supporting your argument with details from the text…tell us more!”

7) There are those out there who simply DEMAND that students read, say , Willa Cather’s My Antonia, or some other classic that some school board has chosen.  In your mind, are there books that kids should be FORCED to read- whether they like it or not?

What I see is quite a bit of “assigning” that’s done based upon tradition – we’ve always done it this way or I always teach that book to 7th graders.  I think we have to think about teaching literature more like this: What text can I use that will help develop skills in my kids so that they can go out and independently read, comprehend, discuss, argue about, write about that text without support in the real world?  While the text is critical, we do want to avoid being so attached to the text that it loses is academic value.

Of COURSE there are certain pieces of text/works of literature that should be essential for any American student to have read, but I think HOW we teach it and read it is important to think about.  Motivation behind the “why are we reading this” question is highly under-prepared for, I find.

The Common Core Standards are going to continually require us to step-up the focus on learning stamina, persistence and motivation and those “intangibles” that are so important to having academic success.  So motivating students, giving them a purpose for reading, exciting them about text that they wouldn’t ordinarily find interesting is imperative for teachers.  This goes for textbooks, too!  We need to teach kids to use the literature as tools to gather information, not just as enjoyable pieces of fun.  That sounds horrible to say, but it’s true!  I have to read things all the time that I wouldn’t choose to read, but it’s a part of my job or other responsibilities related to being an adult.  We’ve got to teach kids this skill.  Stick-to-it-ive-ness is crucial for our kids moving ahead.

8) You mentioned the Common Core Standards.  What do you think we’re overlooking as we train teachers on how to use the Standards and to support the implementation of them?

I find that folks are either totally under-reacting or totally over-reacting to the Common Core implementation.  Some of our clients see the Standards as another fad or pendulum swinging thing that they will endure.  Others are contacting publishers and trying to buy anything with a “Common Core Standard Aligned” sticker on it. (Note: DON’T DO THIS!)

I see our biggest challenge being changing the way we deliver the instruction.  We’ve had so many standards implementation efforts that changed the “what”, but none that have systematically required us to deliver the content differently in the classroom.  I hope that we’re getting really comfortable with the idea that there will be little place for the stand-and-deliver lecture with follow-up done as homework.  Or little place for teachers to be the sage-on-the-sage and doing everything for the kids.  Or little place for kids who are well behaved but don’t speak during class.

These kinds of instructional delivery changes excite me because we have had too many kids attending class, but not engaging in it for too long.  I’ve all along thought that by having kids more highly engaged (and with changing little else), we would have tremendous results – and the Common Core is going to require us to step up to the plate and apply what-works kind of techniques, not teacher-style driven teaching techniques.  It’s a huge undertaking, but it’s exciting!

Jill Jackson is Owner and Managing Director of Jackson Consulting, a full-service literacy consulting and school improvement company serving the Nation’s lowest performing/high-poverty school districts.  Jill and her team specialize in telling it like it really is as they analyze and refine leadership, coaching and teaching practices for increased student performance through professional development and on-site consulting services.  Many clients have achieved exponential growth in student achievement during their partnership with Jill and Jackson Consulting.  Come grab Jill’s free tools at or send her a tweet at or post on her wall at

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