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Growing School Leaders, aka Keeping Great Teachers

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I know the magic bullet to closing the achievement gap is having and keeping great teachers in the classroom. But I also know that the fastest way to lose someone away is to force them to do something.

As the school year winds to a close in Texas, I find myself talking to many excellent teachers in their second, third, fourth and fifth years of teaching who love teaching kids, but who are restless to have another or an even greater impact beyond their classroom walls. Some of these amazing teachers will go to graduate school, some will go into policy, and others will go into school administration. Wouldn't it be wonderful if there was a way to capture their desire to keep teaching kids, but still satisfy their desire to work in education in a different capacity?

I wrote this article, Growing School Leaders, months ago about a professional development model new principal Natalie Basham is using to meet the needs of both her students and staff.

I hijacked a class I was supposed to be observing yesterday. I couldn’t help it. I may have left my job as a special educator last summer to become a program director for Teach For America to build my educational management skills, but I still love teaching.

It’s a dilemma many ambitious educators face: to continue teaching the students they love and hone their craft as educators, or try to move to the next level in school management and have a broader impact. For many teachers like myself, this means going beyond being named department head or grade-team leader; we are looking for roles in which we can move beyond our own classroom walls, influence instruction, and create change in school systems.

Basically, at the risk of sounding spoiled, we want it all. And we don’t necessarily want to wait 20 years for our turn. In other fields, especially in business, exceptional employees with a history of exemplary effectiveness—regardless of the number of years of experience—are given promotions and more influential assignments. Why shouldn’t this happen in schools?

Well, in fact, in some spots around the country, it is starting to happen. In an effort to provide more instructional support, as well as build a pipeline of future school leaders, some administrators are trying a grow-your-own approach.

Take Natalie Basham, principal of the IDEA Academy and College Preparatory Mission in Mission, Texas, a charter school that is scheduled to open in fall 2008. Basham’s school is part of the IDEA Public Schools in the Rio Grande Valley, a charter network whose central mission is to prepare low-income students to succeed at four-year colleges. As a key part of the school’s instructional program, Basham has created a layered staffing and support system for teachers.

As Basham hires her team of 13 teachers for the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade classes, she is strategically selecting certain individuals to hold a dual role as instructional coaches. While the coaches will continue to teach, they will have fewer classes than other teachers in order to build in time for their mentoring role. In this position, their responsibilities expand to include observing other teachers, providing one-on-one feedback, data-based problem solving, and developing professional development action plans—that is, much of the clinical training principals, professional development directors, and administrators take on in most schools.

What stands out are the kinds of educators Basham has hired to join her in this critical role. The teacher-coaches’ experience level ranges from 2 years to 20-plus years. All are exemplary teachers with proven leadership skills and the ability to analyze instruction and data. Only one has held a formal school leadership role before. None have administrative degrees.

But based on the teachers’ previous work with students, adults, and data, Basham says she is confident she can train them to have the necessary management, support, and analysis skills to become instructional coaches.

“I believe I can train people to be leaders. I have trained people to do it,” Basham, a former Teach For America teacher and program director, explained. In addition to running the school and working with teachers, she will also provide direct management training and support to her coaches. “It’s what I would have liked,” she notes.

But why give standout teachers leadership skills that may ultimately take them out of the classroom? For Basham, it’s about providing an embedded support system and attracting ambitious educators in order to create a dynamic academic climate for students. “My primary goal is not about retaining teachers,” she says.”It’s about maximizing student achievement.”

“My responsibility is to develop teachers’ leadership,” she adds. “I want the best [for my teachers], whether I’m included or not, because they’re the ones teaching and leading the students in the classroom. It’s high stakes. We gotta get kids ready for college.”

3 Comments

“My primary goal is not about retaining teachers,” she says.”It’s about maximizing student achievement.”

What concerns me about this comment is the shortsightedness of it. The teaching profession must strengthen and thrive if student achievement is to make real, long lasting gains. Short term gains can be somewhat easily realized. That means retaining teachers. Teacher development theory is needed here. It is ridiculous to think that teachers can become proficient in this very complex experience, called teaching, in a few years. To think otherwise deprofessionalizes the profession. Most issues that I have run across in my 30+ years of teaching stem from administrators who never fully realized themselves as teachers and then become instructional leaders of schools. They know not of what they speak.

I agree with Valerie's points. There is a beauty in doing the work of teaching. We may want to consider increasing the teaching time and proficiency requirements for "advancement" into administration or teacher education positions.

“My primary goal is not about retaining teachers,” she says.”It’s about maximizing student achievement.”

Dear Valerie and Kim,

Thank you both for adding to the conversation. Natalie was concerned that I was going to include that quote, because it may be misconstrued. However, I chose to keep it because it highlights an important point that I strongly believe in. Her point in the piece was that she would do everything she could to encourage a teacher to stay in the classroom, but if a teacher has already made up his/her mind that they want to seek another role to work in, it was her goal to encourage them to continue working for kids, as teachers/coaches, budding administrators or anything else. If they want to work toward becoming a school leader, she would want to develop them as leaders, ensuring that they are prepared to make long-reaching student achievement. She and others have done it before; she will continue to make it happen.

I also have to respectfully disagree that it takes many years for teachers to become proficient. I do not deny the invaluable experience that time in the classroom adds, however, I don't think it should take many years for teachers to be proficient and attain strong results-- in fact, I think we need to start expecting those things of first- and second-year teachers. More importantly, we need to change and improve our support structures to help them get there. With even better preparation and ongoing support and training, many of our first- and most of our second-year teachers should be able to achieve great results.

Controversial, perhaps, but I don't think the skills from seniority necessarily guarantee effectiveness in the classroom or at the administrative level. In my short time in the field, I have worked with excellent teachers who have 35-years of experience as well as excellent teachers in their first year. These teachers inspire students, constantly improve their instructional skills, analyze what's keeping their students back, and work so, so hard to make every second count to lead their kids to reach high results on an absolute scale. These excellent teachers I've worked with-- whether novices or veterans-- share similar attributes in their thinking, planning and teaching that are concrete, learn-able and teachable. At the same time, all of us also know teachers who widen the achievement gap regardless of time in classroom. I genuinely think excellent teaching proficiency can be learned through coaching and collaboration-- quickly.

I don't think the number of years in the classroom is the primary driver of student success. Nor do I believe this conviction de-professionalizes the profession. To the contrary, I think it makes it more professional. What other certified field allows their first- or second-year professionals to barely meet the mark? While years of experience will make you a stronger, faster, sharper teacher with a bigger and smarter bag of tools and ideas, we should expect first-year teachers to help their students reach at least a year's worth of growth. All teachers already receive trainings, classes, coaches and mentors-- not all of which is used or useful. By improving this process through direct and critical coaching and making these support structures more targeted to individual teachers' developmental needs, I believe we can create a system that allows all novice teachers to reach the kind of gains we expect from more experienced ones.

In my first year of teaching, my colleagues kindly assured me that it was all right for me to be not so good my first year because it takes several to see a real change. While assuming that it takes more than one or two years to become "just OK" recognizes the incredible challenges in teaching, it nonetheless lowers our expectations. Consequently, our professional development tends to gear toward these lowered expectations across the board for novice teachers. In addition to the love and care we have for kids, it takes high levels of critical thinking, data-analysis, and skill development to be a great teacher-- quickly.

Sure, I'm biased-- this is my work and passion. But it also gives me a unique perspective in seeing first and second year teachers and their students succeed. Seventy-five percent of my first- and second-year teachers made the equivalent of one year of growth or more in this past school year. That is astounding, but after seeing their work this year, it's not surprising. They work in under-resourced schools where most students are more than one year behind academically. In their first years of teaching, most are leading their departments and schools in student achievement, and they are department heads, team leaders, content leaders and more. I am super proud, but not surprised.

That fantastic 75% demonstrates that the equivalent of one-year's worth of growth should be the bar for novice teachers. The sobering counterpoint to the 75% is that 25% of my teachers failed to reach that mark. While many factors kept those teachers' students from reaching one or more years of growth, I do not believe it was a failure of teacher or student ability. Rather, it was a failure of the coaching and support they received and the way the teachers used it. A humbling thought, but also an empowering one, because that is something we can change-- quickly.

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