First Person

How can we produce more teacher leaders?

In order to build the professional capacity of teachers and to retain and attract great teachers to the profession, we need to identify, compensate, and produce teacher leaders.

For the first time in the history of public education, there are more teachers with one year of experience than any other level. The impact of this on the teaching profession can be profound. Applying Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour principle,” it would take at least 5 years for a teacher to gain the expertise necessary to be great at what he/she does. Teachers learn over time, and the role of teacher collaboration to ameliorate new-to-the profession teachers is key. Teacher leaders can play a key role in mentoring and assisting teachers and in establishing a culture of capacity building that can ensure all teachers grow.

Research shows that one of the major reasons teachers leave the profession is due to the relatively flat career advancement structure that exists. There are few opportunities for teachers to access higher earning and status positions that are found in other professions. The main opportunity for teachers to “advance” their careers has been leaving the classroom to become a school administrator. The establishment of career opportunities through teacher leader positions can help retain teachers.

More and more teacher advocacy organizations have emerged in the last decade. Organizations like Teach Plus, the Center for Teaching Quality, and the Hope Street Group recognize that elevating the teacher voice in education is key to improving education and transforming the teaching profession. Teacher leadership is one way to build the capacity and provide teachers with the leverage points necessary to transform public education. International comparisons to our education system reveal that the status of the teaching profession in our country lacks the necessary trust that other countries place in their teachers.

Teacher leader positions can take many shapes, some of which may or may not exist in some form today. But in general they heed these roles:

Mentor Teachers: Mentor teachers are responsible for the evaluation and mentoring of new-to-the-profession and struggling teachers. These teachers would be released from their teaching responsibilities full or part-time. Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) has been found to be an effective and well received approach to ensuring teachers receive the support they need, as well as ensuring teachers and administrators make the right decision when it comes to employment options. The traditional role of the administrator evaluating and mentoring teachers is a difficult, if not impossible, role to fulfill today, especially with new teacher evaluation policies, which require much more oversight and time. Imagine what would happen if both administrators and teachers took joint ownership in teacher performance in the best interest of student achievement.

Lead Teachers: These teachers are identified as effective teachers and trained to facilitate professional capacity building with their colleagues. Today’s teacher does not teach in isolation. Teachers are encouraged to work collaboratively with their peers in writing curriculum and assessments, as well as analyzing and adjusting their practice. Lead teachers facilitate these conversations. Building collaboration needs to be nurtured and identified if we are to build the professional capacity of all teachers.

Model Teachers: Teachers identified as master teachers assume the role of a Model Teacher. These teachers open up their classrooms for observation or video recording. By identifying Model Teachers, we can build a district and statewide bank of resources, as well as give other teachers the opportunity to observe and collaborate with teachers. This capacity building benefits all students.

Teacher Advocate Leaders: Teacher voice in policy decisions and implementation is sorely lacking, if it exists at all. Most policy decisions lack the input of those closest to the student: the teacher. In the book Everyone at the Table: Engaging Teachers in Evaluation Reform, the authors cite research that finds:
• 70 percent of teachers believe they are left out of the loop in the district decision-making process;
• 80 percent feel they are rarely consulted about what happens in their schools;
• 70 percent believe that district leaders only talk to them to win their support; and
• Only 23 percent believe that district leaders speak to them to gain a stronger sense of teachers’ concerns.

Opportunities for teachers to be involved in policy making would help propel teachers from continually being seen as merely reacting to policy decisions to being proactive in creating policy. Establishing a standing team of teacher advocates—as opposed to ad hoc or last-minute teams of teachers to react to policy recommendations—would improve the design, implementation, and sustainability of policy. Implementation of these policies would move teachers from compliance to commitment, since teachers would bes involved from the beginning.

All of these positions take new resources. We need to redesign the current compensation structures found in most master agreements. Our current system relies on the idea that each individual has the same basic responsibilities—it relies on a structure that reflects a flat teaching career. (See the “Tiered Pay-and-Career Structure” for a way to structure pay for master teachers that avoids the major pitfalls of the current pay-for-performance and bonus approach being used by some districts.)

We also need to rewrite state policy to allow for these teacher leader positions to emerge—state policy that recognizes and compensates leadership. One state to look to for guidance is Iowa. In 2013, Iowa passed a comprehensive series of policies called Building World-Class Schools for Iowa. Iowa took a comprehensive look at ways to systematically elevate and support the teaching profession.

This type of work is not cheap. It takes commitment and trust from state policy makers to make teacher leadership a reality. And state policy makers won’t budge unless they see support from their constituents. At the same time, we need teacher associations to make teacher leadership part of their mission and help change antiquated structures. It is also up to teachers to recognize their commitment to their profession and proactively work for change. These changes can benefit students and the teaching profession.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.