Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Taking the Plunge

Something very exciting is stirring in the educational system of this country, and it actually feels like we’re getting it right this time.  Even with all of the controversy over No Child Left Behind, the Common Core, and Race to the Top, one thing is very clear: teachers are being held to high expectations regarding their students’ academic performance.  And why shouldn’t we be?  That is our job, after all.  And we know that if we expect to see significant growth in our students’ achievement, we must provide them with daily support, purposeful engagement, and meaningful feedback to push all students to high levels of learning.  Why, then, would we not naturally provide the same type of support for our teachers?  As we hold educators to high performance expectations, we must be ready to provide daily job-embedded support, purposeful engagement, and meaningful feedback to help the teachers reach new levels of professional learning and become even more effective in the classroom.                                                     
This is where the exciting part comes in - school districts from across the nation are beginning to realize the importance of providing teachers with this site-based support to increase student achievement and cultivate a more collaborative, professional learning environment for educators.  Schools are providing teacher leader positions such as curriculum/professional development leaders, instructional coaches, model teachers, mentor teachers, and lead teachers to provide a strong, reliable, and available network of support for their teachers. Not only does this provide job-embedded professional development and daily collaboration opportunities for educators, but it also offers more pathways for teachers to grow and take on leadership roles within their schools.

So, how does all of this affect us?  We happen to be three high school teachers fortunate enough to live in Iowa, a state that decided to make a substantial investment in increasing our students’ learning by funding a statewide Teacher Leadership and Compensation (TLC) program.  When our school district heard about the system that would be implemented in waves over the next 3 years, (starting with for the 2014-2015 school year), they were eager to put together a committee and write a proposal to be a part of the program for Year 1.  In case you’re interested, here’s the technical scoop:
During January of 2014, The Bettendorf Community School District (BCSD) applied to the state of Iowa for participation in the TLC program.  This program requested school districts to submit a plan to implement teacher leadership roles in their districts.  Bettendorf was one of 38 districts to have their plan approved by the Department of Education for Year 1 of the program.  As stated in the plan, the TLC roles would work toward 6 goals:

  1. Serve as a vehicle to transform teaching and learning practices to increase overall student achievement and eliminate current achievement gaps.
  2. Retain our most effective teachers by providing teacher leader career opportunities that come with increased leadership responsibilities and compensation.
  3. Establish a process where teacher leaders can assist colleagues through the continuous learning process
  4. Promote additional collaboration between and among our teacher teams to positively impact student achievement
  5. Identify, clearly define and assess the knowledge, skills and competencies that teachers need in order to assume and retain meaningful leadership roles, within the district, and how these forms of leadership can be distinguished from, but work in tandem with, existing teacher leadership and administrative roles.
  6. Develop a culture of collegiality, trust, and respect in which all teachers and administrators demonstrate and value the ability to collaborate, think critically and creatively, and work in teams to continually improve the teaching and learning process.
(73131 - Bettendorf CSD TLC Plan 1/31/2014)

To this end, our district hired three district-wide Curriculum and Professional Development (CPD) leaders, one each for Literacy, Math, and Science Technology Engineering, Math (STEM).  The district also hired 12 building-level Instructional Coaches (IC), one for each elementary building, three for the middle school building and 3 for the high school.   A total of 32 model teachers were designated from existing teachers across the district.  The CPD and IC positions were filled from existing district teachers with replacement teachers hired for their vacated  teaching positions.  The model teachers retained their full-time teaching positions.  All teacher leader positions were considered “teaching contract positions” with additional compensation for extra time spent in their respective roles outside the regular school calendar.
With a small amount of time between approval and implementation, our district went straight to work interviewing interested applicants for the TLC positions, choosing the teachers who would take those new positions, and hiring replacement teachers for the instructional coaches and CPD leaders.  The three of us found ourselves to be extremely interested in the instructional coaching positions, so we applied, went through the rigorous interview process, and were awarded the new position of IC at the high school level. Thus the adventure began in the spring of 2014.  Our district sent the new TLC group to some training in adult education and mentoring/coaching during the summer, and we continued with the training throughout the year.    
All of our training has focused on the unique characteristics of the BCSD program, which include:
  • Teacher participation is completely voluntary.
  • All interactions between coaches and teachers are non-evaluative and confidential.
  • All CPD and IC roles are full-release or don’t have assigned classes.adventure.jpg
  • All one-to-one topics or interactions between coaches and teachers are driven by individual teacher preference.
  • The district engages model teachers to work with coaches and teachers in the district.

These characteristics were the initial driving force for our activities as coaches and served as the main “litmus test” for our interactions with  teachers.  Whenever we approached a project, we asked ourselves questions such as; “Are we being teacher-focused?”,  “Does this violate confidentiality?”, etc. Even after a year in the instructional coaching role, we still find ourselves asking these questions as we reflect on our work with teachers every day.

However, since this type of teacher leadership was so new to our district (and our state), no one seemed to have a clear idea of exactly where to start.  So, off we went on this adventure where our jobs were not well-defined, the plan was untested, and the teachers didn’t quite know what to think of the entire TLC program.  We also weren’t given a firm evaluation procedure.  Even with all of the unknowns that we were facing, we firmly believed in the importance of empowering teachers and providing them with relevant, site-based support to ultimately benefit our students’ learning. The TLC system was (and still is) an exciting opportunity in our careers as educators to take a leap of faith and challenge ourselves to make an even bigger impact on our school community.  And now, after a year of learning about our new role as instructional coaches, collaborating with teachers to increase their effectiveness in the classroom, reflecting on the impact we have had in our building this year, and establishing clear goals for next year, we can’t wait to see how our TLC program continues to grow and develop in the years to come.
For anyone who is interested in instructional coaching at the high school level, we hope that this blog offers some insight into our experiences during the first year of implementation.  We will be adding entries periodically throughout the summer (our goal is one per week!), so please check back often for the most recent reflections of our first-year journey. 
By no means do we claim to be experts, especially since we were basically building the plane while flying it, but sometimes it’s helpful to read about different ideas and see concrete examples of how something was done.  We hope that this can serve as a springboard for you to take our ideas and make them even better as you implement a teacher leadership program in your school community.

About the authors:

Pete Bruecken has 40 years of classroom experience, teaching physics, physical science, astronomy, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.  He has worked at Bettendorf High School since 1990 and is the director of the Planetarium.  Pete has a Master’s of Science in Education from Western Illinois University and is a self-proclaimed “institute junkie”, having attended and presented at numerous science education institutes during his career.

Kimberly Rojas has 11 years of experience as a Spanish teacher, working with students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. She has worked at Bettendorf High School since 2013 and is a National Board Certified Teacher in World Languages.  Kim holds a Master’s of Science in Curriculum & Instruction from Illinois State University and has experience as a mentor and model teacher.

Jennifer Wikan has 11 years of teaching experience in math education, including 3 years at an alternative high school. She has worked at Bettendorf High School since 2008.  Jen holds a Master’s of Education in Educational Administration from St. Ambrose University and is certified in the Leadership and Learning Center Decision-Making for Results (DMR) and Data Teams.  She is also the head cheerleading coach for BHS.