Adult learning

DPS to expand teacher leadership program

As a teacher leader at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, Mandy Israel teaches history but also coaches and mentors fellow teachers.

Denver Public Schools is announcing plans this week to expand a teacher leadership program officials say marks a fundamental shift in the way school staffs are structured.

In year two, the district is still tweaking a program it intends to offer to every school by 2018-19.

Both teachers and principals say teacher-leaders, who teach some classes while taking on additional responsibilities, offer support to and play a bridging role between administrators and teachers.

“It’s not always easy to go to the principal or assistant principals, so I like that I’ve been able to take on that role. I can really stand up for what teachers need so students can achieve and be successful,” said Mandy Israel, a high school history teacher who is in her second year as a team lead—one of the new hybrid roles for teachers—at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy.

Introducing a brand-new role has required adjustment. Administrators must plan for how to fit an entirely new position into their schools’ systems and structures. Teacher-leaders must navigate new dynamics within their schools while balancing classroom and administrative duties. And teachers who are not new “team-leads” must adapt to having a new coach and evaluator.

“This is an enormous paradigm shift from the traditional way we’ve done school,” said DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg. “We’re still learning and there are bumps along the road. But it’s been extraordinarily positive so far.”

A learning organization

Students in a mixed-grade high school history class at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy work on a "Document-based question."
Students in Mandy Israel’s mixed-grade high school history class at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy work on a document-based question.

Boasberg said that the district introduced the “differentiated roles” pilot teacher leader program in an attempt to make schools more like other knowledge-based professions, where, he said, leaders tend to work with smaller teams of five, six, or seven.

In the more traditional school model, a principal might be responsible for managing dozens of adults, including teachers, nurses, and paraprofessionals. In recent years, principals’ responsibilities have grown even more unwieldy, as they must evaluate teachers, guide schools through changes in standards and instructional practice, and manage the demands of the district’s central office, all while also working with families and communities.

“This is about saying, we need to put the power in the hands of the people who best understand the work, getting teachers back in the position of being true leaders, and allowing the principal the space to be the organizational leader of the school,” said Justin Darnell, the district’s senior manager of teacher leadership and a former Colorado teacher of the year.

Nicole Veltze, the principal of North High, said that the new role was helping. “As a principal, having to manage 70 teachers is unrealistic if I’m really trying to improve their practice,” she said. “It’s done a lot to create ownership for professional learning and built relationships among teachers.”

The program also aims to give teachers more time with their evaluators and coaches, and to create a path to professional growth for teachers, both those who hope to become administrators and those who want to stay in the classroom but are interested in having a bigger role in their school.

“Teaching is such a challenging profession. The traditional structure of isolating teachers in their classrooms doesn’t help give them the learning they need,” Boasberg said.

Growing and changing

DPS’s differentiated roles pilot started in 14 schools in 2013-14 and expanded to 40 this year. Starting next year, 72 of the district’s schools will have a role that includes teaching and administrative responsibilities.

The program is partly funded by a federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant, which offered money to districts that created financial incentives for teachers to take on new roles. DPS plans to allocate up to $4.5 million to the program in 2015-16.

DPS’s teacher leadership program has garnered national attention: The U.S. Education Department chose Denver as one of three cities to host a national conference focused on teacher leadership this school year.

Darnell said the district is making changes as the program grows. For instance, administrative teams in the new batch of schools will have more time—six months instead of one—to plan for how they will structure their leadership programs.

Martha Burgess, a teacher leader at Kunsmiller, said that at her school, second year had gone more smoothly than the first.

Burgess said she and her peers had pushed for the administration to be clear about what qualified someone to be a teacher-leader. Lack of clarity about who was chosen “made it hard to build rapport,” she said.

“This year, it was way more clear,” she said. “It helped that everyone had had a year, they had had a chance to see that this is really helpful in serving a need in our building.”

At at time when DPS is struggling to reduce teacher and principal turnover, none of the 54 people who had participated in the pilot last year left the district, Darnell said.

A too-big role?

The teacher-leader role currently exists in two versions: Team leads receive a $3,000 stipend and are responsible for part of their teams’ evaluations. Senior team leads are entirely responsible for their teams’ evaluations and receive a $5,000 stipend. Both might also have additional responsibilities, such as supporting teachers working with new technology or standards. Teachers apply for the jobs, and only those with higher scores on LEAP, the district’s evaluation, are eligible.

All schools who will have eventually have the equivalent of a senior team lead, responsible both for coaching and evaluating their team, Darnell said.

Mixing those two jobs can be difficult, said Shelley Zion, the director of the Center for Advancing Practice, Education, and Research at the University of Colorado Denver’s education school. In general, she said, “when you try to link a coaching and mentoring role with evaluation, you often don’t get authentic results.”

Sarah Baird, who trains teacher-leaders and others in the district in coaching, said that it’s possible to strike a balance: “Research shows that the same person can do both, but there has to be trust in the person and the process, and there has to be a distinction between which is happening when—when I’m being coached and when I’m being evaluated.”

But both Burgess and Israel said the biggest challenge of the role was not in evaluating peers but in finding the time to complete their new tasks while also managing to plan and grade for their classes.

At Kunsmiller, Kate Claassen, a high school literature teacher, said she appreciated getting feedback from someone who is also teaching. “Mandy [Israel]’s observations are far more aligned with the LEAP framework but also with my practice.”

“I think the teacher leader program has allowed practicing teachers to get additional feedback, which is really crucial for our practice,” Claassen said.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.