By Jennifer Poon and Sean Ross
We are pleased to share with you today a piece from our storytelling series of reflections and noticings coming out of our convening in Tucson!
Please stay tuned for more writings from our team of storytellers and revisit the blog here to see them all in the coming months.
“What saved me and my team was stepping back into that formative assessment space and saying, we’re learners, too.” – Sean Ross
At the February 2023 Assessment for Learning (AfL) convening in Tucson, Sean Ross was sharing about supporting formative assessment practices across the state of Arizona. Ross, the Executive Director of the Arizona State Board of Education, was presenting with a team including Arizona Department of Education colleagues Eboney McKinney and Sandra Figueroa (Ross worked with them at ADE until just a few months ago), and Barbara Jones and Jessica Arnold from WestED. They were workshopping a new toolkit to support growth in formative assessment practices at every level from classrooms to the state house.
That work is impressive. But what kept ringing in my head after the session was the connection Ross made between formative assessment and his experience as a team leader during the pandemic. Formative assessment saved your team? I wanted to know more.
Ross generously agreed to share more about his leadership experience with me over Zoom three weeks later. What follows are highlights from our conversation, edited for readability.
Jenny Poon: Before we get into your leadership story, let’s start by learning a little more about you. What motivates your interest in education?
Sean Ross: For most of my life, my mom was a single mom raising three children, and we grew up very poor. When I was nine, we moved from Oregon to Arizona on a Greyhound bus. Along the way, we lived off vending machine soup and whatever spare food or water other passengers gave us when they disembarked. When we arrived, my mom had $10 in quarters. It was a terrifying experience.
My aunt and uncle lived in Arizona and helped us find housing. We moved into the cheapest option we could find. As it turned out, our apartment happened to be zoned for one of the top schools in Phoenix.
So I ended up attending this great school, and I remember at one point being recognized by my teachers as a strong reader. I was never a struggling student, but I also had never been recognized or spot-lit like that in the past. It motivated me. I began identifying myself as something other than poor or a potential gang member or drug addict. I built myself up as a lover of reading and writing.
Then in the 7th grade, my mom was hit by a car when crossing the street. She was medically dead for three minutes, then in a coma for three weeks, and coming out of that was reduced to childhood. My sisters and I had to re-raise her, and I took on the responsibility of re-teaching her how to read and write.
Through these experiences – first building up my own identity as a lover of words, then using that passion to help my mom regain literacy after her accident – I began to understand my calling.
It took me a little while to get there (initially, I trained to become a pharmacist because I felt I needed a job that guarantees good pay) but I eventually followed my passion into the classroom as a middle school and later high school English teacher. I loved it. It was my happy place – a sacred place, a place of healing.
JP: What drew you to work in education policy?
SR: After 15 years, I felt I was nearing the end of my classroom run and made the jump to the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) as ELA Director for the state, which was still very field-facing. And I just continued to get drawn in and take on more roles from there.
In my early roles, I saw first-hand how much policy dictates what happens in the classroom. And I saw how often those policies are developed by people who never taught in classrooms themselves. Not that they didn’t mean well or weren’t well-informed, but I’m a big believer in having voices at the table who are impacted or who have direct experiences with those impacted.
JP: Let’s talk about leadership during the pandemic. At the ALP Convening in Tucson, you said, “Everything was changing in the moment, there was no way to plan ahead. I was faced with doubling down, or leading from a place of equality as a learner.” Can you say a little bit more about that moment and how you needed to respond differently as a leader?
SR: When the pandemic started, I had been in my role as Deputy Associate Superintendent of Academic Standards at ADE for just four months. Whenever you’re new to a leadership position, you encounter feelings of “imposter syndrome” and moments where you feel like you’re supposed to have all the answers.
As a teacher, you realize really quickly that it’s not always possible to know everything. You gain students’ respect by being honest, admitting when you don’t know everything, and working to learn it together.
But when the pandemic hit, I wanted to “keep it together” for my team at ADE and present as much stability and reliability as I could. I wanted to have all the answers. My leaders were trying to do the same.
The problem was, as soon as my leaders gave me a piece of information and I passed it on to my team, that piece of information would change. My effort to show up as a calm, stable force wasn’t real.
I distinctly remember one of my daily check-ins with the team while we were telecommuting, about two weeks into the pandemic. I was getting the same questions from them – questions I wanted to answer but couldn’t. I finally said, “I’m so sorry, I don’t have the answers, and I don’t know where to get them. I don’t think I can have them, or that I’m ever going to have them. That makes me want to do one of two things: either run away, or – we’re all really smart people, can we figure this out together?”
I had invited collaboration as a leader before, but that vulnerable moment launched something different. We said, wait a minute, let’s get everybody on the entire team – admins and everyone – on the call. I can’t lead us alone and don’t want to pretend that I can. Let’s form a new leadership style.
We found ways to elevate everyone’s concerns and to address them together, with everyone contributing their ideas. We distributed control and stewardship of our team meetings. We started planning together and brought in teachers and school personnel to inform our work. My job as a leader shifted from “having all the answers” to being the person who advocates for our collective decisions with higher levels of leadership.
JP: How does this new approach to leadership connect to your work on formative assessment in the classroom?
SR: It’s a lot like what we want teachers to do in the classroom. It’s gathering data in the moment, synthesizing it, identifying gaps in ideas or perspectives that haven’t been represented, going and doing more research, coming back, and using that to guide what we do next. That’s formative assessment.
It’s also similar to what teachers do when they raise up student voice and student agency. From my work on formative assessment with Barbara Jones at WestEd, I realized that I have to be in the mix with my team, not leading from my chair. My team is empowered to lead and inform our decisions, too. My job is to set up the system, then become a part of it, and use the weight of my title to get obstacles out of the way.
And just like in the classroom, sometimes it takes an adjustment. Sometimes new employees show trepidation, wondering “Is this real? Why is my boss asking for my ideas?” They pause, they wonder if it’s a test. Or else they wonder, “Does this guy not know anything?” It becomes incumbent on me to reinforce that this really is the way we work. The best way I can do that is to model collaboration and let them see moments when I support someone else’s idea. Then people start to believe it.
JP: What are you noticing about the impact of this “formative assessment” approach to leadership? What difference does it make?
SR: It takes the lid off. During the pandemic, it released the pressure on me to have all the answers and to navigate the team through it all by myself. It turned “me” into “we,” and ensured that everything we were doing was coming from the perspective of: what does the field need and how can we best meet it?
One example: When my Deputy Director, Aaron, and I came in as the new executive staff for the State Board, we met one-on-one with every employee to ask, what do you love about your job, what impedes you that we can help change, and what’s something you see on the horizon that we aren’t talking about yet but should be? When we met with our investigators, we learned they were having trouble getting important reports from another agency, limiting their ability to respond quickly to issues. It was also clear that they had brilliant ideas for how to solve it, but they weren’t comfortable sharing them. So, I called a meeting with both departments and created space for everyone to understand what is and isn’t going well, and to collaborate on next steps. Now, our investigators are getting what they need, including additional trainings we were able to provide.
Stepping back into a learning role also makes leadership more fun. It’s about growth and empowering others – and in a time when there’s administrative turnover as well as teacher turnover, it helps sustain people because they know you believe in them and have a vested interest in their growth.
This made a difference for my own team, resulting in more humane working conditions for all of us. One example of this happened about a year into the pandemic, when we had adjusted to telecommuting and the Zoom world but still weren’t very good at it. We were stacking Zooms all day with no clear boundaries between work and home, leaving no room for real life outside of work. We were burning out, just like we saw happening with teachers in classrooms. So, I went back to the team and said, I’m worried about us, what do we do? Together, we shared perspectives and created consensus agreements about when and how we should work during this time.
JP: What do you carry forward as a leader post-pandemic?
SR: I’m carrying this leadership style to my new job as Executive Director of the Arizona State Board of Education. The job can be overwhelming – it’s a high-stress job. But since Day 1, I’ve approached it with the same mode of leadership, operating communally with my team, learning and growing together.
Because of that, I haven’t had any moments where I felt embarrassed by being brand new. I just say, “Hey, I’m new, can you help me with this?” That invitation has helped form relationships with my staff because their expertise is acknowledged and we can also ask questions and grow together. I’ve carried over the system I had built at ADE in which parts of my team run their own agenda items during our weekly meetings. They elevate issues as they see them, bring ideas, and we collaborate on solutions.
JP: Any parting advice to others in similar positions who might consider a formative approach to leadership?
SR: Yes: it requires front-loading. It takes more time in the beginning because you must establish the system. The only way to get buy-in is to nurture it. But once the system is in place and is working, everything becomes smoother and easier. You don’t have to fear being blindsided by new information because your entire team is watching out and bringing ideas to you, unprompted, because they know the system. And they’re not just saying, “here’s this issue.” They’re already workshopping it with their own people, doing outreach, and bringing a better-formed idea because of it.
As a leader, you naturally question whether you’re making the right decision, asking, “what am I weighing and not weighing?” Leading from a “formative assessment” space takes that responsibility and disseminates it among a group who – if the system is working – are giving you honest feedback from their unique perspectives. That way, when a decision is made, you feel comfortable knowing that it’s been vetted through multiple different lenses, not just me and my unidentified biases. It takes all the voices, because we’re better together. There’s no way this gets better unless it’s all of us.
About the Storyteller
Jennifer Poon’s mission is to affect social justice by transforming the public education system to be more responsive to the needs of all learners, especially those most historically under-served. She currently serves as Partner for Learning Design and Sense-making with the Center for Innovation in Education. She lives with her husband and daughters in New York. Tweet to her @JDPoon.
Sean Ross is the Executive Director of the Arizona State Board of Education. Prior to joining the State Board of Education, he was the Deputy Associate Superintendent of Academic Standards at the Arizona Department of Education. Before joining state government, he was a classroom teacher, instructional coach, and site leader for fifteen years.