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July 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 9

Teaming Up: Lessons from Teach to Lead

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Professional Learning
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Teach to Lead is a joint effort of ASCD, Teach Plus, and the U.S. Department of Education designed to elevate and support teachers in leading locally driven innovations to improve teaching and learning. Since 2014, Teach to Lead has had direct involvement with more than 8,000 educators from 48 states and partnered with 175 supporting organizations.
The project hosts summits at which teacher-led teams collaborate on problems of practice they've identified and—with the help of a logic model and a critical friend from a Teach to Lead supporting organization—develop an initiative that will spur fundamental changes in their school, county, or state. The goal is to position teachers to play a more central role in developing policies and frameworks that affect their work, without their having to leave the classroom.
More than 450 Teach to Lead teams are now active in U.S. school systems. EL recently asked four of these successful teams to reflect on one thing that helped them work together effectively and one obstacle they've had to overcome.

Project: ¡Sí Se Puede!

Richland School District Two, Columbia, South Carolina

Nathan O'Neill (team leader), Title III and ESOL program compliance administrator; LaChe' Williams, 5th grade teacher, Conder Arts Integrated Magnet School; Ron Huff, Hispanic family liaison; Donna Teuber, innovative program designer.
LaChe' Williams, Donna Teuber, Nathan O'Neill, and Ron Huff at the 2016 Baltimore Teach to Lead summit. (PHOTO COURTESY OF NATHAN O'NEILL)
¡Sí Se Puede!'s mission is to equip our district's staff and empower its families to ensure Latino students' success. We are a broad collaboration of district teachers and staff who banded together around the common goal of supporting our growing Latino community. We began through a district "innovation incubator" in 2014 and were chosen to participate in the Baltimore Teach to Lead Summit in February 2016. Some of ¡Sí Se Puede!'s key initiatives have been Fiesta Conexiones (a back-to-school bash for Spanish-speaking families), A Day in the Life (in which administrators shadow a Newcomer English learner through a morning at school), our Student Interpreter program, and our "Welcome Wagon," which trains front office staff members in being empathetic and using resources like Google Translate to connect with multilingual families.
¡Sí Se Puede! team member Ron Huff with a group of trained Student Interpreters. (PHOTO COURTESY OF NATHAN O'NEILL)
The hallmark attribute every member of the team brings to our teamwork is a selfless passion to serve our Latino students and families. Team members—coming from diverse personal and professional backgrounds and already having a great deal of responsibility with their "regular jobs"—show a lot of heart and dedication to the mission. Being willing to join after-school planning meetings, communicate across Google Docs to plan initiatives, and put in extra time to pull off events shows the degree of passion each member shares. It is awesome to watch our team rally together, bringing individual talents for the good of the whole.
Being a part of the summit in Baltimore was amazing, and Teach to Lead's logic model helped us get ideas onto paper. But for our team, the best facet of Teach to Lead came when we were chosen to host a Leadership Lab in our district in fall of 2016. Leadership Labs are daylong meetings intended to expand the progress of a Teach to Lead team by bringing together key partners who help advance that team's action plan. A Lab spurs connections between teachers, local stakeholders, and supportive organizations; participants share best practices and commit to helpful actions.
Representatives from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the U. S. Department of Education, and ASCD worked with us in planning our Lab and helped us orchestrate the daylong event. Their support was invaluable in helping us invite the right people to hear about ¡Sí Se Puede!, clarifying our presentation's pitch, and strategizing how to engage the participants in ways to help move our mission forward. This excellent day of networking helped us make deeper connections with district and regional groups and gain more ideas about where to go in the future.
One of our biggest obstacles has been team member turnover. Since 2014, the team has shifted many times over as team members have come and gone for professional and personal reasons. Keeping a "sense of team" has been a challenge. But we've always been fortunate to be able to draw in a powerful handful of teachers and staff who leverage their time, talents, and passion to ¡Sí Se Puede! They've made an immeasurable impact on the lives of Latino students and families.

Project: Real Talk—Empathy Interviews

Chicago Public Schools, Chicago, Illinois

Mark Janka (team leader), English teacher and sophomore team lead, Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet High School; Melissa Resh, assistant principal and STEM director, Lake View High School.
Mark Janka and Melissa Resh at Empower19.
Our team's goal was to get Chicago-area school and district leaders to use empathy interviews. Such interviews aim to understand a "user's" true needs. If we conceptualize leadership as a "product," these interviews ensure that leaders address the true needs of those they lead (the "users"), not just the needs the leaders perceive. Empathy interviews allow administrators to drive school improvement by unlocking often-overlooked expertise and institutional knowledge. They have the potential to build trust, uncover issues within a school, and strengthen teacher buy-in for initiatives.
Chicago Public Schools breaks the city into "networks" as a way to distribute leadership, management of initiatives, and school supports. These networks have tended to function as a mechanism to ensure compliance for well-intended (but sometimes imprudent), top-down initiatives. We hope to have network leaders use empathy interviews to collect "data" from teachers, students, and other stakeholders more systematically so they can gain perspective on and support bottom-up initiatives, not solely top-down directives. While all people at the school level have useful insights that can be revealed in empathy interviews, we place particular emphasis on teachers because they are closest to the actual work of educating children.
The one thing that has made our collaboration work was, absolutely, trust. That trust permeated our work on many levels. It started as the trust between the two of us on the team to be able to give and receive critical feedback and keep the heart of the work at the forefront of our decisions. Then it was trust that if we did this project, even on a small scale, we would make a difference in teachers' and students' lives. Finally, we had to trust that we had an idea that was good and would improve the field.
The Teach to Lead Summit was critical in supporting our progress. The summit elevated our own belief in the power of our idea; it gave us protected, dedicated time to work on it; and it allowed us to get feedback from people outside our circles, which meant we could be honest without the worry of political ramifications.
One obstacle was the real possibility that teachers' voices would remain secondary in activities connected to our initiative. Melissa, an assistant principal, is a natural leader; when she speaks, people listen. That and the fact that she has administrator status meant that if we weren't careful, this project—which is explicitly about elevating teacher voice—could turn into non-teachers (administrators or representatives from, for instance, the central office) speaking mostly to one another about the importance of teacher voice! This dynamic is so heavily embedded in the culture of education—even in areas specifically carved out for teacher leadership—that teacher input can be overlooked. We had to be vigilant to gauge whether this was happening in spaces where we shared our ideas.
Fortunately, Melissa is a thoughtful leader and collaborator, known as a champion of respecting teacher voice among leaders in our district. If Mark felt like things were out of balance, he asked Melissa to have side conversations with him. Checking in about the balance of input and voice was an important part of our process.

Project: EngagED—Professional Development That Works!

Chico Unified School District, Chico, California

Becky Brown (team leader), administrator of special projects, Butte County Office of Education (former English teacher at Inspire School of Arts and Sciences); Danielle Reynolds, math teacher, Inspire School of Arts and Sciences; Kathyleen Bishop, social science teacher, Chico High School; David McKay, principal, Bidwell Junior High School (former director of secondary education for Chico Unified School District).
Danielle Reynolds, David McCay, and Becky Brown (not pictured: Kathyleen Bishop). (PHOTO BY BRAYDIN SAVAGNSY)
In April 2016, a team from Chico Unified School District (CUSD) traveled to New Orleans to be part of a Teach to Lead Summit. Danielle Reynolds and Becky Brown, teachers from Inspire School of Arts and Sciences, had been leading a grant-funded project called EngagED, which focused on putting teacher leadership at the core of instructional improvement. They hoped Teach to Lead could help them sustain this work. Once our Teach to Lead application was accepted, our team of Chico teachers and administrators began discussing ways to level-up the work of EngagED for all teachers in the district.
During the summit, we used the logic model to articulate a problem statement that began, "In Chico Unified School District, our current professional development system inadequately prepares teachers to engage socioeconomically disadvantaged students …" and noted that our teachers lacked access to time, resources, and collaboration with colleagues to learn strategies for reaching these students. We developed a clear vision for solutions to the problem and identified the who, what, when, and how of accomplishing that vision over two-plus years.
Two key things helped our team work together: (1) We had honest conversations in which team members made room for differing perspectives, assumed positive intent, and persisted in creative problem solving; and (2) we combined a big-picture vision for the project (what team member Dave McKay calls our "intriguingly grandiose" vision) with small-scale steps to achieving that vision. Our vision was to put in place a structure for professional development for all teachers at all sites in CUSD, providing opportunities for teacher leadership, meaningful collaboration, choice, structured time for discussion, and peer observation and feedback.
A potential obstacle to teamwork surfaced when the team was chosen to develop a Leadership Lab at which all administrators in Chico Unified would hear EngagED's vision for transforming professional learning and would brainstorm ways to make that vision a reality across district sites. To make this event happen, we had to gain buy-in from the superintendent and other administrators. One obstacle to convincing this larger group to join the project was "initiative fatigue." District leaders worried that teachers and site administrators were going to view this as just one more thing to fit on an already full plate.
To clear this hurdle, the team built time into planning meetings for deep discussions around how the project would sustain the most effective elements of past initiatives and integrate these toward a common purpose. These discussions helped the team arrive at the conclusion that a structural shift would lead to a cultural shift—toward a culture in which teachers and administrators collaborate toward common goals, teachers take the lead, and all educators engage in the work of improving instructional practice.
Since the Leadership Lab, Ted Sullivan, the district's director of elementary education, has carried out an improved structure for PD in our district. Positive changes include the development of a district leadership council that includes five to seven teachers and that's meant to include teacher voice in districtwide decision making, and districtwide teacher development days that give attendees greater choice in learning options.
Through our work, we've realized that when greater trust occurs between teachers and administrators and when teacher leadership is at the core of positive change, great things happen for students. For changemakers, the hardest part of making positive transformation happen in education isn't shifting structure, policies, or procedures, but shifting beliefs and values. While our "intriguingly grandiose" vision is still a work-in-progress, this mindset shift is happening for us.

Project: Early Learner's U.N.I.T.E Around SEL

Frances Fuchs Early Childhood Center, Beltsville, Maryland

Shannon Schwallenberg, instructional team leader and classroom teacher for 4-year-olds; Monica Levin, music teacher and music therapist; Anna Krakowiak, autism instructional team leader and classroom teacher.
Anna Krakowiak, Shannon Schwallenberg, and Monica Levin.(PHOTO BY DIANA AMALYA)
Our team is passionate about increasing social-emotional learning (SEL) skills for young children. School data confirmed SEL skills as a need for our students, many of whom also have diagnosed disabilities or are English language learners. We joined the vision of our original team leader (who is no longer involved) to build a framework called U.N.I.T.E., which stands for Understanding the Needs of Inclusive Teaching Environments. The framework integrates SEL into our science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) instruction, and into our existing early childhood curriculum and schoolwide behavioral and educational initiatives. We hoped to combine the various curricula and initiatives, and the SEL component, housing them on an interactive electronic platform. This shared vision—coupled with constant communication and reflection through Google Hangouts, emails, and texts—was the foundation of our team's success.
The Teach to Lead Summit we attended was intense. We didn't know exactly how we were going to implement our idea before attending; the logic model and other tools helped guide us. One exercise our team did at the summit, the "Story Series," was very impactful. This exercise helped us identify our "personal why"—why we are in teaching—by sharing a "story of self," then looked at how that "why" was related to the project being proposed. We used this tool when we presented the SEL framework to the staff of Frances Fuchs, to build community, inspire colleagues to support this vision, and welcome everyone's input. Our colleagues each shared a "story of self" and then, in smaller groups, came up with a "story of us"—their group's interpretation of the "why" of our whole school—and what we all collectively want our school to be. This created community and allowed staff to discover shared values and challenges while learning to navigate and use the platform.
The concept of U.N.I.T.E. has always been to bring people and ideas together. With this concept and our varied strengths kept in mind, we have always led collaboratively. This reliance on continuous collaborative work from all stakeholders is what makes our project sustainable.

Naomi Thiers is the managing editor of Educational Leadership.

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