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Author Interview: 'Adventures in Teacher Leadership'

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Katherine Bassett and Rebecca Mieliwocki agreed to answer a few questions about their (with Joseph Fatheree) new book, Adventures In Teacher Leadership: Pathways, Strategies and Inspiration For Every Teacher.

Katherine Bassett is the founder of Tall Poppy and a former CEO and executive director of NNSTOY. Joe Fatheree is a high school teacher in Illinois and the Illinois Teacher of the Year 2007 and the 2009 recipient of the National Education Association's National Award for Teaching Excellence. Rebecca Mieliwocki is a middle school language arts teacher in California and NNSTOY Teacher of the Year 2012. They are co-authors of  Adventures in Teacher Leadership: Pathways, Strategies, and Inspiration for Every Teacher (ASCD and NNSTOY, 2019).

LF: You describe your book as a guide to teacher leadership. How would you define a "teacher leader"?

Katherine Bassett:

There are multiple definitions out there, from Jennifer York-Barr and her colleagues' work to NNSTOY. To me, teacher leadership is the teacher stepping (literally or figuratively) beyond the walls of his or her own classroom to take a leadership role that reaches beyond their own students. When you read the Teacher Leader Model Standards, every domain is couched in what the teacher leader does in working with other teachers to further their leadership. Being a leader is not about how many followers you have but how many leaders you grow. The standards reflect this philosophy.

Teacher leadership is about having the courage to move outside of one's own comfort zone and embrace the uncomfortable for the good of children and the profession.

Rebecca Mieliwocki:

A teacher leader is motivated about the issues in education that matter the most and wants to harness those precious resources to make school better for everyone it serves—and they want to do it from their classroom headquarters. They want to elevate or improve the profession by working with community members or policymakers to change the rules that govern our work. A teacher leader is someone who sees gaps or failings in the systems designed to grow us, and they want to do the work necessary to fix that. A teacher leader is any teacher who gets so fired up about teaching every day that they find themselves both exhausted and inspired and still asking, "What else?" They want to make sure their kids have the best units of instruction, the most innovative projects or real-world learning experiences.  

It's the teacher who knows his department can do a better job using the data from assessments to drive instruction. It's the teacher who starts an Activist Club for young people who want to change the world. It's the teacher who sees that their administration is so bogged down with duties that they want to help lighten the load in some way. Teacher leadership is this and a million more things, small and huge, that help us strengthen our favorite places and people: kids, their teachers, and our communities.

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LF: One of the tools you describe to help develop teacher leadership is professional development. Many educators immediately respond with an "ugh" or something less pleasant when describing professional-development activities. How can it instead be turned into a positive tool to help teachers become leaders?

Katherine Bassett:

First, I prefer to call it professional learning because this should be a process through which we learn new strategies, information about our own teaching, or new concepts in leadership to apply in our practice. I have found that the most impactful professional learning always includes these things:

  • Strong grounding in applicable research;
  • Interactivity throughout the learning—participants are doing, not sitting;
  • Opportunities to talk things through with colleagues during the learning;
  • Tools that participants can take and immediately apply in their own practice; and
  • Time for reflection.

Professional learning should be targeted to a teacher's own specific growth needs. Teachers should have input into the professional learning that they receive, and it should be designed by teachers and for teachers. I think that if we design professional learning with these components in mind, and, if the PL is designed by and for teachers, we will shift perceptions.

Rebecca Mieliwocki:

One word: personalization. The best PD any of us has participated in are activities that are tailored to our lived realities and what we need at any given moment to grow.  Yes, new pedagogies, new curriculum, new tech, or ways of approaching equity issues are vital and valuable. However, for PD to strike at the heart of our practice and grow it, it needs to be focused on what and who I teach. This means presenters who have a combination of talents. They need to know the science behind adult learning. That means they need to honor the wisdom in the room and make space for it. This means new information and material will need to be held up to what we already know works to see how it can be incorporated. Teachers also need many examples of how something works, what it looks like, and how to use it successfully before they'll even give it a sniff.

We have too many things added to our plates and never enough taken off. Before you expect me to adopt something you think is great, I'm going to need to judge for myself if it's worth the swap. Third, I'm going to need more time to percolate on this new idea or material and I'm going to want opportunities to practice with it. Then, I want to meet with my colleagues to hear how it's working for them. This nice and slow approach might be frustrating to PD presenters who want one-and-done moments with teachers, but it's the only way that works and secretly (or not so secretly) we all know that.

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LF: Harnessing data is another strategy you describe as a way to develop teacher leadership. How would you define "data," and how can it be used in a "data-informed" way that recognizes that it is more than numbers instead of a "data-driven" way that can be damaging for everyone involved? 

Katherine Bassett:

In Domain V of the Teacher Leader Model Standards, we focused on the role of the teacher leader in building data "comfort zones" and cultures in which it is acceptable and easy to share data. Data is much more than test results, although they are one piece of data. This was actually one of my favorite domains when I was leading the standards development and one of my favorite professional learning modules to develop when I was at NNSTOY.

Teachers are often uncomfortable to share their student data with colleagues, and creating data communities requires a cultural shift in the way in which we think about data. Data is simply information; information guides decisionmaking and growth. If we can establish cultures in which teachers are comfortable sharing information, we move into the data-informed culture that you describe in your column.

Rebecca Mieliwocki:

Using data in teaching has gotten the worst possible rap, and so many times numbers are used to beat up teachers. It's no wonder we all have a negative knee-jerk reaction to the term. If not approached carefully and with some sensitivity, data conversations can so south fast. But here's the deal: Good teachers do realize the value of a clear picture to guide our lesson plans, to plan supports for students who struggle, and to devise systems to improve life for kids and teachers. Teacher leaders aren't afraid to root around in the data to look for answers.

For example, math teachers at a school in Burbank, Calif., needed a clearer picture around why so many kids were failing algebra. Using a systematic approach to uncover trends in missed problems on quizzes and test while simultaneously identifying which teachers had exceptional teaching strategies around these often-missed questions allowed the teachers to craft an intervention plan that would help to mitigate this problem. During a week of instruction, students were given a form showing them their areas of strength and weakness. Each day of the week, they'd check in with their "home" teacher and then venture out to any one of several teachers listed on their sheet that would help the work through the weak zones. Twice that week, they were asked to visit a teacher who specialized in their strong zone for reinforcement, acceleration, or enrichment. Without the initial data from both student performance and teacher skillsets, these teachers would have been left alone to struggle through a solution. Instead, they combined data, their talent, and creativity to work through it.

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LF: You also talk about advocacy as another way to develop teacher leadership and describe instances when it can result in conflict with administrators. What are your tips to teachers who want to move forward and work with administrators who might have different visions?

Katherine Bassett:

Find common ground. There is always common ground. Administrators have a tremendously difficult job; recognize that and present yourself as a problem-solver, someone who can help administrators do their work. When presenting a problem, always go in with at least one—preferably more than one—potential solution to that problem. And make it a solution in which the administrator does not have to do the heavy lifting.

Domain VII of the standards, which addresses advocacy, was one of the most contentious to develop. While everyone agreed that teacher leaders should advocate for students, not everyone agreed, at first, that they should also be advocates for the profession. Some saw this as the role of the administrator. Through much rich conversation, we landed in a place that recognizes the role of the teacher leader as advocate for both students and the profession.

Rebecca Mieliwocki:

My suggestion for a situation where you and your administrative team may disagree is to first seek clarity around your principal's vision and see if there is a nexus between your passions and this vision. Typically, in any school or education setting, both administration and teachers want to do great things for kids. There's room for flexibility in the way we go about it, but it's vital that all hands are on deck. If you present yourself to your administration as someone who 1) loves kids and their teachers, 2) loves the school or the organization, and 3) wants to do the work necessary to make it even better, higher-ups will hopefully see you as an ally and a partner. Do more listening than talking at first to find out what matters most to "the bosses." Take what you hear and discover where plans or ideas you have sync up with theirs. Think about how you might craft your idea to dovetail with something he/she/they were hoping to move forward with. In my experience, joining your administration on a project that matters most to them positions you perfectly to have them on your side when it's time for you to present your idea for change at your school.

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LF: Is there anything I haven't asked you that you'd like to share?

Katherine Bassett:

We intend for this book to provide actual exemplars of how to grow as teacher leaders through different and unique teacher-leader journeys. The teacher leaders profiled in the book each chose a different path, but all got there. We want people to understand that they need to find their own leadership passion, and as Rebecca says, starting small, grow that passion into leadership roles.

Rebecca Mieliwocki:

Adventures in Teacher Leadership is a book for teachers just like me and just like you. We are humble servants who work to make the world better one kid and one lesson at a time. Among the 3.2 million of us teachers, there is a cadre of special folks who want to do even more than teaching—they wish to lead in their profession. Now, more than ever, those teachers are needed to lead.

This book has concrete examples, pathways, pitfalls to avoid, and inspirational tidbits that are designed to illuminate a new pathway for you or to give you resources and renewed inspiration for the adventure you're already on. If you are wanting to lead from your classroom, start now. Don't wait, because it doesn't matter what you do, or where, or with whom ... it only matters THAT you do.

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LF: Thanks, Katherine and Rebecca!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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