We recently welcomed Cindy Hunter to our Teacher’s Lounge, the Curriculum Trak podcast, and her thoughts and insights about education are invaluable. Read part 1 of that podcast below.

Michael Arnold: Cindy Hunter, Head of School for James Island Christian School, shares with us today about her unique experiences, and the insights those experiences have brought her about leadership and faith-based education. Cindy says she’s always had a passion for education. She declared at a very young age that she would be a teacher and would one day have her PhD. Along the way, she discovered that she likes to figure out what isn’t working and find ways to fix it, specifically in relation to student education and school mission. She has a bachelor’s in Special Education, a Master of Arts in Christian Education in Educational Leadership and Administration. And in her free time, somehow, she’s currently working to complete her PhD. She left the classroom to lead a professional development program for an American school on foreign soil, and then became the director there before coming back to the states to serve at James Island Christian.

Her latest charge has been revitalizing a school struggling with mission alignment and student enrollment, and she’s happy to report that in recent years, their school has seen a 60% increase in enrollment and a re-enrollment rate of 80%. So, that’s pretty exciting. Cindy, what details would you add to your experiences? What did I leave out?

Cynthia Hunter: Thank you, Michael, for having me. It’s been a journey. I call it multiple lives that I’ve had. I’ve been in the classroom for more than 10 years, and in lay work with leaders who were not actually in a regular classroom, but more like in our Sunday schools and in our church on the education side of things. And then I found myself in a foreign school, which was a whole different experience than back here in Charleston. So, it’s just been fun to learn the different pieces and how they all fit together to make one big puzzle.

Missional Work

C.H.: When I was at an American school on foreign soil, we were at about a hundred students, kindergarten through 12th grade. At one point there were eight students in the senior class who had eight native languages. So, a totally different experience, as well as the fact that none of us were paid teachers or administrators. We all worked as missionaries and, thus, raised our own support, which is a whole different level of commitment. So we were working through the hard part of turning around a school that’s had some struggles and it was all in essence volunteer work. I learned a lot about administration and leadership and what causes someone to want to follow.

M.A.: In my understanding, there’s always a lot of teacher turnover in American schools on foreign soil. So, I’m sure that the continuity of mission amongst all of that change can be a challenge. What are some of the other challenges for an international school like that?

C.H.: Just pure recruitment. You ask someone to come teach and then say, Oh, by the way, you need to figure out how to make your own money and get other people to give you money because I’m not going to pay you. And then I want you to fight through the visa process to get here! And then, they land and they have no Spanish! So they’re living in a culture where they’re very much isolated. At a school like that, it’s not just about creating an academically excellent place, but also a healthy place where the teachers also flourish and learn to tell that mission story. It was so important that those we were recruiting bought into the mission to the point that they could also sell the mission themselves.

M.A.: And of course, that’s on top of not only adapting to a new school, but also dealing with some culture shock after they have left behind family and friends in most cases. What a transition and what a commitment to leadership that that would require.

Perspective on Curriculum Mapping and Leadership

M.A.: Now, you and I met because that particular school was using Curriculum Trak. I know curriculum mapping has always played a big part in your leadership process at a school, both there in Spain, but also now at James Island Christian in South Carolina. Tell us about your perspective on curriculum mapping and the value that you think it plays for school leadership and mission alignment.

C.H.: I was probably like the majority of your listeners in that at the beginning of accreditation, we were required to have course maps and I was staring at three-inch binders of papers that said what was and was not going to be taught in each course, and those binders had not been cracked open since the last accreditation. When we began to look at them, we discovered that not only were they not updated, but that they were really just a checklist. We began to ask the question: Why do we even need course maps? If the accreditation agencies think they’re so important, what is it that’s behind that? And, specifically in the school in Spain because of the teacher turnover, our first answer to that question was that the maps just let the next teacher know what they’re supposed to be doing.

It’s alignment from year to year versus, Oh, I’ll just teach whatever I want to teach. The more that we got into the maps and bought into the fact that we needed them for more than just a checklist, the more they became a living document. And if the teacher was buying into the maps and understood their purpose, we realized that the maps were the protection of our school’s mission. They were what kept a classroom from straying away from why we existed.

I can’t be in the classroom every hour to hear what’s being taught and I don’t check every teacher’s lesson plans in detail. I don’t think a leader should be a micromanager, but as a leader, how do I have the confidence that what’s happening in that classroom aligns with our school’s mission? I want to add the freedom of the teaching styles in that classroom, but put guardrails on what is being taught. Is it following a Christian worldview? Those course maps actually became the keeper of our mission when it came to the academic and biblical integration part of the classroom.

M.A.: Wow. I love how you said that you decided to ask, “Why is this important to our accreditation process?” It’s not just to train the next guy. As you delved into that, it sounds like you arrived at the place where teachers had to take ownership of their maps and of their instruction and of the role that they play in curriculum development and in the classroom.

C.H.: Right. The very first thing you say is, “We’re going to rewrite all of our course maps,” and there are groans and moans. “I’m overwhelmed and I’ve already got too many things on my to-do list. What are you going to take off so I can do what you’re asking me to do?”

There’s so much about how a leader approaches the task of writing the curriculum maps. When I began to see the curriculum maps as a mission driver versus a checklist, my staff also began to see them as a mission driver. And then, yeah, they still grumbled and they still felt overwhelmed, but the whole approach was different. The thought process became: You understand why we are here. You know that one day you may not be here. Are you going to be a part of creating the legacy of who the school is and what the school stands for? When they began thinking this way, their attitude changed.

M.A.: I like that you’re using terms like mission keeper, but also mission driver for curriculum mapping. Curriculum mapping as mission keeper, mission driver: compare and contrast that just a little bit. What do you mean by keeper? What do you mean by driver?

C.H.: In today’s world there are so many things competing for what’s going to be taught in the classroom for that 50 minutes. The maps keep us missionally aligned. We choose to write our maps around curriculum that aligns with our mission statement and aligns with our core values.

When we looked at adding new math curriculum, we ended up not choosing the strongest math curriculum. The strongest math curriculum was not aligned with our mission statement and we were not willing to do a course map around a piece of curriculum that was not going to keep our mission in that classroom. So we went with a weaker curriculum and committed as administration to providing additional training and resources. In that sense, the course maps are our keeper.

At the same time they’re driving the mission, they’re pushing it forward when we have new opportunities for teaching or we have new teachers who come in so that our mission is not stagnant.

Our mission statement talks about academic excellence in a Christ-centered, biblically-driven environment. Everything’s changing in our world, so how do our maps drive us to be more academically excellent? The topics that our students need in 2022 in regards to biblical review are different from what students needed when you and I were in high school. So, the course maps drive us to ask those questions. Within each course map, are we keeping our mission in front of us and accomplishing what we say our students will accomplish while they’re students at our school? If not, then it’s going to drive us to change, drive us to look for a different curriculum, drive us to look for a different textbook, drive us to add another chapter, and yet at the same time, keep us within the right boundaries.

M.A.: Yeah, as I chew on that, I can see that it is so powerful to help teachers change their mindset from thinking that a map is something I have to do to check a box to comply with guidelines related to accreditation or whatever, to thinking that a map is an instrument I use to keep and drive our mission. What a powerful mental shift. I’m sure your teachers were on board right away, right?

C.H.: No, they weren’t! You know, they had to hear and see the vision. They had to understand why a map would do what we said it would. We’ve got these three inch notebooks. Why is that not enough? We even heard the question, Why don’t you just write the maps for us? If you want us to know what to teach, then why don’t you just do them and tell us what to do?

So, it took some persuading. I learned a lot from my first round. Hopefully your listeners can avoid some of my mistakes from round one and learn from round two because round two went so much better. We did it in bite-sized chunks and we did a lot of celebrating along the way. When they had their minimal maps and they went into year two, they soon began to see the actual tangible benefits of it.

A perfect example of immediate benefit showed up in our first grade math course. First graders learn to do subtraction by counting backwards. That’s the very first skill set when they’re understanding the concept of subtraction. And we discovered that there was an assumption that in kindergarten they were learning to count backwards from 20 to zero, and first graders were picking up on a skill that supposedly already existed to apply it to their understanding of subtraction. But when that conversation came to the table, my kindergarten teacher said, “We don’t teach to count backwards.” It was a simple concept and it took just a small tweak in the maps and in the objectives to find a way to get counting backwards introduced in kindergarten and mastered in first grade. It’s been amazing to watch what happens when they teach subtraction now, but they were skipping the foundational teaching because of an assumption.

Without the map, they never caught that assumption. Once they began to see the wins of the maps, then their buy-in was a whole different story. As we dug deep into the harder parts of the map, not just the unit titles or the course objectives, they were game for it. And we partied a lot along the way to celebrate.

M.A.: I just stumbled across a quote from Heidi Hayes Jacobs. She’s the person we can all blame for bringing curriculum mapping mainstream. She wrote that curriculum mapping is not going to create a kumbaya moment. It’s not going to just be build it and they will come, but it will give you a framework. I’m obviously paraphrasing, but it gives you a framework for having those difficult conversations and identifying those problems. I think that’s what your little example demonstrates there. Let’s talk about it, let’s fix it. Those are conversations worth having. This work is for our students and we’re all responsible for them collectively. They’re not yours, they’re not mine, they’re ours. So, let’s talk about how to steward them properly.

C.H.: To retain our students, there has to be that belief that because you had our kindergarten teacher, you’re going to do even better in our first grade classroom and you’re going to do even better in our second grade classroom. Yes, we want new students to join the groups every year so that we can fill every seat and really accomplish our mission, but there should be a distinct difference in students we’ve had for 2, 5, 10, 12 years and the students who are brand new to us because we have created this vertical alignment in every course. The only way you create that vertical alignment is to have those hard conversations as a team, and the only way you have those hard conversations is working from a tangible visual, which is the course map.

We’ll be sharing more from Cindy soon, but if you would like to listen to the full interview, check out the podcast at the Teacher’s Lounge.

Cynthia Hunter has always had a passion for education, declaring at a very young age that she wanted to be a teacher and then later that one day she would have her Ph.D. After more than 10 years in the classroom, she discovered that her passion was for figuring out what wasn’t working, what was preventing a student from learning or a school from accomplishing its mission. With a bachelor’s degree in Special Education she returned to the classroom and completed with a Masters of Arts in Christian Education and eventually an Ed.S. in Educational Leadership and Administration (and currently working to complete her PhD). She left the classroom and led a professional development program for an American school on foreign soil and then eventually took over the position as director. Presently she serves as Head of School in Charleston, SC, where she was charged with revitalizing a school that had lost its mission focus and was struggling with declining enrollment. Three years later the school has seen nearly a 60% increase in enrollment and a re-enrollment rate of more than 80%.