It’s So Obvious

I had the good fortune to attend a two-day conference in Chicago this past Thursday and Friday sponsored by the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality. [The NCCTQ is a collaborative effort of ETS, Learning Point Associates, and Vanderbilt University. Learning Point Associates is/are an affiliate of American Institutes for Research (AIR).] Delaware is part of the mid-Atlantic NCCTQ group that also includes Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. NCCTQ regional folks have been working with teacher groups in Delaware to help develop multiple measures for teacher assessment. Hence the invitation to attend. Here is the link to their site:

The focus of this conference was “leadership strategies to support effective teaching.” These turned out to be not the same concept(s) that originally popped into my head when I received the invitation. The conference had a much richer and more nuanced focus than I had first imagined when I saw the agenda a few weeks ago. The material was outstandingly prepared and presented; the event was well-attended. I am so glad that I was invited to go. I am a working teacher. I am big on teacher quality—mine and my colleagues’.

There were education specialists and supervisors, policy-makers, DofE people, etc. from all over the country at this conference. I was there with another colleague representing DSEA, the Delaware State Education Association, an education union. I was one of a handful of actual teachers, and we were pretty much the only union folks in attendance. COOL!

A significant portion of each day was relegated to team decision-making and planning based on the input from the panelists and experts and the research just shared. My colleague and I were not in the position to participate in these conversations in a meaningful and productive way. We put in our two cents, but Pennsylvania and New Jersey teams could actually use the information to move forward.

One of my big “take-aways” was that many of the ideas shared and the realizations that were uncovered were so damned obvious. “Of course!”—forehead smack—rolling of eyes. I should have thought of that. We should have been doing that. That should have been happening all along. DUH!

The following activities/events/initiatives may be happening in lots of schools and districts around the country, but this has not been my general experience in the past decade. And, since the NCCTQ focused on these issues throughout the conference, I’m pretty sure that my experience is not much different from that of other teachers.

1. Much is made in my school, my district, and my state about educational leadership. This is the good news. The bad news is that most of the time, energy, thought, and expense goes to developing administrative leaders. [This is good. This is important, but, hey, guys–what about all of the wonderful, productive teacher leaders? Yes, we want effective principals and effective teachers, but teacher leaders are virtually overlooked. More about this later.]

Richard Laine, from the Wallace Foundation, was a masterful, convincing speaker. Big push to create and maintain a pipeline of effective principals. Continuity, consistency, capacity! Good ideas. And (cue the trumpets) Laine took the time to make it clear and undeniable that effective principals are of the utmost importance to effective teachers and teaching as well as for successful students and higher-functioning schools. An outstanding principal who can do much more than maintain a building and make the trains run on time is essential to student progress. DUH #1.

Education people have been talking for years about the changing roles of school principals. Our principals now need to be “instructional leaders.” However, one cannot just hit a button or wave a wand, and “Poof!” change school administrators from the managers that we expected and trained them for years and years to be, into confident, insightful, qualified, and skilled instructional leaders. It takes careful and strategic planning. And, in my opinion, we have not been careful, strategic, or organized in this mission. [And, for once, it ain’t on me—I’m just a humble working teacher.]   

Finally, people are waking up to the fact that this does not just happen, and it does not happen in isolation or overnight. The folks at NCCTQ have a plan, as do some others in the ed. policy biz.

2. There were three breakout sessions. We chose Door #3 first: The Role of School Leaders in Ensuring an Equitable Distribution of Teachers. Dum-de-dum-dum,… this topic made my stomach queazy. Oh, Jeez. This is the part where they want to change negotiated agreements so that somebody in Central Office can decide that Mrs. McGillicuddy and I should be moved to School X because we are deemed highly effective teachers and the kids there need us.  

Anyway. It turned out to be different. It was better. According to official agenda: “Specifically, presenters will highlight the important role principals play in teacher assignment, support, and retention. Innovative practices will be shared, providing states and districts with strategies to encourage and support the principal’s role in ensuring a more equitable distribution of (effective) teachers.” In their own schools!  Phew. I can live with that. McGillicuddy and I are safe—for now.

Elementary and even middle school teachers are probably unaware of the political wrangling that takes place in class and subject assignments and scheduling in most high schools. It can get down and dirty when Honors and AP classes, senior vs. freshman classes, and remedial classes are assigned. Longevity and seniority rule. Data is not even needed to conclude that this may not actually be the wisest or most efficient/effective way to boost school test results or graduation rates. Just think about it. DUH #2.

One presenter, Elizabeth Kirby, principal of the Kenwood Academy High School in Chicago, rocked the room. Take it from me—this young woman had it goin’ on. Her mindful, attentive style of school leadership proved that she was the ultimate instructional leader and school planner. One Kirby strategy: explain a difficult situation to teachers and allow them to help come up with remedies—imagine that. Everyone in that room wanted to either work with her or for her. That school is very lucky to have Liz Kirby in charge.

3. Door #2 was our next choice: Leadership and Evaluation for Teacher Learning and Development.  [We gave up on Door #1: State Policies and Examples of Best Practices in Principal Evaluation—there were only two sessions with three choices each, and there were only two of us. We agreed that we wanted to be able to compare notes rather than split up and share back. Additionally, principal evaluation is not our sphere of influence.] 

Outstanding presenters, again:

  • An ETS researcher had so much material to share that she could have taken the rest of the afternoon to get through her stuff. Luckily it will all be posted on the TQ website.
  • The woman from Learning Forward spoke about differentiated professional development and the value of on-going daily learning for teachers as opposed to the occasional episodic experiences we have learned to endure. Loved this message: “Continuous improvement is the hallmark of a profession.” Great word. One other significant message: “Not all professional learning produces the same results.”
  • But, the star of the show was another principal—this time, an animated and entertaining guy from Dallas, Texas. Darwin Spiller cut right to the chase—no more excuses. He demonstrated his 14-year rise in the same school from classroom teacher to AP to principal, and the steady reduction in staff turnover as the stability of the school was maintained: from losing 15-18 teachers per year over ten years ago to an amazing 0-1 teacher transitions in the last two years of Mr. Spillers residency. Stability can have quite a soothing effect—with the right person in charge. At my own school, we have had three different principals in the past seven years. It’s tough. We have also had a similar turn-over rate in AP’s. DUH #3: Who is in charge of a school REALLY matters, and it is as important to keep a great principal in place as it is to find one or develop one.

4. The thrill of the evening for me was the screening of a brand-new, yet to be released film titled American Teacher. I read about this film just last Sunday, so I was very impressed that this group had the heft to arrange for a screening. Little did I know that the Director of the TQ Center, Sabrina Laine, was in the film, as were two of the other conference participants, Marguerite Izzo and Gretchen Weber. Movie stars in our midst! The film was GREAT. It was such a relief to see a professionally produced, well-crafted, engaging, interesting film that honored, respected, and valued those who choose to work in our public schools, and represented teachers in a realistic and meaningful manner.

Finally–an antidote to Waiting for Superman. Thank you, TQ.

5. The Early Bird session on Day II turned out to be well-worth our getting up earlier than required. TQ presented the launch of their new Practical Guide to Designing Comprehensive Teacher Evaluation Systems, an on-line product that we thought had a great deal of promise in guiding districts and states to formulate, revise, and evaluate their new systems. [Delaware, blessedly, has a state-wide system that was developed collaboratively more than five years ago amongst the Department of Education, the State Standards Board, the state teachers’ union, and several districts who volunteered to field test and pilot the prototype. Our evaluation system is based on the work of Charlotte Danielson. I think that it is an excellent tool.] The TQ website currently includes reviews of systems submitted by Chicago Public Schools and the Austin Texas Schools for a formative assessment by TQ specialists. It would be very interesting to have our state system assessed. The assessment provides comments and suggestions about what parts are on target and which parts could benefit from revision or adjustment. Best of all—it is free. Evaluation systems, like everything else, need to be assessed formatively and summatively. DUH #4.

6. The morning session, Principal Evaluation: A State’s Eye View and Working Session, was informative and interesting, but ultimately the regional center’s work session with state teams was wasted on the two of us. Goal: “State and regional teams will meet to share ideas about applying information learned during the course of the workshop to the creation of concrete plans to advance their systems of leadership development.”  It would have been nice to have had a DoE representative with us—this focus area tied right in to major RttT goals and systems currently under development inDelaware.

7. One of the best parts of the conference for me was the very last session: Teacher Leader Model Standards: The Impact on School Leadership. Finally. Recognition of the role and value of developing and nurturing and advancing TEACHER LEADERS.

My school and my district have never truly realized—both in the recognition of and also in the sense of making real—the value of genuine distributed leadership and shared decision-making. [I feel that it is safe to put this into print now that I have one week left before I leave teaching after 39 years in the classroom.][ They talk about it, they use the name, but they do not accomplish it nor do they effectively encourage it. What a loss. What a lost opportunity. Note to self: This would be a good topic for another blog post.]

Anyway. It was refreshing and re-energizing to hear the Superintendent of Fairfax, VA schools describe systems that identify, grow, and reward authentic teacher leaders. It was instructive to hear the principal of a middle school on Long Island describe the four-year journey he has made with his staff in turning around a very diverse and previously dysfunctional school by nurturing the many and varied teacher leaders in their midst. He believes that this has made a huge difference and had a very positive impact. One of his teachers, Marguerite Izzo, was the 2007 State Teacher of the Year inNew York. Marguerite was also one of the teachers in “American Teacher”.

Sigh of relief. So, the future is not just about administrator leaders. Adults with leadership qualities and behaviors do not have to leave teaching and children and their colleagues behind in order to realize their ambitions and to make a difference inside and outside of their own classroom. DUH #5.

[DSEA is currently involved in exploring and examining alternative career pathways for both teachers and para-educators. A joint task force has been meeting for the past year and is planning on producing a number of recommendations for expanding and improving career choices for educators that specifically do not lead them out of our classrooms and schools and into school administration.]  

Thank you to all of the NCCTQ staff, all of the presenters, and all of the bright and caring participants I met along the way. It was a pleasure to be included.

This entry was posted in Accountability, Education Professionals, Education Reform, Education Transformation, Faculty and Staff, Professional Development, Quality Teachers/Quality Teaching, School Administrators, School Improvement, Teacher Education Programs, Teachers and Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to It’s So Obvious

  1. Impressive. More of the same, please and thanks.

  2. jack says:

    Great article, I wish you well in your new assignment and look forward to you standing tall for employees that work every day in our classrooms

  3. Frederika says:

    I am excited about my new job, my new responsibilities, and my new adventure. Jack: You know how I feel about teachers and teaching. I am looking now for ways to keep in touch with kids and classrooms. I am hoping to volunteer with Read Aloud Delaware in Dover and I plan on regularly visiting classrooms across the state.

  4. Let's hear it for teacher leaders!!! says:

    Love your post regarding teacher leaders! It is my hope that these new academic deans in our district will realize the untapped talent that lies among our teacher cadre! I emphasized this point in comments I made to them at the last board meeting. We DO know what we are doing in the classroom and are happy to share with others!

    Keep up the great posts! Although I don’t always respond, I do appreciate reading them!

  5. Pingback: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle | Does Experience Count?

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