Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Checking In With Teacher Leadership

Today we had the privilege of hosting several visitors from the Governor's Office, Department of Education, State Board of Education, and Area Education Agency. The purpose was to share with these guests our early perceptions, successes, and challenges of teacher leadership in the Hudson Community School District. Having that many 'heavy hitters' in the district was a bit stressful, but the conversation we participated in was excellent and we were happy to be included. We hope that other school districts can learn much from us as they work to implement teacher leadership systems in the next couple of years. We are also hopeful the policymakers that took time to visit Hudson today are able to take what they learned from us and leverage it to craft sound policy that improves K-12 public school system in Iowa. 

To be honest there was a moment of unease when I took that phone call. Imagine the scene: I am sitting in my office and Anne buzzes me to share that someone from the Governor's office is on the phone and wants to talk. I took that call from Linda Fandel back on August 18th, and we had only been in school for two days at that point. The purpose of that call was to set up the meeting that happened this morning. The visit today was designed for policymakers to learn from those of us who are implementing teacher leadership systems during this first year. Our state is investing a lot of capital into this system, over $150 Million annually when fully implemented. We must ensure that it is working as planned, and where it is not provide additional supports and guidance. 

During that first phone call, I was clear that we were very early into this implementation and still learning. Even though we are now roughly two months into teacher leadership it is still early! But there are many things that we have learned.

One of the key takeaways is that it has become abundantly clear teacher leadership is needed now more than ever in our educational institutions! Schools have become incredibly complex systems that must continually adapt to a diverse array of variables. Such mandates as implementing the Iowa Core Academic Standards, providing instructional leadership, quality professional development, meeting the needs of our special population of learners, and understanding the variances in formative assessment data are just a few of the tasks those in leadership positions must grapple with on a daily basis. Because of these complexities it is critically important that we flatten our leadership structure as much as possible and drive decisions to where we are most likely to see the greatest impact: at the intersection of the teacher and student. By distributing leadership throughout the organization it reduces the chance of error by ensuring that multiple individuals are involved in the decision making process.

To be quite frank I think we are getting it right at Hudson, and it all starts with those teacher leaders. Last week I spent some time visiting with our leaders and watching them in action. The knowledge and passion they bring to their work is inspiring. It also reminded me how complex this vocation and system truly is. While visiting with one of our instructional coaches, it really drove this point home. They patiently answered my questions about instruction, scaffolding strategies, and analyzing student assessment data. They shared their philosophy on the attributes of a successful reading program and the pros and cons of utilizing non-fiction and fiction reading selections to improve comprehension. This is exactly the type of skill set necessary to serve as a teacher leader in our system, and is exactly the type of person that we need to make decisions about reading instruction in our school district!

Certainly you would much rather be in a system where practitioners with special expertise in specific content areas are in the drivers seat when it comes to the type of strategy, resources, and professional development that are going to be utilized in practice, as opposed to a system where these decisions are driven from the top down. Before teacher leadership systems were in place, many of these decisions were left to the discretion of the administration. While in the past teachers were certainly included in this decision making, they were not engaged at the level that they are now. When it comes to matters of instruction, the teachers in the field are best equipped to make many of these decisions, not me! As a practitioner in the classroom, I was the music guy. This means that I am not the right person to inform teachers which reading strategy is going to be most effective if we want to improve phonemic awareness. The good news is that we have an expert on staff who is well equipped to answer those questions!

The biggest challenge that we face right now is the speed at which we can implement and bring our system fully online. It will not be until our system is scaled up and all of our teacher leaders are trained that we will truly see the power of a flattened leadership structure that empowers our leaders to drive instructional change. We all can see the vision of where we want to go! Our challenge will be not to rush the process, but instead being thoughtful and deliberate as we continue to implement teacher leadership in Hudson in a way that strengthens instruction through embedded professional development!

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