Kettle Moraine: A Conversation with Dr. Theresa Ewald

Q&A   20 October 2016
By Dr. Theresa Ewald


As our teachers experience the power of planning and taking charge of their own learning, they better understand the power of personalization for their own students.

Dr. Theresa Ewald
Assistant Superintendent

Q. We always like to know how our guests got involved in the education space and what keeps them motivated in the present day. What is your story?

A. I’ve been a passionate educator for 23 years, and I was a consumer of educational systems for the 23 years prior to that. Both as a consumer and a provider, I’ve never felt content with “how we do school.” As such, I have developed a lifelong habit of pushing the status quo.

With that being said, I’ve never been more hopeful and excited about the state of education than I am now. In the last decade, we have been able to explore the “science” of learning. The use of Functional Magnetic Resource Imaging (fMRI) and the translation of research for the practitioner has provided more tools for educators to be knowledgeable about how to engage all learners. Additionally, the digital age has created conditions where information is pervasive. It allows educators an opportunity to focus on developing deep-learning skills rather than knowing an exhaustive list of facts and concepts. These conditions allow us to build a system of education that truly is for all learners.

Q. What makes Kettle Moraine’s professional development unique? How does it serve as a model for personalizing learning for students?

A. Like many school districts across the country, students of Kettle Moraine have a long legacy of high performance. This can leave some wondering, “Why change?” While student achievement remains important, a student’s ability to take charge of his/her own learning and life is of the highest importance. As our teachers experience the power of planning and taking charge of their own learning, they better understand the power of personalization for their own students.

The Kettle Moraine culture considers all teachers, leaders. They are trusted to lead groups of learners each day. Additionally, as educators experience taking the lead in their own learning, they understand some of the challenges students experience when they enter personalized learning environments. These challenges have been more deeply understood when experienced first, and through this understanding, strategies are more easily developed.

This belief has led to the development of career pathways not normally recognized in other school districts. The distributed leadership model we developed formally recognizes approximately 10% of our teachers as leaders of teacher teams. These leaders engage in ongoing professional development that builds confidence and skills in mentoring and coaching. Because of these roles, all staff are able to be part of small teams that receive regular and targeted feedback. This feedback has further enhanced a growth mindset that sets a culture of risk-taking and stretches our practice for the benefit of student learning and engagement.

With the development of smaller teams and practice of regular and specific feedback, each professional can develop a personalized professional development plan. The use of micro-credentialing professionals’ learning formally recognizes the ongoing growth of each and every teacher. The learning and subsequent application of teacher learning in the classroom is incentivized through our compensation model. In Kettle Moraine, teachers experience compensation increases through growing in practice, not for the number of years they’ve been in a classroom

Q. KM began cultivating a unique makeup of legacy schools and instrumentality charter schools as the district transitioned from a traditional environment to a learner-centered one. How are the charter schools integrated in the district system? How did KM leaders communicate their new vision to the public, and what was the public input when the vision was developed?

A. Kettle Moraine serves students across our community in 10 schools. Six of our schools are referred to as our legacy schools, and we host an additional four charter schools (three at the high school level and one at the elementary level). Unlike much of the country, those charter schools are district schools, hence the title “instrumentality.” The teachers are employees of the district, and the physical schools are on our campus. The charter contracts of the schools are approved and monitored by our public school’s school board. Our model is closely aligned to the original intent of charters, which is to have small environments to develop new models with the intent of scaling the success for all learners. Our vision has never wavered; we seek to transform learning for all kids, not just learners in Kettle Moraine.

The creation of charters as a way to develop and learn from innovation came as a result of the charge and vision of our school board. This charge was later confirmed through multiple community forums. The latest message from our community in October 2015 was that they wanted personalized learning for all. The community’s expectation and participation has helped fuel district plans for scaling personalized learning across all environments.

Q. Technology is an important component in the 21st-century learning space. How has technology opened the doors to learning in your district and what needs does technology currently not meet for KM learners, if any?

A. Technology is an important tool for innovation. When each student has a device and has access to programs that adapt to their needs, personalization is accessible. Technology is a key ingredient in providing conditions for each learner to know their current level and have an individual plan to advance to the next steps.

Our experiences, however, suggest that without a shift in pedagogy, the technology matters little. Technology allows access to a world of information for learners. A teacher, however, opens a world of skill development, strategy acquisition, and character development. Our learners’ voices and data continue to reinforce to us that a learner’s relationship with teachers impacts belief in self, willingness to take risks, and character development. In short, in the technology age, the role of teacher has never been more important!

Q. A common theme among pioneers in the learner-centered movement is the word “messy.” Have you found that it gets “cleaner” as the transformation becomes more fully realized?

A. Transformation of any kind is messy. The spirit in which an organization engages in the transformation journey is the most important element. Our organizational tenacity has grown from our strong resolve toward our vision, “Learning without Boundaries.” Without a strong belief or vision, teachers are likely to feel unsupported and uninspired.

Transformation becomes “cleaner” as learners and teachers co-create the daily flow. Many of our personalized environments find a daily rhythm of learning. This rhythm, however, is not so tight that it can’t be responsive to the needs of individual learners or the group. Learners are typically able to adjust to these conditions. Teachers are better able to adjust to these more open structures when they deeply believe that the learners are the drivers and the teacher is a facilitator.


Transformation of any kind is messy. The spirit in which an organization engages in the transformation journey is the most important element.

Dr. Theresa Ewald
Assistant Superintendent

Q. As KM continues to push forward, what initiatives are on the horizon that we should be looking out for?

A. As this question indicates, transformation never ends, and we have not “arrived.” The culture in KM supports a steady push forward to develop practices and structures that efficiently and effectively address achievement, engagement, and student-efficacy. The evolution of our work has most recently brought us to the implementation of competency-based learning. Work around translating continuums of learning into competencies at the elementary level and translating competencies into credits at the secondary level is underway. This work is being done in both our charter environments and within our legacy schools.

Early indicators suggest that our learners embrace the opportunity to be in charge of their environments. One such indicator is the power of the learner’s voice in our scaling efforts. As our learners move from personalized environments into more traditional environments, they make suggestions to teachers on different ways of having the class. At times, it is as simple as the movement of furniture that suggest learners believe in the power of social learning. At other times, it is as complex as the learner suggesting creating an alternate plan for assessment and saying to a teacher, “Can I show you I’ve met the targets in a way different than your test? Here are my ideas.” For some of our teachers, experiences such as these create the urgency to shift to a more personalized approach.

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