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Leading change: Teacher leaders are catalysts for education transformation

By Gail Marshall
July 14, 2015
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It was a brutally cold winter for Sara Luckert and the students in her middle school English classes in Henrico, Virginia. For the second year in a row, 10 days of instruction were blown away by freezing winds and buried in snowdrifts.

“Ten days that we do not get back,” says Luckert. That meant 450 fewer minutes of instructional time per class before her students would face three big standardized tests. It meant lost consistency, flow and connection with her students.

“We would see them for a day or two, the next storm would hit, and it would be days before we would see our students again,” she says. “The impact is clear to me: Students struggled more with the content, staying organized and focused. These were not relaxing days for me as an educator, as I kept having to revise plans and adjust. My own sons became very frustrated, sitting home with little to do day after day.”

And that sent Luckert‘s mind whirring.

“Our county uses a 1:1 program,” she says, “and I am fortunate to work at a school where most of the population has internet access. During one of the extended snow breaks, I posted trivia questions to see how many students were checking in. It was around 40 percent.”

Not bad. What more could she do to raise this percentage of engagement even higher? She noodled.

“I realized that, despite the leaps and bounds we have taken using technology in school, we have not pursued such options out of school. With platforms such as Google Classroom and tools like Nearpod, the possibilities are endless. Teachers could post a lesson in a video or podcast, attach an activity, send students to a link, have students journal, etc. Students could still work in groups in virtual collaborative settings on a project. Those 450 minutes do not have to be lost.”

Just do it, right? If only. Such a change, though sensible, is complex in its execution. It involves changing something that has demolished a jillion bright classroom ideas: P-O-L-I-C-Y. This small change would require change on the state level, since the number of school days is regulated by the state.

It’s a daunting task.

But Sara Luckert had just taken a first step into a trend that has gained momentum around the globe: teacher leadership.

Catalysts for improvement

The idea that teachers can, do and should take on leadership roles in transforming education is better understood than ever before. Recent national initiatives, such as President Barack Obama’s plan to create a national STEM Master Teacher Corps and the Department of Education’s Teach to Lead initiative, are indicators that this vision of teachers as leaders and catalysts of improvement has taken root at the highest levels of our educational system.

As a student in a master’s program in educational leadership, Luckert moved with confidence, taking her idea to administrators at the next levels who could help her make this happen — not just for her own students, but for students anywhere when the physical classroom becomes unavailable. She knows it makes sense and can happen, but it will emerge slowly. She is patient.

“I am floating the idea of piloting a policy next year,” she says, “one that is introduced in the fall, outlining expectations of students in the event of multiple snow days, expectations that are supported by parents and teachers.”

She knows even great ideas require leadership skills to influence the organization.

“This won’t work unless there is buy-in on all levels,” she says. “We are talking about a culture shift. We are asking all stakeholders to support the idea that learning can and must occur even when the physical building is shut down. Students would need to be held accountable for virtual classroom learning. Teachers would need to be willing to plan and implement virtual lessons. Parents would need to support work at home. This is a big shift.”

Benefits of leadership skills

Karen Richardson, Ph.D., of Richmond, Virginia, is an education consultant and ISTE member who has been Luckert’s teacher. She has seen the benefits of her students learning leadership skills, and she encourages them to remember the importance of those skills if and when they go into administration.

“My message to them is, once you are in that position with the leadership title, don’t forget about empowering your teachers,” she says. “This is our lesson that we’ve learned. I’m doing it by trying to train the next generation of leaders to reach out to their teachers.”

Richardson also sees value in teaching leadership skills as part of every teacher’s education, sending them empowered into the profession so they never have the notion that their leadership is limited by their titles.

Candice McQueen, Tennessee commissioner of education, began her career in education as a teacher in both public and private schools in Tennessee and Texas. Before pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Texas in Austin, McQueen earned her master’s at Vanderbilt University and her bachelor’s degree at Lipscomb University, the institution where she later worked to create an award-winning teacher preparation program.

Tennessee, she points out, is the home of some of America’s most-improved schools. Part of that success is developing a cadre of coaches and teacher leaders across the state. There are many special qualities they look for in developing these special teacher leaders. Primarily, these fall into three arenas: willingness, effectiveness and someone people will follow.

“First, they have to be willing, so they are nominating themselves,” she says. “They are people who have a passion for great teaching, a passion for learning. They want to know how to instruct students differently, better, more appropriately.”

They also need to have the energy and drive to do the work.

Teacher leaders should have a documented skill set and a willingness to communicate with teachers from across the state at a time when there is significant change.

“You’ve got to be willing to take lots of questions, be willing to model and not be afraid of being in front of adults and communicating with adults,” says McQueen.

They are also looking for teachers who are effective through performance assessment, student achievement and who receive supportive remarks from their principals.

“A person who is serving as a teacher leader can’t come across as critical or in a position of ‘I know everything’ so much that they’re not approachable,” McQueen says. “So the coach has to have that leadership style that is much more collaborative, adaptable. They want to listen, they want to work for you and with you, and they want to see you grow. That has to come out in both what they say verbally and what they do nonverbally.”

A look at first steps

Mary Wegner, Ed.D., superintendent of Sitka Public Schools in Sitka, Alaska, and a member of the ISTE Advocacy Advisory Committee, is a leader who began her career in the classroom as a special education teacher in Washington. The policies there in the 1980s were so isolating and ineffective, she stopped teaching in a typical school rather than be part of such a negative system.

So she stepped off the well-traveled path of public school and, at age 24, was running the first off-reservation Native American group home in the country for individuals with disabilities.

What a difference in school systems she found when she moved to Alaska several years later. Students were included, and she was inspired to return to the public school classroom.

Her first step into teacher leadership came unintentionally when she “wandered” into a Social Impacts of Technology class taught by Jason Orr, a noted thought leader and author of several books. She needed a few units to keep her teaching certificate current, and he was running the University of Alaska, Juneau, master’s in technology program.

“That is the moment that changed me,” she says. She put the emerging technology together with the needs of her students, and she was captivated.

Jump forward a few years. She was teaching the most intense students in the school, students with autism or Down syndrome. The school was going through a technology bond. With expertise from her graduate classes, she asked for multimedia computers so her classroom was both a special education classroom and the school’s multimedia lab.

The school placed the highest-end computers there. Her students did groundbreaking work, creating videos on basic topics critical to their world, such as how to brush your teeth and bathe properly. They were practicing inclusion, where her students would go into the general classrooms, and also reverse inclusion, where students would come into her classroom to use the computers.

 “It just really opened my eyes to the social impact of technology,” she said. “As people would come into use the multimedia lab, they would have a question. My students would be the ones that would answer their questions on how to use the technology.

“That completely changed how people saw them. And these were one- and two-word utterance kinds of guys. These were people with severe, significant challenges, and they were the ones who were helping others. And they were the ones that had competence about helping others.”

Well-earned praise

Now in the role of superintendent of her district, this fall she and 99 other top superintendents were invited to the White House, where President Obama praised the school district’s performance with the ConnectEd program.

“Six years ago,” the president said after pointing out Wegner in the audience, “the technology in the schools was so outdated, only a few people could even print documents, and logging on to the internet could take 20 minutes. Today, with the help of the Recovery Act, the whole district has Wi-Fi. The ratio of computers to students is 4:1 and falling. Kids are Skyping in class with experts from all over the world on a whole range of subjects. And Sitka is now in the top tier of districts in the state. It’s been transformative.”

Though he didn’t know Wegner personally, he chose the right word in his comments.

“I am the textbook definition of a transformational leader,” Wegner says, “and that means I seek to transform myself and the world around me for the betterment of mankind or humankind.”

To her, that means encouraging, training and empowering teachers to lead from their classroom experiences.

 “You always hear ‘preach to the choir.’ You know, I’m going to let the choir sing. Let them! If you have an idea, great — how can I help you?”

Defining teacher leadership

Emily Davis is just finishing up a stint as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow (TAF) at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. To say this Pacetti Bay Middle School Spanish teacher from St. Augustine, Florida, has a passion for teaching and learning is apropos.

Davis got the call from Washington that she had won the fellowship the night before her wedding.

“After my wedding, I told my family that I would be relocating to D.C. for the year to serve as a TAF,” she says. “They were beyond excited for me, and my new groom and I threw half of our stuff in storage and the other half into a U-Haul and moved ourselves to D.C. My honeymoon was spent at the U.S. Department of Education — every teacher’s dream. Ha!”

It’s a great honor to have this opportunity to expand educational leadership skills, but the notion wasn’t new for Davis. She already held a master’s degree in educational leadership from Pepperdine University in California.

This experience has given her a wide range of work experience in policy and leadership. She describes it as being in three buckets: educator outreach, learning and her own initiatives. There’s no sitting around thumb-sucking.

The fellowship has her meeting with educators and learning from their experiences; sharing information about the role of the federal government and policies in education; traveling across the country to visit amazing schools and educators; and bringing educators to the department through events and activities such as Tea with Teachers, edcamps, Teachers of the Year, educator conferences and meetings requiring teacher output, such as the new English Learner Toolkit and Future Ready schools for educators. There is speech writing, blogging, labor management collaborations with unions and writing talking points for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The fellowship also gives teachers an opportunity to exchange ideas with teacher leaders internationally.

“Through Teach to Lead, as well as other venues, we have engaged with educators internationally around conversations for how teacher leadership has shifted the paradigm in the teaching profession and how it can continue to lift and strengthen the teaching profession,” she says. “Teacher leadership has become a great topic of interest internationally.

“We have engaged with educators from England, Wales and Ireland in conversations about ‘middle leaders’ (their term for teacher leaders) and have continued to speak with them about structures for developing systemic roles and supports for teacher leaders.”

Also, this year at the International Summit for the Teaching Profession, six educators from Teach to Lead summits attended as part of the U.S. delegation.

Reflecting on her fellowship, Davis encourages her colleagues to be confident.

“There is no one definition of teacher leadership, and leadership looks different for every teacher,” she says. “I like to say, ‘Get in where you fit in.’”

From the top, Secretary Duncan is welcoming aspiring teacher leaders.

“I was hopeful [about teacher leadership] last year when we announced Teach to Lead,” Duncan says. “I am convinced we are onto something really important and special now. Change has to come from teachers who own it and lead it.”

Gail Marshall is a writer and editor for the Fresno Bee, a major metropolitan newspaper in California. She also owns and operates a freelance business, Marshall Arts Communications Consultants.