Thursday, March 5, 2015

Teacher Leadership Benefits Students

As one of the early adopters of a teacher leadership system in Iowa, we have had the unique opportunity to build something that has never been attempted at this scale. We are honored to share with others what we have learned, and the results so far are quite promising. If we go back a few years when the idea of teacher leadership was first conceptualized as a vehicle to drive student outcomes, we didn't quite have the same level of support. In fact there were many that didn't believe this was the right course for Iowa schools. I was among the skeptical and voiced my reservations. Now I can clearly see the brain power that has been unleashed when we put teachers in leadership positions. It's too bad we didn't do this earlier.

Many suggested that it might be a wiser investment if we instead used these dollars to increase the length of the school year. Some opined that an infusion of capital to add days (or hours) to the school calendar might be a better option. In reality it is not much of a stretch to make this argument when considering the time commitment necessary to implement the Iowa Core with fidelity. However, our study of the Core suggests that depth is perhaps more important than mere coverage. Having longer or more days of instruction will probably not be the complete answer if giving our student the ability to think deeply and critically, solve problems, and work collaboratively is the preferred outcome. If instead, we think it is more beneficial to regurgitate facts and figures without context, and simply 'cover content' then perhaps a different argument should be made. I don't believe that to be the case. Nonetheless this argument is moot considering the fact that any attempts to lengthen the school year would be met with fierce resistance from our friends in the tourism industry.

In the traditional paradigm, when a young person isn't successful in the classroom our intervention would be simply to reteach the material. Teachers would go back to their toolkit of strategies and deploy another technique. Indeed a simple concept, and if it worked--good for us. However, data suggests this does not always work. If it did we wouldn't be having this conversation now, would we? The question then becomes, what happens when the teacher runs out of strategies to try or deploy? What happens when they come across a particularly difficult problem of practice that has never been seen before? Who shall they turn to? Well, we fall back on what we know. This might include trying those same strategies again, that we already know don't work--but the twist this time might be to do them a little slower and louder (pardon me, I am being a bit tongue and cheek here)!

We can all agree that is absurd. It would be like trying to communicate with someone who speaks Portuguese as their native language in English really loud and slow!  

The same is true for education. If an instructional strategy isn't producing the desired results for a subset of learners, it makes little sense to repeat that strategy an infinite number of times and expect the results to be any different. That is where the power of teacher leadership is really beginning to show promise, not only here at Hudson, but at the other 38 school districts that are also implementing these systems as part of the first wave.

Our system is anchored by a team of 3 instructional coaches who work with a cadre of model teachers. Their primary mission is to support the work of teachers in the classroom and to develop the skills of those teachers. For example, they are bringing new and research based instructional strategies to the classroom that will address that problem of practice! Imagine a scenario where a subset of students isn't successfully grasping the concept of fractions, and the strategies that have been tried by the classroom teacher just aren't working. By the way, this isn't a fault of the teacher or the students--it is a fault of the strategy! Now, let's give the strategy a break too, because it still may be effective in some instances, but just not this problem of practice. Teacher leadership provides a mechanism where the instructional coach can work in concert with the model teacher and classroom practitioner to design and deploy an effective strategy to that subset of students!

That, my friends is the purpose of teacher leadership!

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