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A Superintendent's Perspective on Teacher Leadership

Note: Rick is taking a hiatus while he's off talking about his new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher. Meanwhile, this week's guest posts will be written by Jonas Chartock and Chong-Hao Fu. Chartock (@jonaschartock) is the CEO and Fu (@chonghaofu) is the Chief Program Officer of Leading Educators, a national non-profit organization that works with schools, districts, and states to advance teachers' leadership skills and opportunities to ensure all students have the opportunity to succeed in school and life.

How can teacher leaders make a meaningful difference in schools? How can a district study and learn from innovative teacher leadership roles while creating coherent career ladder opportunities for great teachers?

The Teacher Leadership Innovation (TLI) School Pilot, a joint effort of DC Public Schools and Leading Educators, sought to answer these questions. Now beginning its third year, the program will soon serve 29 schools, approximately one out of every four schools in the District.

TLI empowers participating schools to create hybrid teacher leader roles, allowing teachers to leverage their expertise to coach colleagues in areas of strength. Addressing fears of teacher leader burnout, TLI provides teachers with dedicated release time to improve the practice of their colleagues—pushing instruction, sharing resources, and extending their reach—while still maintaining direct contact with their students.

Rather than the district prescribing one-size-fits-all roles, teacher leaders play an active role in the design process. TLI partners with principals to become strong distributive leaders—helping them co-create roles with teacher leaders that address each school's pressing priorities. The program creates coherence by building the capacity of principals, offering technical assistance on scheduling and release time, and building structures for collaboration and support within and across schools.

This past weekend marked the induction of the third cohort of TLI. Dr. LaKimbre Brown, an instructional superintendent for DCPS, shared the following observations on two years of teacher leadership impact in TLI schools:

Good morning. Thank you for being here and for inviting me to be a part of this day. When Katie asked me to speak at this event, without even checking the date. I immediately said yes. I said yes because I believe in the power of creating a system to harness all the amazing teacher leaders we have in our schools. This program does exactly that!

My position as Instructional Superintendent affords me a unique lens into TLI work and the transformational impact that it is having on schools in DCPS. I spend four out of five days a week in schools visiting roughly eight to ten schools a week. Over the next few minutes I hope to simply share and inspire you with you some specific examples I have seen with the TLI leaders I have in each of my buildings.

    • TLI at one elementary shows the ability of teacher leaders to change the entire school culture. Last year I would visit, and it would be challenging to get through a walk-through without the principal being pulled to talk to a student that was having some behavior difficulties or racing away to a classroom to tend to a student in crisis. I walk into the building now and it simply feels like a different place. I am immediately greeted with smiling faces, both staff and students. Hallways are filled with student work not students roaming. Students are engaged. Classroom after classroom, hands are in the air. One time, I stopped by around noon, and walking by the cafeteria, I was surprised because I didn't hear anything. So I went to the office, found the principal, and asked if they were on a different schedule today. He said, "No, it's lunch—everyone should be in there." So I headed back towards the cafeteria. I couldn't believe it because things were so calm. I walk in and students are in there sitting together eating quietly. Music is playing in the background. Ms. Samball, the TLI Lead and PE teacher, was a Culture Coach and charged with designing both school-wide behavior management systems and trainings to support individual teacher practice. This year the school implemented lunch buddies. They paired up upper grades with lower grade students into teams and and put them in "houses." Students sit in their "houses" at lunch each day, working together as a team on a different contest—door decorating, creating a song, healthy eating. This cross grade level student collaboration has made the school feel more like a family. You notice the shift in climate the moment you walk into the building. This is work the principal could not have done on his own.
    • Another elementary highlights teachers receiving more frequent, higher quality feedback. The four teacher leaders are pioneering a school-wide observation and feedback model. The school ensures that every teacher in the building has access to high quality support from an expert in their grade and subject. Last January PD day all the Dual Language schools were coming together at Bancroft and we were going to offer morning workshops on Dual Language strategies. This was the first time ever we would bring all 160 Dual Language teachers together. The energy around this event was electric. We were so excited for this opportunity in the morning, and then in the afternoon schools would go back to their sites to engage in site specific professional development.
    • This [same] TLI school emails me that they need space at Bancroft. They can't waste any moments in travel; they don't want to miss a minute of their PD time. So I'm like "wow," I need to see what this is about. I walk into the room, and I see teachers in groups of three all huddled around laptops and tablets.  Everyone is completely focused and taking notes. Every single teacher had filmed themselves and chosen a part of their lesson that they wanted feedback on, and they were watching it with their peers and doing just that—getting feedback. I was struck because this wasn't one brave teacher that decided to put themselves out there for a staff PD. Every single teacher was doing it; every single teacher was getting feedback. I literally got chills in my body and took out my phone to text our CAO because this is the type of professional development experience we need to be able figure out how to provide our teachers. This is what will move the needle of instruction.
    • Another elementary highlights the power of this program to have systemic change and allow teachers to showcase their talents on an even greater platform. Camille Townsend, fifth grade teacher, has become a model for response to intervention (RtI) in DCPS. Weekly she leads joint data meetings with teachers and interventionists on how to look at the data, take the student work, and change your grouping and instruction because of it. This may sound easy to rattle off, but it can be a difficult skill to develop. When I go and listen to the way in which her teachers now talk about data, it's in a way that simply was not happening a year ago.
    • Ms. Townsend is a master in front of students. I think she gets a little nervous in front of adults, but I invited her to present to 100 principals and leaders at an RtI session we had for schools in December. I couldn't keep these best practices from others! Through this work she has learned that she enjoys working with adults as much as kids and will be applying to be an instructional coach next year. These TLI roles are allowing teacher leaders to decide what path they want to take. Two of my teacher leaders will be applying for Assistant Principals next year. I don't think they would have felt comfortable enough to do this without this time leading adults and seeing their impact on another scale.

I preach to my principals about nurturing the talent in their buildings. They interviewed their teachers and asked them "what will it take for you to stay?" It wasn't what we initially thought; it wasn't money. The things were simple: to be recognized, to be involved in leadership decisions, to have a say in the school, to be given opportunities to grow. I challenged each of my principals to go out and have conversations with irreplaceables about what they could do to continue to help you grow.

As excellent teachers, you are likely in a comfortable and confident place. Thank you for deciding to step out [of your] comfort zone and take on the challenging work of leading adults. This is a significant milestone. You will learn so much about adult development and what it takes to lead change over the next year. This transition may not be easy. However, it will be worth it for all the students' lives you are about to change. I and the Chancellor thank you for stepping into this role as pioneers in teacher leadership in DCPS. We are incredibly excited to see the impact that you each will have on your schools, your students, and your communities.

Like Superintendent Brown, our team at Leading Educators is inspired by the teacher leaders of DCPS and their dedication to supporting and developing their colleagues to meet the needs of each and every student. We appreciate this innovative partnership, and we're excited about the work ahead.

--Jonas Chartock and Chong-Hao Fu

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