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New Model of Instructional Leadership

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The following post is from Sarah Yost who teaches 8th grade English Language Arts at Westport Middle School. Sarah has taught English language arts to low-income, public middle school students since 2004.

At some point in their career, many strong teachers find themselves faced with the same question: "Do I stay in the classroom doing what I love, continuing to refine my practice and directly impact students, or do I leave the classroom to lead and possibly impact more students?" Unfortunately, we're asking the wrong question.

The question we should be asking is: "Is there a way to both teach and lead from the classroom without exhausting the most effective teachers?"

Old "either teach or lead" models are detrimental to all stakeholders--administrators, teachers and students alike. Innovative schools and districts are now pushing the envelope when it comes to teacher leadership to include BOTH teaching and impactful leadership opportunities. Master teachers, or positions where teachers stay in the classroom part time while serving in leadership roles, have the potential to be revolutionary in their effectiveness for refining instructional and administrative practices in public education. The master teacher's leadership roles may include serving as instructional coaches, mentors, collaborators, curriculum developers and administrative advisors, among other things.

For the past two years, I've served my school as a master teacher. In my position, I teach two hours of eighth grade English Language Arts every day and spend the rest of my time working on various leadership initiatives for the school. It has been an extremely challenging role, with its own benefits and drawbacks, and one from which I have learned much. This role has refined both my leadership skills and my instructional practice, and my experience has left me completely convinced that every school needs an effective master teacher in both ELA and math. This role is essential to bridging the gap between administrators and teachers without ever losing sight of the ultimate objective: removing obstacles for student achievement and growth.

Roles & Responsibilities

The role of master teacher is one best explained by its responsibilities. My current administration is very "hands off" in the sense that they are quite intentional during the recruiting and hiring process. Then, after a teacher has been hired, school administrators provide all teachers with much autonomy and trust. When my principal gave me the opportunity to serve as the ELA Master Teacher, she did make specific requests throughout the year, but she did not specify everything she wanted me to do day-by-day in the role. Instead she allowed me to delineate the school's literacy needs and how best to use my time to meet those needs.

For me, working under the Model Y style of management has been a great success, because I am the type of person who loves to work. I am quick to survey and analyze what needs
to be done to meet goals and I habitually self-reflect (i.e., obsess). This model of autonomy would not work with teachers who rely on directives from their principals or assistant principals
for motivation, but it can be incredibly empowering for teacher leaders who are intrinsically motivated and teeming with ideas and the necessary energy to implement them.

My self-determined responsibilities (in addition to any work my principal has requested) include whole-school Response to Intervention (RTI) progress monitoring, organization and allocation of all school resources for reading and writing, teacher support and feedback, development and implementation of literacy initiatives, creation and facilitation of professional development, compliance with school, district and state systems requirements, and two-way communication between administrators and teachers to refine school systems and improve school culture.

Two-way Conduit of Communication: R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Much is lost in translation between teachers and administrators, and it never ceases to amaze me how challenging it is for even the best and brightest to see "the other" perspective. The unique position of the master teacher allows for facilitation of conversation between the parties, who ultimately want to work in concert, but sometimes struggles to do so effectively. In building close working relationships with administrators and classroom teachers, I have been able to better explain the perspectives of either party and serve as a sort of diplomat.

In this role, I have intentionally helped build mutual respect for teachers and administrators, which has ultimately led to a stronger school culture. Through my knowledge and hard work I have been able to gain the respect of both teachers and administrators, thereby advocating for teachers or explaining the positions of administrators when necessary. This experience has taught me that mutual respect between teachers and administrators is critical for building a positive school culture and moving a school forward in terms of student achievement.

When either party sees the other's perspective, they have been much more enthusiastic about helping or "taking one for the team". When either party feels wronged, there is a sort of stagnation that occurs - neither side wants to budge on even the most trivial matters. Just as enough snowflakes can accumulate to make an avalanche, so too can small grievances. It's important to confront issues early, frankly and neutrally, just like we do when solving conflict in our classrooms.

In every school, the systems administrators create support and empower the teachers, who in turn support and empower the students in their classrooms through their own systems of management and instruction. If there is resentment or mistrust the entire system risks breakdown. Master teachers can serve their schools as conduits of respectful communication and understanding to build real camaraderie behind a shared vision of student growth and achievement.

Considerations for Administrators

Funding is of course a main concern for building leaders who seek to implement the Master Teacher Model into their school design. In my case, my principal applied for a grant
from a local university and used the data from our school's continued improvement to renew funding. Until local, state and federal policy makers recognize the value of master teachers,
principals must get creative with funding sources. If the right people are recruited for these positions, the time and money taken to fill these roles will pay dividends in student growth and achievement. Schools can improve. Empowering the teachers with dispositions to lead to take on the role of master teacher is one way to get them there.

Not only does this model keep strong teachers in the classroom, it also re-energizes those teachers and helps them be more creative in both roles. Serving as the master teacher, my
instruction has improved as much as my leadership. One reason for this is my broader perspective; another is my collaboration and observation of all the great teachers in our building. By observing, collaborating, brainstorming and troubleshooting with other teachers, I've been able to reflect more on my own practice and bring back new ideas to my own instruction that have only made me a better teacher.

Finally, I believe this model works because it earns teachers respect with administrators. Far too often great teachers leave the classroom because they do not feel valued or respected for their grueling labors, their expertise, their painstaking self-evaluation and growth. Too often ambitious teachers feel like being "just a teacher" isn't enough. Granted this is a societal problem, but administrators have a lot of sway in how they make their teachers feel about their careers; a little dignity can go a long way in keeping good teachers in classrooms.

Considerations for Teachers

Effective teacher leadership must come from a place beyond mere ambition and self-interest. The effective teacher leaders I have known have self-identified as teachers first, and proven themselves to their colleagues through hard work, a willingness to be supportive partners and an ever-growing wealth of knowledge to share freely without ego. Make no mistake: this is often a thankless job. This position is not glamorous and usually feels like one of the "middlemen" who can't please anyone and fields far more complaints and frustrations than praise or gratitude.

The truth is, folks in every role in the school are working hard. A teacher leader's role is to support that work in a way that makes it easier for others , and ultimately improves the school overall. Anonymous surveys are one way to get feedback from teachers to improve one's practice. Just like with student voice surveys, sometimes the truth may hurt, but that cannot be a reason to maintain the status quo; a master teacher's downfall could easily be hubris. This position requires teacher leaders to set their sights on the end goals , and work in less-than-comfortable conditions to meet those goals. Patience, compassion and communication skills are critical to the cause.

Never Lose Sight of the Kids.

No model will work if we forget why we're here: to support students and remove their obstacles. One essential aspect of the master teacher role is that we still have face-to-face, regular interactions with kids, and we're able to build the teacher-student relationships that keep us grounded--it's important to be reminded why we got into this line of work in the first place. Seeing students struggle, helping students overcome, telling them no-these efforts keep us rooted in the work that matters. At the end of our careers, when resumes are updated for the last time, our students will carry on our work. Will we have done everything we could have done to help them be self-sufficient, productive adults?

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