Catching up with Dr. Sharon Benson

Fifty-one years ago, the Texas Legislature established a system of 20 Educational Service Centers (ESCs) in order to help schools improve student performance, operate more efficiently, and implement state initiatives.   These ESCs provide support in areas ranging from professional development and human resources to disaster recovery guidance.

While at TASA Midwinter 2018, I noticed a leader from one of the Education Service Centers, ESC 4, was in attendance, learning alongside other campus and district leaders.  My conversations centered around the Vision usually occur with principals, curriculum leaders, and educators, not ESC staff.  I knew this was an opportunity to consider educational leadership in Texas in a new light.

Dr. Sharon Benson serves as the Director of Mathematics and Advanced Academics at ESC 4 in Houston, Texas.  Dr. Benson kindly obliged to answer a series of questions in order to provide insight into her role at the Service Center, as an educational leader in our state.

In your role at ESC 4, what is your mission/vision?

Region 4’s vision is “excellence in service for children.” In my role, I pair Region 4’s vision with my personal vision that has been unwavering since I transitioned out of the day-to-day role of classroom teacher: Each teacher equipped to equip each student. Each student equipped to achieve his or her goals and aspirations.

TASA announced a new Declaration recently in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the organization.  This Declaration will guide the new Strategic Framework.  How do these words inspire you as an educational leader in Texas?  

…that every public school student deserves. This phrase. Students bring diverse experiences to bear when they are learning. Every student deserves to learn and learn well in light of those experiences. What do we need to learn, what do we need to do, who should we be so that we build on the best that each student brings to school each day?

How do you build leaders to continue the work within and beyond ESC 4?

We believe that every teacher leads on a daily basis in some shape or form. When we plan professional learning experiences, we include conversations and reflections about how to share learning with teammates. We structure activities so that groups have rotating leadership opportunities. We also look for opportunities to grow emerging teacher leaders through aspiring teacher leader professional development opportunities that include book studies and blended learning experiences.

Each year, we identify a focus of learning based on feedback from our Region 4 Mathematics Leadership Network. This year we are studying Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12: What Works Best to Optimize Student Learning. We seek to create a common language among our regional leaders with new works in the field while providing PD tools that our leaders can use to do the same with the teachers in their care. In years past, we have studied Multipliers by Liz Wiseman, Activating the Vision: The Four Keys of Mathematics Leadership by Bill Barnes and Mona Toncheff, and additional resources that speak to continuous improvement while deepening our understanding and skills as leaders.

What is one thing that you are proud to share related to your work?

Since I began to serve at Region 4, the work of our mathematics team has evolved to meet the needs created by changing landscapes in mathematics content, pedagogy, assessment, and accountability. Our team can evolve and grow because my fellow team members are always learning, always questioning, always curious, always seeking to improve the support we provide to teachers and the students in their care. I am proud of their contributions to mathematics education in Texas through professional learning and resources.

Please share one challenge that you are working to overcome.

I was convinced when I started teaching that the achievement gaps that were present in my first year of teaching would cease to exist in my professional lifetime. I am now one of “those educators” who has been serving for more than 20 years. I am still working to overcome the challenges that allow this gap to exist though my professional vocabulary around the challenges has refined. The challenge: How do we build collective efficacy in light of inequities?

What’s next?

How quickly can we build a bridge to address the gaps in SAT and ACT achievement? What materials should be used to build that bridge? Teacher knowledge? Student knowledge? Mathematical habits of mind? Appropriate uses of technology? When does the gap really start to present itself?

How can we address the role of balanced, meaningful practice? As a field, we have figured out how to practice mathematics in ways that have not contributed significantly to student growth and in ways that have contributed significantly to negative perceptions of mathematics understanding and its utility. How do we undo that?

How do we help administrators more fully develop the role of mathematics in the primary grades?

I greatly appreciated Dr. Benson’s time to reflect on these questions and share her insight.

To remain aware of the latest with Dr. Sharon Benson and what is happening at ESC 4, follow them on Twitter: Dr. Benson (@BensonLearn) and ESC 4 (@Region4ESC).

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