Teacher Leadership

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TeachersTopic is a periodical feature about a subject of interest to the teaching community written by a prominent expert in the field. As National Teacher of the Year, Dr. Rogers’ platform has been “All Children-An Equal Chance.” As a part of this equity in education platform, Dr. Rogers believes one way to close the gap between the affluent and impoverished schools is to recruit our strongest teachers to our weakest schools. Based on this belief, she requested to teach at Brighton Elementary this year. Brighton is the neediest school in Jefferson County. Dr. Rogers is currently serving as Curriculum Specialist at Brighton. We are featuring this piece by Dr. Roger’s, who answers questions about her experience and teacher leadership.

Q: How would you define “teacher leadership?

It is almost impossible to define teacher leadership in a few words. There are so many different ways that teachers can lead in and outside the classroom. In just the last few years, we’ve seen the term used to describe teachers who work as coaches or instructional leaders; teachers who serve on school, district, state or national advisory or policymaking groups; teachers who chair departments or school teams; teachers who provide the energy to sustain professional learning communities—and we could cite many more examples. For me, personally, my goal is to be an active and effective teacher leader so that I can directly impact my school, its teachers and most importantly the students.

Q: To what extent do you feel that the public school system is set up to support the development of teachers as leaders?

In the world of accountability that educators live in today, there is much pressure for administrators to be instructional leaders. I have listened to many debates questioning whether this is truly possible, given the huge burden that is often placed on administrators. So it’s not surprising that we’re seeing more and more discussion about using teachers as leaders of school improvement. It makes sense. Accomplished teachers have knowledge and insights about effective instruction that can really help us improve learning throughout a school.

But I’m not sure we’ve figured out how to tap into the leadership potential of expert teachers without removing them from the work of teaching. This is a major concern of mine. I am now the Curriculum Specialist in my school. I reluctantly agreed to accept this position last year. My principal was the only administrator on our K-8 campus, and she needed a helping hand. However, to accept this position, I had to leave the classroom. Too often, teachers only become school leaders when they are taken out of the classroom—and when they try to lead from the classroom, they rarely get the release time they need to perform extra duties. They quickly burn out.

I watched this first hand a few years ago as a young colleague in my school began to show strong leadership qualities and started to wear many hats. After several years of being the person who served on all the committees, planned major events, and wrote many of the school plans—while still trying to teach a full load—she was ready to quit the profession. Public schools are embracing the idea of teachers as leaders, but often we have failed to create a structure that makes this possible without overwhelming them or taking away their teacher identity. It is time for schools to consider such practices as job sharing, release time, and sabbaticals, and to make such practices a regular part of the way they “do school.”

Q: On what issues do you think it’s most important for teachers to assert themselves as leaders?

I believe our first duty as teacher leaders is to seek ways to improve learning in our schools. A teacher who is an excellent classroom instructor leads by modeling the art of effective teaching. Teacher leaders should seek opportunities to work cooperatively with colleagues and parents in ways that will help make schools a collaborative enterprise. Teacher leaders have an obligation to be a voice for children. It took many years of teaching to understand the importance of using my teacher voice. This realization came to me one summer when I helped with a mission project in a small rural south Alabama town. Our project was to paint a local armory that was to be used for after-school tutoring. I was shocked at the conditions in which these children were expected to learn—poor facilities, a lack of materials, weak leadership, and low expectations. Although I had always taught in a Title I school, I truly had never seen poverty like we found in this area. I realized that as a professional educator, I had to become a voice for children who are so often overlooked by the system.

Q: How can teacher leadership affect the success of individual schools? You are currently a teacher leader in a high poverty school that is struggling academically. Can teacher leaders make a difference in such schools? Is a critical mass of teacher leadership necessary to instigate and sustain positive change?

As National Teacher of the Year, my platform was “All Children Deserve An Equal Chance.” As a part of this equity in education platform, I argued that one way to close the gap between the affluent and poverty schools is to recruit our strongest teachers to our weakest schools. Based on this belief, I requested to teach at Brighton Elementary in Birmingham, Alabama. Brighton is the most needy school among the hundred or more schools in Jefferson County. Working at Brighton for the past year and a half has been the greatest learning experience of my life. There is very important work to be done in high

poverty and low performing schools; however, one teacher leader cannot do this work alone. There was not a day last year I did not feel like I was drowning. Even with our school’s success last year (we went from the 38 percentile to the 88 percentile in meeting our Adequate Yearly Progress goals under NCLB), this constant state of frustration remains for me. Schools like Brighton have so many, many needs, and they rarely rank high on society’s priority list. Recently, I sense some hope as I watch several teachers on our faculty take on leadership roles. I am convinced that only with a critical mass of quality teacher leaders will progress continue at my school.

Q: What can teachers do to expand their opportunities for leadership in schools?

While serving as State Teacher of the Year and National Teacher of the Year, my journey as a teacher leader took me to incredible places and I had amazing opportunities to meet extraordinary teachers all over our country. So many doors have been opened for me to see first hand the wide spectrum of teacher leadership roles. I would encourage teachers to seek leadership roles in areas where they have strong passion. These areas might include influencing policy, presenting at conferences, chairing committees, serving as mentors, leading discussion groups and book studies, writing articles, reaching out to community leaders—it’s a long list! Whatever teacher leaders choose to do, they need to model their commitment to the success of all our students. That’s the most powerful message we can communicate.

Q: How can school administrators help expand opportunities for teacher leadership?

I truly believe many administrators are seeking ways to encourage teachers to take on leadership roles. I am very fortunate to work for one of those administrators who is not threatened or intimated by teachers taking charge of various aspects of the school’s program. Often it just takes an administrator suggesting to a teacher ways their talents can be used and then providing an option for them. The key, of course, is for administrators to really nurture teachers in these leadership roles by creating the supports teachers need to lead without burning out.

Q: What can teacher preparation programs do to prepare teachers for leadership roles?

I’m encouraged to see that many institutions of higher education now see the early preparation of teacher leaders as part of their mission. My own alma mater, Samford University in Birmingham, is a leader is this area, and I was pleased when I earned my doctorate in Educational Leadership that Samford fully supported my interest in researching teacher leadership. I strongly believe that the obligation of leadership needs to be addressed in the pre-service curriculum, where we must implant the idea that part of our duty as professional educators is to give back to our profession.

Q: What can teacher leadership do for our nation’s education system in a broad sense?

It is a new day for teachers! I believe the new leadership roles that teachers are taking on in schools will allow us to serve children better and will have a lasting impact on student achievement. As a teacher leader, I have embraced what Albert Shanker once said: “As teachers, we must constantly improve schools and we must keep working at change and experimenting and trying until we have developed ways of reaching every child.”

About Dr. Betsy Rogers

On April 30, 2003, before a White House audience, President George W. Bush presented to the American people the 2003 National Teacher of the Year, Dr. Betsy Rogers of Birmingham, Alabama. As a first and second grade teacher at Leeds Elementary School in Jefferson County, Alabama, Dr. Rogers provided students with a safe, caring, and intellectually engaging environment, a philosophy reflected in the statement on her classroom door: You are entering the world of a child. Some of her students faced poverty, abuse, and neglect at home, making school, as she has learned, the best place for them. Therefore, Dr. Rogers committed herself to helping students feel safe and add joy to their day. A lively theme-based curriculum that allowed the day to flow and helps make connections for children is just one approach she used to accomplish this. Believing her school’s students could benefit from staying with a teacher two consecutive years, a concept known as looping, Dr. Rogers implemented this in 1997 after undertaking a year-long study of this practice. To learn more about Betsy Rogers’ experiences at Brighton, please visit her blog, Brighton’s Hope.

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