Co-Inquiry: My Process for Growing as a Teacher and Leader (Voices)
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Thoughts on the Article | By Barbara Henderson, Voices Executive Editor
Kaile Thomas’s teacher research focuses on the benefits of co-inquiry for a group of teachers in a recently founded, independent elementary school. Kaile’s prior career had been entirely in early childhood settings where teachers embraced collaborative reflection. Therefore, she expected her new colleagues to be eager to engage in co-inquiry, looking critically at their teaching practices and developing channels that would better integrate families.
While the school embraced progressive education that highlighted the school as a community, Kaile found that many teachers were unfamiliar with co-inquiry or a reflective stance. Further, families were seen as resources in simple transactional terms—for example, donating supplies or helping on workdays. A sense that families would help co-create the school community had not yet been established.
The strengths of this study are the ways it demonstrates how Kaile worked as a teacher leader across and between structures to lead this co-inquiry initiative. Starting inquiry work at a school without a history of teacher reflection presented real challenges, yet Kaile’s study demonstrates the value of having at least one teacher on the inside to provide leadership. Drawing on models of co-inquiry from other sites where she had previously worked also provided a crucial backbone.
Overall, Kaile’s teacher research shows how these first-time co-inquiry projects helped to build community and shape more transformational connections with families. Two key elements were Kaile’s working as a skilled insider to facilitate the group and the teachers having sufficient time for their meetings. In conclusion, Kaile found that a core task of a budding teacher co-inquiry group is for teachers to build a shared language that embraces teaching practice as a form of problem solving—by its nature alive and ever evolving.
After six years of teaching and working as an administrator in a play-based, child-directed, parent-participation early childhood education setting, I accepted a teaching position at a newly formed elementary school. Located in an urban area of northern California, the school emphasized parent participation. One central tenet of the school’s mission was providing a cooperative community for learning—a vision that wholly aligned with my experience and philosophy as an early childhood professional. Although this position was temporary (a one-year replacement for a kindergarten teacher on maternity leave), it appeared to fit well with my goals: I hoped to develop an understanding of teacher collaboration and parent involvement across a wider age span. While my previous center served 3- to 5-year-olds, children in this new school ranged from 5 to 10 years old. As I began the new school year in September of 2015, I sought to contribute to building the school community by encouraging professional collaboration among teachers, while simultaneously enhancing my ability to integrate family partnership into education.
As the lead kindergarten teacher, I worked with a teaching assistant to support the growth and development of the nine young children in my classroom and was guided by John Dewey’s philosophy of progressive education (Dewey 1938). We used the project approach (Katz & Chard 2000) to provide a child-centered responsive curriculum that reflected the children’s needs throughout the school and blurred the boundaries between the classroom and the outside yard. Our curriculum highlighted the equal importance of children’s academic learning and their social and emotional development.
The school was small, with one lead teacher per grade and only 45 students in the entire program. As one of the lead teachers, I had the autonomy to instruct my class in the ways I saw fit, yet I felt isolated from the other teachers, the projects they were working on, and the general happenings across the school. Occasionally, we would combine our classes to collaborate through all-school community meetings and our Reading Buddies program, which formed a bridge between kindergarten and the upper grades. However, these efforts were not sufficient to create a unified language or a space for interaction among the teachers. Additionally, while each family had a relationship with their child’s classroom teacher, there was little opportunity for families to truly participate in the learning community. Reading the school’s mission and vision statements, I had expected families to be invited to participate as co-collaborators in the classroom and as thought partners in creating and sustaining a community vision.
Based on my passion for responsive education and background in teacher research, I felt that conducting a study would be the best way to examine my initial challenges and build my understanding of the school in order to make recommendations for improvement. Since teacher research was ingrained in my undergraduate and graduate training, it seemed logical to extend my early childhood research framework to my new work in an elementary school. Further, the school leaders hired me, in part, because they saw and valued my teacher research perspective, and hoped I would be able to bring it to their newly forming school community.
I was fortunate in the development of this teacher research study to have the time to support a teacher co-inquiry group. This was in part because the teacher that I replaced came back from her maternity leave and in part because building the foundation of this new school allowed for a thoughtful co-inquiry structure to develop. To begin this process, I listened to the ideas of each teaching team to see how I could best support their professional development and our collective understanding of the school’s mission to be a cooperative community. I felt that this vision would best be realized through dialogue and collaboration instead of a top-down approach (Abramson 2012). It was also important to me as a teacher leader to respect the expertise of each teacher, most of whom had many more years of teaching experience than I did. In addition, I wanted to incorporate a strengths-based recognition of family contributions to the school. Therefore, I anticipated that this inquiry project would provide me with the unique opportunity to develop my leadership skills in teacher and parent collaboration. Inspired by the collaborative educators at the Eliot-Pearson Child Development Center (Mardell, Lee-Keenan, Given, Robinson, Merino, & Liu-Constant 2012), I wanted to encourage teachers in their own reflective and risk-taking processes, while facilitating meaningful dialogues throughout the school community.
My initial musings and conversations with the teachers were bolstered by reviewing methods for teacher research (Meier & Henderson 2007), co-inquiry (Abramson 2012), and professional learning communities (DuFour 2007). I intended to provide better supports to the teaching teams in cross-classroom collaboration as related to inquiry-based practices and student support. As a result, my initial research question was, “How can I hone my leadership skills through the facilitation of collaborative dialogue among teachers to strengthen collegiality and build community within a newly formed parent-participation elementary school?”
Driven by my personal foundation and dedication to relationship-based, collaborative work with young children, I felt it paramount to recognize the emotional nature of teaching and the need for collegiality as cornerstones of effective reflective practices. Supporting teaching teams is contingent upon trust, because trust leads to the strengthening of pedagogy through constructive peer feedback and personal self-reflection (Kremenitzer & Miller 2008). By nurturing collegiality within teacher relationships, teachers can potentially be more effective in their collaboration, leading to deeper thinking about children and family support (Stremmel 2007).
I also held the importance of listening and collaboration among peers in high regard, making the commitment to encourage the teaching team through reflective practice. Deep listening and reflection are essential to co-inquiry and require collaboration that leads to respect and better understanding (Rinaldi 2012). To create space for listening, time needs to be set aside for structured dialogue about children and practice, as well as for extended musings and conversations. Co-inquiry is key in this process, as the teaching team must work together to cultivate their ideas through shared dialogue and reflection (Abramson 2012). Inquiry meetings, often an extension of staff meeting time, can be critical to fostering group engagement and bringing out the pedagogical nature of children’s work (Escamilla 2012). Inquiry group meetings that are distinctly separate from general school business allow for deep discussions and shared support from fellow teachers, making the teacher’s work more meaningful and their teaching practice stronger. Critical dialogue can spark extended thinking and address challenging issues that are present in the classroom and in the larger educational community (Johanson & Kuh 2013).
The themes that resonated most from these studies, all of which were conducted in early childhood settings, were the importance of co-inquiry and collaboration, as well as the need for teachers to take risks to improve their practice.
Given my interest in the development of a school-wide community, a second strand of research relevant to this study focused on family partnership. It is well established that children with families who are active in the school community tend to have improved learning outcomes across subjects (Arnold et al. 2008). Thus, to effectively engage and support families, even as children get older, teachers need to work in partnership with families to help them recognize their pivotal role in teaching their children, feel confident in their ability as teachers, and engage in the multi-dimensional process of supporting their children’s learning (Enemuo & Obidike 2013). To create a robust family engagement structure, it is helpful to consider several types of family educational involvement, including parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision making, and collaborating with the community (Epstein 2010). As all families are unique, the process of partnering with each family is dependent on the needs of the family and the strategy of the school.
Setting and participants
This teacher research study and co-inquiry dialogue was conducted in an independent school serving kindergarten through fifth grade. It opened in 2011 and had grown to enroll 45 families by the 2015–2016 school year, when this study was conducted. The teaching staff, including the lead teachers and teaching assistants, totaled 10.
The school’s project-based, progressive curriculum was grounded in the belief that social and emotional development is equally as important as, and inherent in, developmentally appropriate academic learning. The class sizes were small and the school day was structured to allow ample time for children to engage in self-directed free play. Family involvement was primarily conducted in monthly after-school meetings and through various school improvement jobs (which offset tuition). The intent was for families to participate in ways that did not disrupt their schedules and that reflected their personal skills and interests.
My research was conducted with the lead teaching team, comprised of the four women teaching kindergarten to fifth grade, who attended the weekly, hour-long staff meetings. This group ranged in age from 34 to 70. It included the founding teachers from some prominent independent schools that embraced progressive education and teachers who had worked in public education, teaching diverse and underserved populations in an inner city and in a small coastal town in California. All of them were career teachers, dedicating their professional lives to classroom education.
During the first stage of the co-inquiry process, I used email exchanges and in-person conversations to collect teachers’ reflection strategies and their understanding of collaboration. Initially, I sent an email to the teaching staff telling them about my plan, requesting their support, and asking them to fill out a preliminary questionnaire.
In stage two, I focused on sharing the idea of a co-inquiry group to create a collective understanding of how such an approach to professional development might help us build collegiality and strengthen our school community. The teachers read an article on the importance of teacher research (Stremmel 2007), and we discussed it during a staff meeting. As the group facilitator, I allowed time for questions and encouraged the teachers to relate the article’s content to their own practice. Next, I set out to facilitate the creation of a protocol for our inquiry groups. Collectively, we decided to replicate the three-stage structure of co-inquiry—documentation, communication, and action (Abramson 2012)—and rely on the cycle of teacher inquiry for guidance. Through an open and flexible protocol development process, we created guidelines that reflected the group’s need to support the ongoing dialogue and collaboration within the lead teaching team.
In the third stage of the co-inquiry process, I used a portion of each staff meeting for teacher conversation and collaboration, emphasizing the evolution of the cycle of teacher inquiry (Stremmel 2007). As my research and interactions with the lead teachers progressed, one teacher would present her research findings at each staff meeting and field comments and questions from the larger group. I also followed up with each teacher through one-on-one conversations, classroom observations, emails, and additional forms of questioning that sought to deepen teachers’ thinking about their specific inquiry focus.
This teacher research was designed as a qualitative study. I collected data by documenting conversations with teachers, individual teacher presentations during our co-inquiry meetings, and inquiry-based discussions. I developed detailed notes of each interaction by writing journal entries and recording conversations (that I used to flesh out my notes). I also collected all correspondence from each teacher that related to her specific research question. After the first few weeks of one-on-one teacher conversations, another element I added to my data collection was my own journaling on the co-inquiry process (Sujo 2015). Separate from my detailed classroom conversations and interview field notes, this journaling process served as a personal reflection on my role as the facilitator of the group, as well as my interpretation of the school environment as related to my prior experience. These reflections included my own challenges and wonderings about next steps and teacher support, as well as my leadership abilities.
The most valuable sources of data came from the one-on-one interviews that I conducted with each participant. These interviews were meaningful because they allowed me to gain greater insight into how the teachers were feeling and thinking. This served as the foundation for my data analysis, helping guide me as I moved into supporting the teachers through their own research and evaluating my effectiveness as a group facilitator. Personal stories can illuminate professional work and inquiry dialogue (Bruner 1987; Hatch 2012). These more informal conversations and interviews were just that: stories of practice to strengthen reflection.
My intention with this teacher research project was to bring the concept of co-inquiry to the lead teachers and give them the opportunity to engage in reflective dialogue with each other, building community and strengthening their practice. What also resulted from this teacher research was a deeper personal understanding of my own leadership abilities, especially as they related to teacher collaboration and family partnership outside of the early childhood context. While a good deal of my initial interest focused on the degree to which families were treated as partners, that did not become a major part of this study. This project, and thus my findings, focused on the teachers’ engagement with co-inquiry, specifically around how two of the teachers responded to the invitation to collaborate. Ultimately, I found that we were not ready to build community with the broader group of families until we had focused on community and partnership among the teachers. This was a surprise for me because in my experience in early childhood settings, family partnership is where teachers typically begin their community building.
The key leadership issue that I faced throughout this process was how to best facilitate the teachers’ co-inquiry with a highly experienced group of colleagues. I recognized that my role should be as a supporter, not as an expert. I sought to listen well so that I could provide guiding questions to deepen conversations. The bulk of my time was spent building my role as a teacher leader and co-inquirer. Once the co-inquiry process was collaboratively defined, I was able to work closely with three of the four lead teachers in the school. (The fourth teacher was not interested in conducting her own inquiry, but she did reflect on teachers’ presentations and participate in our group discussions of instructional challenges.) Here, I focus on one teacher who had little experience with collaboration—much less co-inquiry—and my growth as a teacher leader.
Monica’s garden project
The first teacher who shared her co-inquiry process with the group was Monica, a kindergarten teacher with 10 years of teaching experience. In my first meeting with Monica, she revealed that she sought to use co-inquiry for practical curriculum planning. Monica was new to the concept of co-inquiry and still thought about her work primarily as an individual teacher designing lessons for her class. She wanted to focus on developing a teacher-directed garden project that could build collaboration among the children. Her initial vision was to connect springtime and an upcoming class trip to the botanical gardens in a local conservatory to clean-up of the school’s shared garden space. Her long-term goal was to create and maintain a garden for her class.
I met with Monica throughout the spring semester to help extend her initial ideas. We saw our work together as providing a space that allowed her to think about structuring the curriculum so that it enabled the children to gradually take responsibility for the garden plot. She first met with the children to record their ideas for garden development and maintenance, then narrowed their suggestions to reflect some collective classroom rules. Once these ground rules were established, she left time for open-ended exploration of garden-centered activities. This shift to a more child-directed process allowed for the children’s ownership of their garden and for greater peer collaboration as they shared ideas and enthusiasm about their growing plants.
Our co-inquiry helped Monica collaborate more intentionally with her colleagues, such that her planning process became more in line with the school’s community-focused mission. After our initial meeting, she met with her teaching assistant to complete the planning process and to seek collaborative feedback. She then introduced the garden project to the children. After a few months, her class presented their garden caretaking plan to the whole school, which opened up the garden to the entire school community.
Monica’s engagement with co-inquiry differed from what I had expected when I began this process. As Monica grappled with the initial structure around co-inquiry, she often made statements like, “I like my own project idea. It is what I have done over the years, and I don’t think it needs to change.” As time went on, Monica’s focus shifted to building a community of learners, and she became increasingly open to the children’s input. Monica also changed from thinking only about her class and the curriculum she would implement to developing a larger project that conceived of the garden as a space to engage and support the betterment of the larger school community.
While I expected that a child-centered project would lead her to build direct collaborations with her coteachers and result in her reaching out to the families, I found that she was not open to more elaborate work with colleagues or families during the course of the study. Upon reflection, I found positive change in my leadership style in that I was able to honor Monica’s teacher-directed focus and find ways to support her, despite our different views. Respecting that she was somewhat resistant to changing her approach to family partnerships, I felt that it was important to suspend further conversation around parent partnership and instead focus on supporting her in building a stronger teacher community and opening up more opportunities for dialogue among colleagues.
Ahn’s mixed-age classroom
My experience with Ahn, a primary teacher who taught second and third grade children, was markedly different from my work with Monica. Ahn was more open to the concept of co-inquiry and sought more community-building interactions, even before the co-inquiry process started. I felt enthusiastic about working with Ahn because I knew she would bring her experience with collaborative projects to our work. Due to these already present interests, Ahn came to our first one-on-one co-inquiry meeting quite prepared. She stated, “What I miss the most about my old school is the collaboration. I miss talking about what I’m doing in my classroom with other teachers. Here, it’s like I’m in my own classroom universe all on my own.” Ahn already placed great value on teacher partnership and collaboration. As such, we were able to dig deep, co-creating a process that felt meaningful and sustained.
Our co-inquiry process started with two key problems that Ahn had in mind. One was regarding a child in her classroom, Joe, who had some learning and attention challenges. She wondered, “How do I keep a child on task who so often disengages?” Her second question related to exploring more ways to keep children accountable as group members when the class participated in projects. Starting with these two thoughts, Ahn began to think more purposefully about the class dynamics in a few different ways. She reflected on the challenges of supporting a multi-grade class, the class culture, her values as a teacher, and specific children who were puzzling her: “It is hard to have two classrooms in one. At first, I wanted the class to be unified and structured all of the lessons as a group, but one grade level needs so much more than the other. I’ve started splitting them up for key content lessons, but is that affecting the classroom dynamic? Especially for my students who are not at grade level? How do I access them?”
Next in her inquiry and reflective process, she came back to Joe, and we began to think about ways Joe was disconnected from the classroom; he seemed unable to complete any tasks without one-on-one teacher support. Ahn finally came up with a multi-part research question: “How do I support a child with learning challenges in my mixed-grade classroom to: (1) integrate better into the class culture and (2) be independent in his schoolwork, including group work activities?” These preliminary conversations set a strong foundation for us to work together closely to collect observational data on Joe. We looked at how he was interacting with the class, when he sought teacher support, and how to identify his triggers and motivators.
Overall, Ahn strengthened her teaching through this co-inquiry process; evidence of her growth was apparent in our one-on-one conversations, our larger teacher discussions, and my observations of her class. In a journal entry I wrote, “After Ahn presented her findings and wonderings about Joe to the larger group, it was clear that she felt more confident in her teaching and that her relationships and trust within the community of teachers was stronger. She spoke up more readily, critically analyzed her classroom observations, and accepted her colleagues’ input as collaborative dialogue. It was inspiring to see.” Ahn was receptive to her peers’ ideas. Her process used the collaborative group in the way that I had intended as the facilitator. Ahn’s collaborative spirit diversified the leadership and built trust among the teaching team.
Developing as a teacher leader
Through my own reflection and analysis, I realized how different my early childhood and elementary education teaching experiences were. In contrast to my work with early childhood teachers, these elementary teachers needed much more support to engage in collaboration and dialogue. What particularly surprised me was the discrepancy between the description of family partnership in the school’s mission statement and the reality of the school’s education structure. Families were not valued as contributors to their children’s education, but were seen instead as classroom helpers for simple tasks, such as providing snacks or putting artwork on the bulletin boards. In one of my journal entries, I wrote, “Each morning, a parent from my classroom brings apples in for the children’s snack. While it is great to have food for the hungry children, I feel that the families should have more of a role in the school than the execution of such menial tasks.”
Families were often addressed as clients who had to be trained in order to effectively contribute to the school community. For example, families were expected to help their children with homework or build their children’s comprehension through particular school-approved methods. This orientation revealed a marked hierarchy between school and home knowledge; it did not foster a partnership in which teachers and families were likely to engage in co-inquiry through dialogue.
Despite these challenges, there were positive components to this process regarding my development of leadership to build collaborative inquiry. Attempting to reconcile the school’s mission and practices regarding family engagement, I grew to better understand my role as a facilitator and focused on supporting what the group seemed most interested in—teacher collaboration. For example, during our last staff meeting, Jill, an upper-grade veteran teacher, said,
I appreciate having this collaborative time. Progressive education is new for me, but I felt like I needed to figure it out on my own, which ultimately made it harder. Having this space to talk to other teachers and be open about some of my concerns and ideas has been amazing. I feel more empowered, more able to talk about what is bothering me, and closer to this team.
Despite these positive comments, some teachers remained reluctant to set aside time to continue these discussions. While I felt inspired by the possibilities of a parent-participation elementary school, by the end of the school year, I was struck by the marked difference between my preschool teaching experience—that genuinely accounted for whole child wellness and family partnership—and this experience with elementary education.
Throughout the school year, some participants were more willing to engage in co-inquiry and reflection than others. While the more seasoned teachers chose not to engage in their own co-inquiry projects, they engaged fully during the all-staff meetings and teacher presentations. This collaboration between the newer and the more veteran teachers allowed for trust to be built within the teacher community and created a common language and process for teacher sharing.
Though this idea of co-inquiry groups did not extend beyond the designated staff meeting time, the process was beneficial. The teachers became more confident in their ability to take charge, lead the group in discussion, and welcome support strategies from their coteachers. They became greater risk takers and were more forthcoming with their thoughts and feelings (Friedrich & McKinney 2010). I saw parallels between our efforts and critical friends groups (which are teacher professional development networks) in how they used their classroom work as a means to support colleagues from other classrooms (Johanson & Kuh 2013). Though critical friends groups often occur with teachers in different locations, the teachers at this school were initially so isolated in their practice that they needed support to come together effectively and create this shared language around problem solving and practice. My findings indicate the importance of guided co-inquiry with teacher support, and the need for more time to be set aside for teacher collaboration and dialogue.
In my more personal data collection and reflection, I gained insight into the varied teacher commitment to the co-inquiry process and my own work as a leader, listener, and teacher supporter across contexts. My data collection notebook has entries of frustration when teachers were not being patient with the process of co-inquiry or had not been true listeners during coteacher presentations (Abramson 2012). I also reflected on the lack of effort to involve families in the classroom and school community in meaningful ways. During this process, I doubted myself and my abilities as a leader, feeling somewhat daunted by the talent and seniority of the teachers I was trying to support. Over time, I was able to find my voice through this reflective process and become a better listener and collaborator in my own right, building my commitment to child and family support and recognizing differences in how children are cared for in preschool and elementary settings.
Overall, my data documented a strong desire from the majority of the teaching staff to collaborate on supporting children. This desire was put into action through the continuation of setting aside time for reflective practice within the staff meeting structure. While only three out of the four lead teachers actively participated in the co-inquiry process, I documented growing dialogue and collaboration among all of the teachers. This endeavor began to build relationships between teachers and encourage teacher reflection, individually and collectively. Setting aside the time to engage in these practices, while using a framework for discussion, was described by most teachers as meaningful and worthwhile, as it strengthened the trust in the teacher community. I began to see teachers sharing planning time and asking questions more openly.
As this teacher research project ended, I reflected on the implications of this study for others in the field. I have learned that while collaboration and dialogue have the power to strengthen school communities and teaching practices, engaging in these conversations and encouraging these educational risks must be attended to with time and attention to detail. For my teaching site, the co-inquiry meetings ultimately allowed for the creation of a shared language and building of mutual respect among the teaching team, but we needed to spend a good deal of time to develop this common language and make space for collaboration.
Bringing a co-inquiry model to a group of educators, whether structured or fluid, ultimately allows for critical dialogue to begin. I have learned that this is the starting point for collaboration and greater improvement of educational systems, for we cannot effectively support the children we teach without attending to our own needs as educators. Additionally, it is paramount to embrace families as partners in their children’s education. Though research demonstrates that parental involvement in education is associated with higher academic achievement in students (Jeynes 2012), the perceived barrier in much of K–12 education between the importance of academics and the ability for families to adequately supplement this school learning serves to create a split between families and their children’s education (Heath et al. 2014). To combat this critical issue that impedes children’s success, we must continue to rethink education through a family partnership lens.
From this study I saw the distinct benefits of sustained collaboration among classroom teachers. This collaboration was challenging, even though I was facilitating it at a small, community-focused school; I imagine it would be much harder at a larger institution. My growth as a leader within this teacher research study allowed me to reevaluate what is important to me, sparking my interest in a large-scale focus on community schools and family partnership at a city-wide level. While I was not able to take the next step in effectively engaging families in the school community through my work with this group of educators, I know that without this critical connection, teachers miss the valuable opportunity to support the whole child.
To support the idea of continuing teacher research as a part of daily teaching practices, it is critical to advocate for the importance of teacher research and the need for teaching to be a collaborative process across all educational settings. Co-inquiry strengthens the teaching profession as a whole and builds teacher capacity, which in turn strengthens school systems and brings children’s work to the forefront of our practice. It is important to note that the daily awareness and implementation of co-inquiry is also present in less structured conversations among peers. To adopt co-inquiry practices, teachers need to engage in dialogue with each other and reflect. Ultimately, co-inquiry and reflection begin with a conversation. This necessity for advocacy is present in administrators’ focus on co-inquiry and teachers’ willingness to participate. Continued co-inquiry allows for the development of teacher leadership, presentation skills, and deep listening.
Further questions raised by this study include which co-inquiry methods are most applicable to a wide range of teaching groups and diverse learners. Additionally, teacher leaders need to understand what policies should be put in place to make co-inquiry, reflection, and dialogue central to teaching practice and focus on how to build that trust and capacity within their unique school site.
In conclusion, co-inquiry, reflection, and support allowed me to experience some of the striking differences between my prior work in early childhood and this new elementary school. Although each school setting necessitates a unique approach, it is the role of an educational leader to create the space for teachers to collaborate across classrooms. This notion is central to the development of teachers and the strengthening of the teaching practice as a whole. I am an advocate for the process of reflection and hope to share my findings with others in an effort to stimulate dialogue and community among educators across the early childhood and elementary transition.
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Kaile Thomas, MEd, is the educational director at Felton Institute/Family Services Agency, in San Francisco, California. Kaile has extensive experience with parent participation educational models, teacher coaching, and responsive early childhood education practices. firstname.lastname@example.org