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October 2013 | Volume 71 | Number 2
Leveraging Teacher Leadership
My teacher leadership was encouraged in a few big ways during my first decade in education. I was encouraged to pursue a master's degree, invited to work as an adjunct professor, recognized by my superintendent for work on a community project, and most recently, called to serve as an assistant principal/intern.
Although such honors are meaningful, what inspires me even more is a file in my desk drawer called "Happy Stuff." In it, I have collected 10 years' worth of cards, notes, letters, and pictures from colleagues, administrators, kids, and parents that tell me I have made a difference. As I reflect on my experiences in schools, I realize that the best ways to recognize and encourage teacher leadership are the simplest: a kind word, a note of gratitude, a heartfelt acknowledgement of a job well done.
—Traci Gardner, assistant principal/intern, Union Public Schools, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Last fall, our teachers were asked to choose a professional book to read, become an expert on, and share during one of our scheduled professional development days. Teachers chose books on such topics as improving mathematics instruction, infusing wonder, assessing inquiry, and improving literacy. Knowing that our colleagues and friends were our audience, we felt a sense of safety but also a greater feeling of responsibility to make sure the time participating in our session was worthwhile. It was affirming to be recognized for becoming the in-house expert on an important topic. The unanimous agreement to repeat the learning and leadership process again next year became our professional learning legacy. What a clever way to invite leadership, without pressure or pretense!
—Heather McKay, kindergarten teacher, Calgary Board of Education, Calgary, Alberta
In January, I joined other teachers to participate in a blogging initiative called One Good Thing. Each contributor commits to document one good thing that happened every day in his or her classroom. We live by the mantra, "Every day may not be good, but there's at least one good thing in every day." As I composed my posts, I noticed my attitude toward my students shifting. I started seeing them not just for who they were, but for whom they could become. One day, a student treated me poorly, and I was upset. But my blogging was teaching me to emphasize the positive in each student. So I wrote the student a letter, emphasizing what I found positive in him. And, sure enough, he started to change.
My principal has followed my writing and encouraged me in this endeavor. Blogging has given me the opportunity to talk to leaders all across my district and show them that together, we're making good things happen every day.
—Rebecka Peterson, mathematics teacher, Union High School, Tulsa, Oklahoma
I am a teacher in a virtual school. Teaching in an online setting is quite different from teaching in the traditional classroom. When my instructional leaders observed my work with students, they encouraged me to create online professional development that could be delivered to a team of virtual-school teachers. Having the opportunity to do this was rewarding and motivating for me, useful to the team, and most important, beneficial to students. Part of being a leader is fostering and developing leadership in others, and I am grateful my school leaders filled that role.
—Lauren Wenger-Hernandez, online instructor, Florida Virtual School, Cooper City, Florida
As a 6th grade teacher, I challenged my students to learn from one another in a hands-on approach to learning science. For example, we looked at the life cycle of the mealworm, made our own "garbage dumps" to focus on recycling, and cleaned up an imaginary oil spill. Students began to see themselves as true scientists. Because I wanted this experience for all 4th through 6th grade students in my school, I decided to apply for a grant to open a science lab in our school. A parent volunteer and I sat down to look at the science curriculum. We chose topics that were consistent throughout, wrote lesson plans for each grade, and received a grant from the Dwight D. Eisenhower Math and Science Foundation. As a result, students learned that year that they could both learn science and have fun.
—Linda Dunlap, associate professor of education, Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina
My leadership was encouraged last year as I talked with and encouraged two new teachers on our grade-level team. The first year can be a difficult adjustment, especially for a teacher hired after the start of the year in a 1:1 iPad school. My principal noticed my support of these new teachers, thanked me for helping to create a can-do culture, and encouraged me to continue mentoring. I went on to win teacher of the year on my campus.
—April Maas, teacher, Belton Independent School District, Belton, Texas
I had just concluded a post-observation conference with a 1st grade teacher I had worked with for many years when she said, "I want you to know that this has been the best year so far. I've really found your feedback useful in my teaching. I just thought it would be good to tell you this myself." Principals, like teachers, don't often receive feedback from the adults they work with. But positive feedback, even when done briefly in a few words, can be so encouraging. These words refueled my tank for the remainder of the school year.
—Jonathan M. Ullrich, principal, Longview Elementary School, Spring Hill, Tennessee
I keep a running list on my school computer titled "How to Make Next Year Better." I add procedures and policies that could be changed to improve things for teachers and students, garnered from observations and conversations with colleagues. I submitted this list to my administration with possible solutions, not just complaints, and have been engaged in dialogue over the summer about how to make positive changes for a smooth beginning to the school year. My principal actually said, "Thanks for stepping up!"
—Carrell Hugueley, Common Core reading teacher, Shelby County Unified School District, Memphis, Tennessee
I was teaching 4th grade in an elementary school in Oregon when a sudden downpour occurred during noon recess. Rain is not uncommon in Oregon, but downpours are unusual. Suddenly, 60-plus 1st and 2nd graders came rushing inside and ran noisily down the hall. I dropped to my knees and put my hands out to signal to them that they should slow down. Then I calmly instructed them to walk quietly to their classrooms, which they did. I complimented those students who were following directions. I had no idea my principal had witnessed my handling of the situation. He pulled me aside to compliment my management skills and then asked, "Have you ever given thought to being a principal?" Years later, guess what my title is? Principal Nichols!
—Lois Ancell-Nichols, principal, St. Paul's Lutheran School, Enid, Oklahoma
There is nothing more powerful, motivating, and inspiring than having someone believe in you. I am a quiet workhorse who does my best regardless of external motivation or accolades. But when my administrative team encouraged me to pursue National Board certification, it marked a turning point for me. I had planned to do it anyway, but that statement from them flipped a switch that boosted my confidence. It was no longer just me doing my thing in my classroom; now I also felt compelled to pursue other leadership roles to extend my reach beyond the classroom.
We all have the power to move others, even through small statements and actions that convey high expectations. We should never wait to acknowledge someone's potential and strengths. The perfect way to be a leader is to let people around you know you believe in them, colleagues and students alike.
—Wendi Pillars, ESL teacher, Chatham County Schools, Siler City, North Carolina
To this day, I don't think my principal understands the effects that her encouraging words had on me early in my teaching career. She had just completed my evaluation in my second year of teaching, and during the post-observation conference she told me she saw me as a leader who could make a difference. I was surprised by her remarks. With her encouragement, I pursued and earned National Board certification. When she became principal at another school, I followed. We had a beautiful courtyard in the middle of our inner-city school that was taken over by weeds. I went to her and asked if we could create an outdoor classroom. She said yes, and we created an award-winning outdoor classroom that integrated content with environmental education.
Because my principal saw potential in me I didn't know I had, I've continued to serve in various leadership capacities eight years later. I have written and received grants in excess of $6,000. I also received a fellowship last year to attend Harvard's Project Zero.
—Karen Vogelsang, teacher, Shelby County Schools, Memphis, Tennessee
This school year, I piloted the use of student docents in my primary class. The job of a docent is to greet guests and explain to them what is happening in the classroom. At first, the students were hesitant about the new role, but as I coached them through the procedure they became enthusiastic. As the year progressed, the docents often spent increasing amounts of time escorting the guest through the classroom and highlighting artifacts and work samples. Near the end of the school year, a non-classroom parent told me she heard a parent at a public park talk about the eagerness of the primary students in my classroom. She was in awe of their manners and abilities to describe their work. Talk about a huge compliment! The success of the docent program validated my trust in my students.
—Allison Hogan, primary teacher, Episcopal School of Dallas, Dallas, Texas
In the past two years, I have grown by leaps and bounds as a leader. It started when I mentioned to my union leadership that I was passionate about professional development for both classified and certified staff. They invited me to be on a district/union professional development committee. From that activity, I acquired a mentor—a principal who brought some interesting readings to the committee. After I sent him a simple e-mail explaining I was a reader, too, we met throughout the year, talking about education practice and how it relates to students in our communities. He gives me huge chunks of time anytime I ask.
Another element in my leadership growth was a network. The Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) worked with some of us who were serving on union committees to refine our goals. Through this network, I attended trainings for using narrative to promote action and virtual community organizing. Most recently, I've been granted a CTQ mentor who is working with me to start a teacher-led school in Tacoma.
—Delonna Halliday, facilitator for innovative technologies, Tacoma Public Schools, Washington
I worked as a grade-level team leader in a turnaround school in California from 2006 to 2009. As part of the restructuring, teachers were given real leadership roles, including the ability to guide their grade levels in improving student outcomes. The result: the school was removed from program improvement in two years. Teachers became more focused and held themselves accountable for student outcomes. The collegial climate yielded success for all. The lesson for leaders is that if you involve your teachers in leadership, they will hold themselves accountable for results.
—Eileen Dial, director of student teaching, Holy Cross College, Notre Dame, Indiana
I am a seasoned teacher of 34 years. For all that time, I have been a member of my local, state, and national education associations and have faithfully represented the five schools in which I have taught. There were times when I wanted to give up the responsibility, but my colleagues persuaded me to continue. I also knew that performing this duty would keep me and the teachers in my schools abreast of vital information. I wanted to be able to let them know that despite the fact that some of them were not members of the union, they still reaped professional benefits from its efforts.
—Marilyn Locke, 1st grade teacher, Shelby County Schools, Memphis, Tennessee
As a young English teacher, I was inspired by my master's program to teach English literature using whole works only. I asked my principal if I could teach one section of seniors by this means. He said, "Yes, but report back on its worth after a semester." I taught Beowulf, Paradise Lost, three plays, and three novels. The kids stuck with it dutifully. There were no excerpts in this class! But at the end of the semester, when I asked the students to evaluate the new approach, they reported that they found it too difficult to build understanding in just 45 minutes before rushing to other classes. I reported to the principal that I wanted to return to the normal arrangement and gave the reasons. He said, "Have it your way … and come back with any other ideas you have for improving learning." The fact that he allowed me to experiment was the best encouragement I had in my career as a teacher.
—Dan Vander Ark, curriculum director, North Pointe Christian Schools, Grand Rapids, Michigan
In 1999, the director of the private American-curriculum school in Kuwait, where I taught 3rd grade, asked me to chair the steering committee for school accreditation. It was a daunting task; as a fairly new school, we had very few written policies and no written curriculum. It was obvious that rules and procedures needed to be formalized and documented. We appointed self-study committees and began the process of scrutinizing every department of the school. All teachers were required to serve on a committee. Some resented having to do the extra work, but over time, they observed that I was working as hard as they were and that their opinions mattered. As a result, the school improved much faster because we were shining a light on areas that needed improvement, such as health and safety procedures, classroom resources, and support for English language learners.
—Ilene Winokur, consultant, Specialized Solutions, Kuwait
As I was completing my internship for my administrator endorsement, my curriculum office supervisor scheduled—and accompanied me on—classroom visits with teachers who had different degrees of experience and knowledge of the content. Throughout this experience, I was encouraged to work with teachers to reflect on what I had learned and continue to build my own professional knowledge. As a result, I served as a department chair and now will be beginning a new position as a staff development teacher.
—Kristi Allan, staff development teacher, Baltimore County Public Schools, Maryland
I was asked to speak in front of our school board about the work that I had done on our Common Core team. The team unwrapped the new standards and designed professional development to disseminate our information to the teachers of our district. I spoke on how being part of the Common Core team helped me grow as a leader.
—Dayson Pasion, STEM teacher, Alamance Burlington School Systems, Graham, North Carolina
Recently, I oversaw my school's first annual Historically Black College and University tour, which enabled 30 students to visit five preeminent institutions in the southeastern United States. Students attended information sessions, toured campuses, observed classes, spoke with professors, and ate in dining halls. They learned how to identify suitable colleges and what it takes to be successful in college. While we were on campuses, students met role models who imparted advice on selecting high school courses, participating in internships, and deciding college majors.
As the HBCU tour coordinator, I oversaw operational logistics, parental outreach, and fund-raising activities. We raised more than $11,000 and successfully conducted the college tour!
—Julian A. McNeil, mathematics teacher, Boston Public Schools, Massachusetts
A recent successful teacher leadership opportunity for me has been serving as an English/Language Arts (ELA) Common Core coach for the Tennessee Department of Education. I am one of 400 such coaches, who are leading our state's transition to Common Core State Standards. Tennessee is leading the nation with a peer-led Common Core summer training series. Along with about 300 Math Common Core coaches, we will help to train more than 30,000 teachers across Tennessee on implementing the new standards in their classrooms. Becoming an ELA Common Core coach is a teacher leadership opportunity that supports student growth and my own professional development. It gives me the chance to empower other teachers to be highly effective, grow, and help all students excel.
—Monica C. Brown, teacher, Shelby County Schools, Memphis, Tennessee
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Copyright © 2013 by ASCD
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