Panorama’s Brian Rainville Featured on the Meet Education Project
Last week, Brian Rainville sat down with Nick Dinardo of the Meet Education Project to discuss his role in educator engagement at Panorama Education. The 30-minute podcast covers Brian’s story, from traveling the country to becoming Baltimore City’s Teacher of the Year, as well as his current academic focus in education leadership.
Listen to the podcast:
What’s mentioned in this podcast:
- Panorama Student Survey
- The New Teacher Project, Baltimore Residency
- Harvard Graduate School of Education, Education Leadership
- Transcendant Man (documentary)
Read the full transcript:
Nick Welcome to the Meet Education Project, the weekly podcast that explores the future of education through the lens of the teachers, entrepreneurs and thought leaders taking action on it every day.
I’m your host, Nick DiNardo. If you would like show notes or more details about our conversations, please visit MeetEducationProject.com.
Now, on to this week’s show.
Hey, everybody. Welcome back. In today’s episode I had the chance to interview Brian Rainville. He is a former Baltimore Teacher of the Year and is currently working on educator engagement for Panorama Education, based in Boston, really focused on providing data to build agency with institutions and teachers and administrators at the K through 12 level, doing some amazing, amazing work and a really interesting company.
I had the chance to sit down with Brian and had a fantastic conversation about his experience as a teacher, how that informs the work he’s doing now and the future, what the future looks like for Panorama. Definitely a really thought-provoking episode.
Again, thanks to our sponsor, the Highlander Institute. The Highlander Institute is a non-profit community of educators and professionals working to improve the educational experience of all learners. For more information about how the Highlander Institute can help your institution and bring it into the 21st century of blended learning and education technology, please visit HighlanderInstitute.org for more information.
Thank you so much, Dana, Shawn, Stephanie, Roshni, everybody at Highlander Institute who really puts a lot of heart into what they do, and thanks for helping out with everything that I do here at the Meet Education Project.
Without further adieu, on to this week’s episode with Brian Rainville.
Hey, everybody, welcome to another episode. Today I’m really pleased to have Brian Rainville.
Brian, thanks for joining us today.
Brian: Thank you, Nick.
Nick: All right. We always like to start off talking about our guest’s journey, where you came from, your educational background and what gets you so passionate about the future of learning. So, why don’t you take it away?
Brian: Yeah. I have a nontraditional background in the way that I came into education. I studied business in undergrad, and just around the point of graduation I found out that the opportunities that were in front of me were not engaging me and not bringing me to life and I wasn’t finding motivation in them. I ended up, instead of pursuing a career path out of undergrad, traveling the country, camping in the national parks actually for months on end.
Ultimately, all the money I had saved while I worked almost full-time through undergrad ran out, and I headed back home to Philadelphia and started work as a construction worker just to make ends meet, thinking at that time that I would be ready to put that business degree to use and went through the same recruiting process, would get to the third interview at these different job fairs, and every single time I would think, I just don’t feel the motivation.
While I was struggling with that, my older sister, who has been a great influence in my life, was living outside of Baltimore, and she saw an advertisement for what the New Teacher Project was doing in Baltimore at the time, and it’s actually still going on as the Baltimore City Teaching Residency.
She gave me a call and said, “I saw this advertisement. I know that you’re not satisfied, and I think that you should look into this.” I’d never heard of it. I’d never thought about teaching, but as soon as I saw it, it felt right to me.
I prepared for the interview, met up with a couple family friends who were teachers, visited their classrooms and had them support me in my nascent understanding.
I went down and interviewed and was accepted. Then that summer I moved to Baltimore thinking that I was going to become a high school teacher. This is 2004, 2005. The economy is booming. It’s really hard to get teachers in this city, so what ends up happening for the teachers that are hired is you just go where the need is. You’re basically placed where the need is so long as you could be a qualified teacher, and they placed me in kindergarten.
In August that year I started off with my first class of kindergartners.
Nick: A lot different than the expectation of high school, I’m sure.
Brian: Yeah, a lot different and something that I wasn’t overly excited about originally, but I think ended up being a great gift for me.
Nick: Very cool. Nice.
Why don’t you tell us about the teaching experience for you? That’s a great segueway kind of … You come from this business background or thinking that you’re going to get in the business background. What was it like in the classroom? How did it affect you and impact you as a person?
Why don’t we just start from there?
Brian: Yeah. When I first got to the classroom, I was very, very aware of my lack of readiness and my lack of preparation. I was overwhelmed with the amount of time that I was putting in to try to pull off an effective day every day for the students that were in front of me and just exhausting. I think my average number of students in the course of the first year was 26 or 27 kindergartners. Five-year-olds have a lot of energy and by nature need a lot of support, especially when you’re aspiring to do great things.
At the end of every single day I would get my last kid with their parents, I’d go right back to the room, and if I didn’t have to go straight to one of my Master’s classes, I would go to sleep right down on the carpet for an hour and a half before I would get up and start working again to prepare for the next day.
I had no idea really going in … I know I was interested in the work and it was work that I felt moved to do because it was really meaningful as opposed to the other things that I had been trying to get myself to do earlier felt less meaningful. I had no idea the demands of being an effective teacher, and that was really stunning to me.
As the year run on and I began to really get my feet underneath me, I began to see the challenges that were outside of my classroom but in the school. I was teaching in a Title I school in South Baltimore, which had been a blue ribbon school I think five years before I got there and since had definitely lost that status and was struggling. It was striking to me, the limited resources that were in the school and in the community beyond school.
It really became clear to me the inequity that we see between the kinds of schools that I went to. I went to your average suburban public school outside of Philadelphia and the settings that some of our students were facing in some of our urban areas.
Nick: Can you describe that a little bit? What was the student demographic, the background? Do you have percentages of free and reduced lunch or anything like that?
Brian: Yeah. In the case of this particular school, I think our free and reduced lunch percentage was in the high 80’s. I don’t think that that’s necessarily accurate. I think that we ended up reporting it.
The challenges were things that were just within the community that surrounded the schools. You have high poverty. You have low educational opportunities, all the way down to, if you think about issues that have really become clear since then, things like a food desert, the nutrition that’s available to students not just in the school but beyond the walls of the school, the employment opportunities that their parents do and don’t have. Sort of the issues that we see repeated across the country in similar settings.
Nick: Got it.
Let’s take it from there to fast forward five to six years and you became Baltimore Teacher of the Year; correct? You started experiencing unbelievable success in really getting your students to learn, having them understand the importance of learning and the importance of education.
How did you get from Point A to Point B? When you first started in that kindergarten classroom, you didn’t know what to expect, and then five years later, boom, you’re given an award for Teacher of the Year. How did that happen?
Brian: Yeah, you know, it’s the balance and the challenges that were present in the community that surrounded my students. Then you have these absolutely phenomenal, amazing kids in your classroom every day, who are so ready, and for me, it was really about finding the best avenue for me to connect with them and facilitate the learning and then getting out of their way so they could do that learning and so they could see the growth that we were, as a team, aspiring to achieve.
The first year, teaching kindergarten. Then in the following year I taught first grade. I taught first grade for another year and ended up teaching third grade for two years.
Through the course of teaching, I was connected to the Baltimore City Teaching Residency community. I was connected with the community at Hopkins and the MAT Program. I also got connected to a community of teachers that had, around a teacher named Linda Eberhart, who was a former State Teacher of the Year, sort of coalesced around her and some of her practices and built a professional learning community that we called MathWorks at the time.
This was a group of teachers who were self-organized, who came together after school and I think maybe one Saturday a month to sit down and really engage with each other around what we were finding that worked and how we could help each other improve.
In that experience I really began to find a community and find things that I could take back to my classroom and put into practice, and my growth was facilitated and just spiraled from there.
At the end of my third year of teaching, I finished my Master’s, so I felt this great relief, “Okay, I’ve got this space now” and quickly I filled that space with expanding my work with MathWorks and then facilitating professional development for the District and then ultimately writing curriculum for the District.
What we had was this groundswell of teachers who were coming together on their own accord, and I was able to really hone and develop my practice in concert with them and just continual effort.
I would say one of my strengths which facilitated a lot of the good work that happened was my commitment to supporting the whole child, which is something that’s really gained traction since then. You hear about social and emotional learning. You hear about, for lack of a better phrase, non-cognitive learning.
Brian: Now it’s all over the place, but my instinct and the direction that I went naturally at the time was to move in that direction. I formed some really powerful bonds with every group of students that came in front of me and with their families as well.
If I were to reflect on how I found this success, I think that looking first for us … “Us” being my students and myself in the classroom … was finding that connection, building the trust between each other and being very deliberate about how we both supported each other and built systems so that people were safe to express what they need to express so we could get the challenges out of the way to create the environment in which we could focus and work hard.
Nick: Sure. That makes a lot of sense. I put myself in your shoes and think about your role as teacher-as-learner really, being thrown into a circumstance where you had to produce. You have these kids depending on you, and you’re able to build off of that and build a community of other people who care so much about these kids and to have those supports.
Then you eventually become a leader yourself and writing curriculum, being a teacher-leader and this joint governing panel. It’s so interesting to see that hands-on, that experiential approach to it, instead of sitting in a Master’s program and learning about it and then being put into the classroom. You’re put into it and then learning these more formal skills as you go too. That’s amazing to me. Congrats on that.
Brian: Yeah, thank you. I appreciate that.
Nick: So cool.
Brian: One thing I would like to add here is the mindfulness around creating structures for exactly what you just described.
Every morning I would start the classroom off with a morning meeting. For the first 30 minutes of every single day the whole class would sit in a circle and we would go around and just do basically a simple high/low but one that didn’t necessarily have a requirement for usage of time.
Every student would have a chance to share something they were really excited about and be heard by their classmates or something that was troubling to them and be heard by their classmates.
Ultimately, it doesn’t take long after two weeks of hearing what one another is dealing with, you really start to feel a bond and feel invested in the other people and not just me to the students but the students to each other.
Nick: Right. That makes a lot of sense.
Let’s take it from your teaching experience and how that developed you as a person, as a leader, and now you’re part of Panorama Education. Why don’t you talk about your joining Panorama and then what you’re doing at Panorama and what the company is up to?
Brian: Yeah. Just for the purpose of keeping a consistent line here, after my sixth year of teaching I left the classroom and I went to work jointly reporting to the Baltimore Teacher’s Union and Baltimore City Public Schools Leadership Team.
Brian: My charge there was to help them structure and implement a progressive teacher contract that had just been ratified that restructure teacher competition, did away with the Master’s, Master’s Plus 30 and Doctorate [palings 00:13:48] and did away with the annual step increases.
In place of that established career pathways that allowed teachers to explore responsibilities beyond the classroom while maintaining their teacher status with the Union and the District and staying in the classroom as much as they would like.
In place of the traditional evaluator process for being promoted into one of these pathways, we put in a peer review place or peer review process that aside from establishing the initial structures and processes, the District didn’t have a hand in, so that your peers actually made the final call on whether you would be placed into one of the advanced pathways for the District.
Through that work, I spent about 18 months in that role. I really, really enjoyed and really appreciated the work at a system level, trying to consider and apply my own experiences in the classroom, how we can build systems and structures that are going to best support teachers so that we’re increasing their agency to do their job more effectively.
Then in the second year of that work, the superintendent in Baltimore City sent me a quick email, a one-liner, said, “There’s a program, the Ed LD Program at Harvard. I would like you to think about applying for it.”
Brian: I talked to my wife about it, applied for the program, and then joined the program to Practice-Based Doctorate, two years of classroom study. The third year is a residency placement. The culminating exercise of the degree is the residency placement, and you write in … It’s something similar to a thesis but it’s not so research-based. It’s more a reflection on leadership efforts. We called it a Capstone within the program.
For my residency, I, through the matching process, landed at Panorama Education.
Nick: Right. I got you.
Brian: My role here and I’m, for all intents and purposes, a full-time employee, leading educator, engagement year at Panorama. Simultaneously I’m a full-time doctoral student.
The way that I ultimately landed on Panorama as my residency site, when I was working in the classroom and in the school and then ultimately working in the District, I came to really, really believe firmly that it wasn’t just the ends or the outcomes that we were pursuing. We would all agree that those are critically important, but it was also the ways in which we went about pursuing those outcomes and how we engaged with each other.
I became really interested in not just the aspirational outcomes that I wanted to achieve but in being very deliberate in who I hold myself accountable to be at any given interaction, at any given minute during any given day.
Through the course of the matching process, there was no organization that I interacted with or interviewed with where I saw greater deliberateness in that way about considering who we are, how we represent in the work while we go to achieve outcomes than I found at Panorama.
Just phenomenal level of alignment around orientation on the values and the mission that the organization is trying to accomplish in terms of creating greater agency across different levels of stakeholders within schools and systems of schools.
Nick: Great. Can you talk about what sort of work Panorama is doing with surveys and data to inform instruction and making these schools more effective and efficient?
Brian: Yeah. Yeah, I can. I think it’s interesting, the wording that we choose is really important. I don’t think that we at Panorama think that we are going to make schools more efficient and that we are going to make teachers perform at a higher level.
I think what we recognize is that that work is very specific and very difficult work. Our greatest contribution is not to make the schools perform at a higher level, to make teachers perform at a higher level. It’s to build the structures that give those individuals and those systems, just the individuals in this case, greater agency so that they’re able to face the challenges that they face in their local contexts or to access the opportunities that they face.
The way we generally think about our work, which is surveys and analytics, is how can we help any partner that we engage with derive a greater set of knowledge, a greater set of data, that is relevant to the goals that they want to achieve, and through analytics and reporting how can we make that data, that knowledge, as actionable as it can possibly be for them specifically?
The way that Panorama hopes to make an impact is by bringing a greater breadth to the data conversation by bringing greater levels of agency to different stakeholders within school systems, and this includes students. How are we deriving student voice and student perception and perspective taking tools and teachers, teacher perspective? Then how are we giving those groups agency ideally positioning them to have greater agency to take action?
Nick: Brian, I think that segueways us nicely into your perspectives and Panorama’s perspectives could obviously be mutually exclusive on data.
There’s a great article in The New York Times, Creating Teachers with Data from Class, that talks about this spire opportunity here and what data has done to what your use of surveys has done to unlock some of this potential and aspire. Can you talk about data in general and your perspectives on it and how to really inform teacher effectiveness and institutional effectiveness?
Brian: Yeah. We’re really excited about the work we do. We’re excited about the article in the New York Times. One of the things that’s been really interesting that’s come from that article, I think since that article has been published we received over 1,700 contacts from educators …
Brian: … reaching out to us, wanting to know more, wanting to talk to us about what they read. It’s been really inspiring to me that a huge percentage of them have been teachers.
Two particular teachers in specific that reached out, one was a teacher from the small suburban district that I went to in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. When we saw that one come in, it was so exciting to bring some of my work full circle.
The other was a middle school teacher in Baltimore City, who, as it turned out, was presently teaching one of the students that I taught in my first year of kindergarten.
Brian: What we heard from the teachers is some of what you saw in the article, was about making a broader conversation around data. If you look at the data that’s traditionally available on schools, you’ll see things like attendance data. You’ll see some potentially, depending on how well it’s kept and how accessible it is, you’ll see behavioral data.
Then the most traditional of them presently is performance data in terms of standardized assessments that are high stakes. Pretty much everyone has them happening, and just the performance data from grades and other assessments. These things are definitely of importance, there’s no question about that.
There are lots of other channels of data which are of tremendous importance too, and The New York Times article was based around the release of the Panorama Student Survey, which is an Open Source tool that shared a series of topics with educators and gave them a tool by which to assess those.
Some of those categories were Classroom Environment, Student Engagement, Expectations in Rigor, Supportive Relationships, Sense of Belonging; things that experienced educators will tell you they have a sense really matter but have been relatively difficult to bring into the conversation because it’s been relatively difficult to capture and to translate into data.
The intention for us is to share a tool that’s valid, that’s reliable, and that, with a relatively light lift, educators can put into practice to start to get a really clear picture for what’s happening in these other dimensions within their classrooms, within their schools, and to extend from there something we have heard repeatedly from the different educators we engage with is the importance of having data in rapid cycles and getting the feedback in a timely manner.
When we think about how we aim to contribute to the conversation, I think that we think a lot about not just about creating the greater breadth of the data that teachers and educators use but also giving them the opportunity to get the results back in a much more timely fashion so that they’re responding to the information while it’s still fresh and then being able to assess and reassess multiple times through the course of the year so that the information can be used in a formative sense as opposed to only in a summative sense.
Nick: Yep. I love it.
What do you think the next iteration of this type of work that you and Panorama are doing is? Is there something that you’re trying to get to in the next one-to-five years, I guess, that you’re not at now that you’d like to be?
Brian: Yes, it’s a really important question. My work specifically, and I think it’s shared broadly, we’re constantly asking ourselves about how we can create greater impact with the offerings that we put out and ways and methods with which we engage our clients. It’s something we’re always exploring. We’re always asking questions. We’re always looking to perform quick tests of our assumptions to see if these things are actually working.
As we move forward, I think what you’ll see more and more from us is actively engaging with our users to understand where they’re finding value in what we’re offering, how we can increase the value of what we have coming in their direction.
Nick: That’s great. I love it.
I just have a couple of rapid-fire questions for you here. Take your time on answering them, but they’re just kind of fun interactive questions to get to know you a little bit better.
Number one, do you have a specific book that you would give to family members or friends, anything that’s really influenced you that you typically would give to them?
Brian: I have an atypical answer for this question from what people generally expect when they ask an educator, because I think most people imagine that what I’m going to reference is a seminal education book.
Brian: One of the classes I took in my program was a class on exercising leadership by a professor named Dean Williams, and Dean Williams has a book that’s called Real Leadership.
In that book, basically it’s an examination of how progress is made across communities and across large groups, how you navigate complex interactions where some groups sometimes feel threatened and different groups might be seeking power.
For better or for worse, it’s applicable to the ed space right now. I think that book is really insightful in terms of how it frames decision-making processes and how it asks us to truly examine our values to really understand how we can find collective value and how we can keep ourselves together with a sense of common purpose in moving forward.
The reason this book means so much to me now is when we see this oppositional orientation and a fragmentation of different groups in education … You see this with labor disputes in states like Wisconsin. You see this with the way some districts have oriented around charters. Recently, when the New York City Department of Education named their new chancellor, it was very political, very heated.
There’s a proverb that, “When the elephants fight the grass gets trampled,” and I think that those who are privileged enough and lucky enough to find themselves in leadership positions in education would do well to remember that and to think about how we actually create the greatest collective value we can and honor kids in that process.
Nick: That is a great one. Very well said. Do you have a favorite documentary that you recommend, or do you not watch documentaries?
Brian: I do watch documentaries.
It’s another atypical answer coming from me. A lot of the ed documentaries are relatively polarizing, and it’s hard for me to support.
It’s hard for me to support a polarizing piece. There is a documentary called Transcendent Man, which is about Ray Kurzweil, and it chronicles Ray Kurzweil’s life, and it speaks about the different motivations that he experienced in different times in his life and the actions that came from his motivations.
That documentary is phenomenally inspiring to me and serve for me as a constant reminder of what I believe every one of us is capable of with the sort of the right level of focus and commitment to the problems that we hope to solve.
Ray Kurzweil has solved some very, very hairy problems in ways that it benefited thousands, tens of thousands of people.
Nick: I have not seen that one. I just wrote it down because I have to now go watch it. I’m a huge fan of Singularity University and what Peter Diamandis and Ray are doing over there. I’m sure that’s a fantastic documentary. That’s a good one.
Brian: Yeah, it’s inspiring.
My last question, if you could have dinner with one person you admire, past or present, who would it be and why?
Brian: Well, I’m actually hoping to see and speak in Boston shortly, that would be the Dalai Lama. If you read any of the Dalai Lama’s writings, obviously he’s a spiritual leader. He espouses no capacities or no abilities above and beyond what you can see before you. He’s rooted in the practice of developing greater empathy and greater compassion for everyone, and in creating his best individual effort and ideally a collective effort towards recognizing that all living things want reduced suffering and then reducing that suffering.
I want to do a lot more than reduce suffering, and I hope we all want to do a lot more than reduce suffering. I’d like to be more aspirational than that, but I love the way that he approaches it. He’s done phenomenal work, someone who’s influenced the minds of many, and I think as humankind has led us to a better place and he’s walking the earth right now. I could have dinner with him if I were to be so lucky.
Nick: Awesome. I love it.
How can the audience support you in your efforts and what Panorama is doing? Do you have a website or anything that they could do to support?
Brian: Yeah, you can go to PanoramaEd.com. We have a blog. Hop on our blog. We love to hear comments. Drop us a line through our contact form, take a look at the tools we’re sharing. We’re constantly looking to engage and have conversation with interested educators, and we would love to hear from anyone who’s working hard to make progress in this space.
Nick: That’s great, Brian. Thanks for joining the program. You’re an incredibly thoughtful, passionate guy, and I’m glad to have been able to pick your brain and excited to continue to be connected. Thanks again.
Brian: Thank you, Nick. I really appreciate this forum that you’ve created. I’ve learned a lot by listening to your other podcasts, and I’m happy to contribute.
Nick: Thanks, Brian. Talk soon.
Brian: Take care.
Nick: Thanks for listening to the show. If you would like show notes or more details of one of our conversations, please do visit MeetEducationProject.com. Please also subscribe to us on iTunes under “Meet Education Project.” Thanks and see you all next time.