Getting to Know Us: Interview With Colleen Briner

Posted on April 21st, 2015 by Pam Goldman and Mica Jochim

Executive Director, Colleen Briner reflects on valuing a continuous culture of improvement, in both her personal and professional lives.

Colleen Briner

You've been involved with IFL for over 14 years. What's changed with the IFL in that time?

The IFL is constantly evolving, always refining itself. What's evolved most is our focus on the classroom and the craft of teaching. In the early days we focused on creating the conditions for effective teaching, which is still important, but we've gotten much more specific about helping teachers with their craft.

While we continue to support district leaders and supervisors, we provide more direct support to teachers than we once did. In line with that, we also have more classroom tools and materials. This change grew from requests from the field. Here I go with one of my famous food analogies. Where we once would discuss the qualities of a great meal, now we do that but also provide you with some of the ingredients to help you start cooking.

As the executive director of IFL and as a mother of a young child, what's most exciting about today's educational landscape?

I'm excited that the new standards have pushed people into talk about kids thinking and their ability to reason. I am hopeful that my son (who is only in pre-school) will have opportunities to be an active participant in his learning rather than the recipient of facts. I am very encouraged when I watch the classroom videos from our partner districts. These kids always impressed me by just how smart they are. It's amazing to watch teachers help them discover and develop that.

What guides your work at IFL?

I approach my work from the perspective of a former student. When I see teachers doing our work, even in the early phases, I always wish I could have had one of those teachers. I wonder what it would have unlocked for me and what it will unlock for other students. When I see the video of Elizabeth Brody teaching two storage tanks, she was new at Accountable Talk®, she's trying to get it going but the kids aren't used to intellectual heavy lifting. Even so, in watching that teacher, I learned slope in a whole new way than I did when I was in school; I learned something that made more sense than anything I'd ever tried to remember. I understood it better than I had before when I always had to remember formulas. Now I understand the principle of why it worked. I can't help but wonder whether I would have taken a different path in college and beyond had I not closed the door on math early.

What do you see as some of the most important aspects of your role at IFL?

A central focus of my work is operationalizing ideas. We're trying to figure out how to get this work into the hands of more teachers and arm more teachers with better materials than they have currently. We are publishing our materials so that individual teachers, not just districts and schools, can buy them. We now offer sets of related lessons in math and replacement units in science and ELA. By also making student readers available with the units, we lower barriers for teachers to be able to use materials. Teachers don't have to look for and acquire articles that accompany our units.

Another focus of my work is outreach to individual schools and teachers as well as districts to let them know about IFL and our work. Previously, we worked with only larger school districts. Now we're opening up to the broader public. We've been on the educational scene almost 20 years and we've worked in 70 large school districts. But two-thirds of the nation's population lives outside of large urban areas. Shifting demographics have created a need to get involved with suburban areas to reach our target population of underserved students. All kids deserve this regardless of zip code.

Educators in districts that work with us get to experience IFL as a learners. We've found that nothing excites people about IFL as much as going through IFL training. People are enthusiastic about their experience and rave about how much our training helps them understand the concept of rigor and what it takes to get this kind of learning in their classroom. Now we offer regional workshops to make this experience available to all educators and to more districts.

What's the most enjoyable or satisfying part of your job?

Helping districts find that missing piece. The people we work with are dedicated to the students and to their work. We help them make that adjustment that lets them soar. It is rewarding to watch our partners take this work and run with it. I can imagine it's the kind of feeling a teacher gets when she helps a student unlock some knowledge.

It's exciting to work on things that matter in the world with interesting, smart people (internal and external) and with challenging problems to solve. Friends who work in other industries, remind me how deep and interesting our work is even on days when it seems relatively mundane.

Part of your job is managing the interface between the Institute for Learning and the rest of the University of Pittsburgh. What are the advantages to us of being situated within the university?

The opportunity to collaborate with some of the world's leading researchers and thinkers in education—hands down. I don't think the term 'research-based' quite captures the relationship. We work hand-in-hand with researchers, often implementing the fruits of the research long before it makes it to press. I think it makes the IFL's products, tools and training stronger and more robust than it would be otherwise.

What are some of the challenges you face at IFL?

Making our work accessible to more people, despite whatever technological constraints they may face. We are part of a top tier research institute and have access to top tier technology but our clients have different access to technology that sometimes poses problems. We are looking at a variety of approaches to overcome issues such as firewalls, training needs, and adult experience with technology.

You've been heard to say that you "keep the trains running on time" at the IFL. You've been known to be self-deprecating about this aspect of your job but the rest of us appreciate your invisible hand of efficiency. What's your secret?

I was taught early on that you prepare for the issues you can foresee so that you have the capacity to deal with the problems you don't yet know about. There are always issues that arise, so be in a position to fix them. That and not to make the same mistake more than once. Reruns get old quick, unless it's Law and Order.

What book would we be surprised to find on your bookshelf?

My bookshelves (both real and virtual) have a surprising number of titles in the magical realism and urban fantasy genres. That's probably surprising in some ways since I am a rather practical person.

In the odd moments when you're not working as executive director of the Institute for Learning, what would we be likely to find you doing?

Lumbers
Remodeling

Other than chasing after my toddler, remodeling. My husband and I have remodeled our 1880's house inside and out over the years and have now turned our attention to the houses of friends and family. The latest project is a major kitchen remodel for my parents. I love design, am great with concrete work and have learned to be a competent apprentice carpenter. My husband is a craftsman and a traditional woodworker who teaches people how to restore or maintain older properties. I think remodeling is a fun problem-solving activity.

I know you are an excellent cake decorator. What lessons from cake decorating apply to your work at the IFL? What lessons from cake decorating do you wish the rest of us would learn?

Cake

I tend to make wedding cakes which are always on deadline and always high stakes. I've had to make peace with the fact that every cake won't be perfect but others will still see it as beautiful. In many ways some of my best cake designs have come from remedying some flaw or mistake—like when the florist didn't leave me enough flowers or when the table to display the cake isn't the shape and location I thought it would be. I've learned to be flexible and go with it.