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March 1, 2018

The Emergent Power of Teacher Leaders

At Berkeley High School in California, teacher leaders shape the path toward a more equitable school culture.
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School Culture
It was early October, and Principal Erin Schweng stood before 200 staff members in the library of Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California, ready to give opening remarks at a staff development day. The air smelled faintly of smoke from the nearby Sonoma County fires, and a heaviness hung in the room.
Just a week prior, the school community was shaken by the discovery of an Instagram account featuring racist, anti-Semitic, and ableist memes created by Berkeley students. The account, called "I Hate Jews," included swastikas plastered across student photos, anti-black racial slurs, demeaning comments about people with disabilities, and students doing the Nazi salute. One author posted his home address as Auschwitz. While the school had experienced similar incidents in the past, this one felt especially loaded given the current political climate.
Principal Schweng took a deep breath before sharing her reflections:
These past weeks have been challenging in so many ways, and I want to take a moment to say that and to sit with that. I especially want to recognize the extra burden that our black staff, our Jewish staff, and those who work with our special education students have borne as they walk with students through their pain and somehow hold their own as well. … I've been thinking a lot about what we can change, and what we can't. What I keep coming back to is that we have a moral imperative, now more than ever, to keep examining ourselves, our classrooms, and our school for the places where we can change the biases and patterns of thinking that would normalize the attitudes represented by incidents like this. So, we are staying the course in our professional development today with another module that will help us go deeper into that work. … I encourage all of you to be courageous and enter today with the sense of urgency that our students absolutely deserve.
Behind the principal stood the school's professional development coordinators, Karen Zapata and Claudia Gonzalez. They are classroom teachers with release time to lead schoolwide professional development and support teacher leaders (called PD Leads). Because they meet with PD Leads every Tuesday morning, Zapata and Gonzalez are highly attuned to the needs of the staff. They knew there was no quick fix for the pain and anxiety felt across campus; still, they'd designed a workshop to allow staff to reflect, connect, and dig deeper into a shared focus on culturally responsive teaching and unconscious bias.
Zapata and Gonzalez are the current generation of professional development coordinators in a school where adult learning has been led by teachers for nearly a decade. (By way of disclosure, I coach these leaders and have worked with their team and the staff for the past two years.) Since the 1960s, Berkeley High School has been trying to solve a familiar problem: how to close entrenched opportunity gaps—specifically between white and Asian students on the one hand and black and long-term English learners on the other—in a school that has both incredible diversity and pernicious inequity.
In this emotionally charged moment, with public schools feeling besieged and racial tensions flaring, many leaders are wrestling with what to do to bring people together. How can we transform our school climates and cultures when all previous responses seem inadequate? This article offers an answer: Invest in teacher leaders.

From Control to Emergence

While much has been written about the role of relational trust in school improvement, little has been said about the role of emergence. Coming from complexity science, the term emergence describes the dynamic and unpredictable ways through which change unfolds in organizations. It reminds us that the lifeblood of any change process is not our beloved action plans and initiatives, but rather the social interactions between people on the ground.
Emergence suggests an uncomfortable truth: As a leader, you may be in charge, but you're not in control. If we are used to holding the reins of power tightly, this approach requires a mindset shift; we must believe in the ability of teacher leaders to solve our toughest challenges. Coupled with an investment in time and training, this shift allows for innovative solutions to emerge at the grassroots level and energize a school culture. For the process to work, principals must articulate a vision and direction for their staff, trust in teachers to take real leadership, and then be quiet enough to notice and amplify promising ideas.
In short, emergence requires deep, open-minded, humble listening.
Dagny Dingman, an English teacher and part-time PD coordinator at Berkeley High, told me, "Having teachers lead the work allows for a certain level of responsiveness. … We have to build buy-in and understanding by listening to our colleagues. It changes the nature of how initiatives evolve and progress."

Peer-to-Peer Idea Diffusion

Ten years ago, Berkeley High developed an approach to tackling the student equity gap by addressing the teacher collaboration gap. The school sought to decentralize professional development and give teachers opportunities to meaningfully collaborate and improve their practice.
Working with the National Equity Project, the high school hatched a model that exemplifies the snowflake theory of distributive leadership, a term coined by Marshall Ganz of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Instead of trying to spread good practices in a top-down fashion, the snowflake model promotes peer-to-peer diffusion of ideas. Each line in the diagram (fig. 1) represents relational capital—the resource that leaders accrue when they listen to and invest in the growth of others. To transform our schools, we need to cultivate relational capital between principals and teacher leaders, and between teacher leaders and their peers. This requires time, not just good intentions.

Figure 1. Snowflake Model of Leadership

PD coordinators Zapata and Gonzalez are rank-and-file teachers with two periods of release time. They meet every week with Principal Schweng to ensure that their work is mutually aligned around building the staff's capacity. Although they do help to plan staff professional development, they primarily focus on supporting the 25 PD Leads, who each run a department or small learning community. And unlike in many schools, all these teacher leaders have built-in time and space to manage their additional duties. (See Figure 2 for the other responsibilities of the teacher leaders at Berkeley.) PD Lead Hasmig Minassian says that having teacher leaders collaborate across departments and around student needs "holds all students at the center when we're making schoolwide PD goals."

Figure 2. Teacher Leadership Model at Berkeley High School

The Emergent Power of Teacher Leaders-table




PD CoordinatorsRank-and-file classroom teachers with two release periods each"Design and lead schoolwide staff development days. Design and facilitate weekly meeting with PD Leads. Provide training and resources for inquiry cycles and other PD processes. Coach and support individual PD Leads around adult learning and facilitation. Coordinate the implementation of common assessments. Innovate and experiment with emerging practices."
PD LeadsRank-and-file classroom teachers with one or two release periods each to lead a department or small learning community (such as the arts and humanities academy, and the sciences academy)"Attend weekly PD Lead meeting and biweekly meeting with the principal. Plan and facilitate department or small learning community meetings. Coach individual teachers around implementing new practices. Support the implementation of common assessments. Disseminate resources and information acquired through PD Lead meetings."

Berkeley High sponsors a two-day summer institute and a weekly collaboration period for PD Leads to meet and wade through the challenges of leading their colleagues. These teacher leaders also meet face-to-face with the principal two afternoons a month to advise on school policy and decisions, weigh in on emerging issues, and help to set a research direction for the school.

Two Teacher-Led Solutions

Since the use of the model began, teacher leaders have shaped a series of local responses to Berkeley High's equity challenges that exemplify a culture of inquiry, deep reflection, and responsiveness. This structure of teacher leadership has created a cultural agility that is rare in my observations of schools: As school climate challenges emerge, teacher leaders are able to mobilize swiftly to address the issue at hand.
Over time, the staff has become progressively more focused on those students furthest from opportunity, asking, "Why are these students struggling, and how can we change our classroom cultures to change these outcomes?" Although none of the teacher-led solutions has been a panacea, each has chipped away at opportunity gaps. What follows are two examples.

Universal 9th Grade

At Berkeley High, students request placement into one of the school's five learning communities (such as the Academy of Medicine and Public Service and Berkeley International High School) by ranking their preferences. They are then placed in a community through a combination of choice and randomization. The choice factor has enabled parents with more social capital to shape an academic path for their children. The five learning communities seemed to grow more and more racially segregated over time, with white and Asian students overrepresented in some and black and Latino students in others.
Three years ago, the PD coordinators at that time tried to re-envision the school design. They thought about abandoning the learning communities and breaking up the school into 9th through 12th grade "houses." A combination of community input gathered over a two-year period and budgetary restrictions led the redesign team instead to the concept of a universal 9th grade program—what is now called the U9. Starting in 2018–2019, every 9th grader will enter a U9 "house" that is intentionally integrated by zip code, parent education level, and socioeconomic status. Four teachers will lead each house, wrapped around one balanced group of 120 students.
PD coordinator Dingman describes the U9 as an equity game changer: "It means that if you come to Berkeley High, you come to Berkeley High. You don't come for a special program or to be separated out." It sends the message, "We are all on the same team: freshmen students and teachers," and creates the conditions for social and academic integration.

Culturally Responsive Teaching: Examining Unconscious Bias

At the same time as the U9 was evolving, a new instructional focus emerged. In October 2014, a noose was found dangling from a campus tree, evoking the brutal history of lynching in America. Student leaders from the Black Student Union and other groups became vocal about feeling unsafe on campus—emotionally, academically, and physically.
In addition to such incidents of explicit racism, students of color face the day-to-day challenges of implicit biases from peers and teachers in the classroom. According to Dingman, "Everyone realized that something was missing. Probably one of the biggest factors impeding African American student achievement was unconscious bias."
In the summer of 2016, I was invited to work with the teacher leaders to develop professional development around culturally responsive teaching and implicit bias. This work has emerged slowly and organically, with teacher leaders shaping every step of the way.
During the first year, we worked to cultivate the relational conditions that would allow the staff to have courageous conversations around equity, race, and difference. We trained PD Leads in theories of adult learning, facilitation, and agenda design. We developed shared language around equity and culturally responsive teaching. We created an inquiry process anchored in 15 research-based equity practices, including community circles and protocols for soliciting student feedback.
This year, we have led staff workshops that aim to push the discourse to a deeper level: What is unconscious bias? How does it affect your expectations for and interactions with students? What are microaggressions, and how can we interrupt them? These modules invite the staff to examine their biases alongside the single stories they may carry about students.
A spirit of responsiveness and emergence has characterized this work at every step. After an emotional professional development day in October, Zapata and Gonzalez decided to convert the November staff development into a variety of learning strands and break-out groups run by teachers, including a session on recognizing and addressing racial microaggressions and a workshop on facilitating community circles. In differentiating the adult learning, they're tapping into teacher expertise and experimenting with meeting different staff needs.

The Courage to Let Change Emerge

Embracing emergence and empowering teacher leaders is brave work. It takes courage to let go of our attachment to hierarchy and detailed plans and to accept that complex change emerges in homegrown and unpredictable ways. It takes courage for principals to believe that teachers can hold real leadership roles and design solutions to their school's most difficult problems. And it takes courage for teachers to step outside of the classroom and lead their colleagues.
The author Margaret Wheatley writes,
To create a healthier system, connect it to more of itself. Living systems contain their own solutions. When they are suffering in any way—from divisive relationships, from lack of information, from declining performance—the solution is always to bring the system together so that it can learn more about itself from itself.
Emergence is the path to a healthier system. Incidents like the social media account at Berkeley High School will continue to happen across the United States. What matters most is how we respond. Have we built a school climate where teachers can mobilize quickly in the face of social harm? Have we created classroom cultures that allow students to heal? Are we growing the relational capital among students and faculty that is the foundation of a healthy climate and culture?
The answers lie within. Create a platform for teachers to lead and discover the brilliance right inside the walls of your building.
End Notes

1 Orenstein, N. (2017, September 28). BHS investigates racist, anti-Semitic Instagram account run by students. Berkeleyside. Retrieved from

2 Safir, S. (2017). The listening leader: Creating the conditions for equitable school transformation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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