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 didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

PHOTO: Karla Ann Cote/flickr
A white supremacist rally in Charlottesville surrounds a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Debates about monuments honoring Confederate icons and what they represent often come down to one’s view of Civil War history.

Last weekend’s violent gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, which left one protester dead, was started as a rally against removing a statue of Robert E. Lee. It’s one of about 700 Confederate monuments scattered across the eastern half of the country, with a large cluster in Virginia.

It’s no accident that white supremacists chose the site of a Confederate monument to amplify their racial hatred. For them, the statue is a symbol of white superiority over African Americans, who were enslaved in this country until the middle of the Civil War.

In a disturbing irony, these white supremacists understand an aspect of history that I wish my peers understood from their time spent in school. But many casual onlookers don’t grasp the connection between slavery and the Civil War, and the racism rooted in America’s history.

I know because, in my own education in a small town near Charlottesville, teachers rarely connected slavery and racism to the root of the Civil War. In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.

Those who grew up with me mostly see states’ rights as the primary cause of the Civil War, according to a 2011 survey by Pew Research Center. The national fact tank found that two-thirds of people younger than 30 think slavery was not the impetus. Only a third of people 65 and older shared that view.

The survey suggests that today’s students and young adults do not have full knowledge about the complicated relationship between the Confederacy, states’ rights, and slavery. Teachers have a unique opportunity to give a fuller picture of a painful past so that students can counter white supremacy and its inherent racism today.

As famed black writer and social critic James Baldwin put it: “If you don’t know what happened behind you, you’ve no idea what is happening around you.”

Tim Huebner, a Civil War researcher at Rhodes College in Memphis, said his own children’s textbooks accurately describe a complex economy that relied on enslaved people for labor. But in a state like Tennessee, where more classroom resources are spent on math and reading than social studies and history, a lot can get overlooked.

“If we’re not teaching students about the history of our country and the conflicts and struggles we’ve been dealing with, we don’t have the intellectual tools or the culture tools or ethical tools we need in order to deal with the issues that are coming to the surface now,” he told me.

Meanwhile, one look at the constitution of the Confederate States, or a speech given by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens a few days after that constitution was written, would tell you states’ rights were meant to keep black people enslaved for economic gain.

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. (Thomas) Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the ‘rock upon which the old Union would split.’ He was right.”

Richard Spencer, the Charlottesville march organizer and a University of Virginia graduate, and James Alex Fields, who is charged with killing a woman by driving into a crowd of anti-Nazi demonstrators last weekend, understood too well the connection between slavery, racism and the Civil War.

Derek Weimer, a history teacher who taught the 20-year-old driver at a high school in Kentucky, said he noticed Fields’ fascination with Nazism. Even though teachers are one of several influential voices in a student’s life, he also implied educators have a role to play in shaping worldviews.

“I admit I failed. I tried my best. But this is definitely a teachable moment and something we need to be vigilant about, because this stuff is tearing up our country,” Weimer told The Washington Post.

Growing up in a state thick with Civil War history still left me with a misleading education, and it was years before I investigated it for myself. America’s most divisive and deadly war still has ramifications today — and students deserve better history lessons to help interpret the world around them.

Laura Faith Kebede is a reporter for Chalkbeat in Memphis.