As the 2016 election heats up, the need to improve collaboration and leadership opportunities among teachers cannot be ignored. The future of our country depends on the strength of our teachers, who drive the success of all other professions.
All teachers deserve the opportunity to become teacher leaders. TeachStrong is an exciting new coalition of over 60 education organizations that are working to make teacher leadership career ladders a policy priority. The campaign’s ninth principle calls for more career pathways for teachers, while other principles advocate for professional learning that fosters feedback and improvement and the overall diversification and modernization of the field.
My story stands with the teacher leaders across this nation who know firsthand the significant progress we can make in student achievement when we have the right support to do our jobs well.
I used to be a third grade teacher, and now I am a teacher leader. I spent eight years teaching all subjects to hundreds of eight-year-olds. As a teacher, I sought to excel in my field and pursued my National Board Certification, which only three percent of teachers have obtained.
As I improved as a teacher, my reflections about my work slowly began to evolve from focusing on my own practices to focusing on how my practices yielded results for my students. This mind-shift changed my daily reflections from “How did today’s lesson go?” to “How did today’s lesson impact student achievement?” All students that left my third-grade class showed significant gains.
I frequently collaborated and shared with other teachers how the practices that I chose were those that yielded the greatest gains for my students. I began to realize that leading from the middle, right there in the midst of the real work, is where I wanted to stay. I was a teacher leader. I was drawn to the work that was in the classroom, in the “trenches.”
After my school experienced several years of declining test scores, the school was in jeopardy of being taken over by the state. Teachers were tired and untrusting that anything would work. Our district decided to try a school improvement strategy focused on improving classroom instruction called the TAP System for Teacher and Student Advancement. Since I valued the concept of leading by doing, I immediately applied for a teacher leadership role in the classroom next to teachers and students. My day-to-day work as a Master Teacher consisted of working and teaching in many classes. Teachers’ students became my students and we began to work together to think about how our work was specifically impacting student achievement. I spent time talking about the students as well as their goals and strategies to address each student’s learning across the building.
As teachers tracked their data, we began to see a large number of students moving from one proficiency level to the next. This success built teachers’ belief that they could, in fact, positively impact student achievement. After the first year of working as a Master Teacher with these structures, the school saw an eight-point gain. After three years, the school grew a total of 30 points and the culture of learning was revived.
After three years of working as a Master Teacher, I moved into an Executive Master Teacher position where I supported 19 Master Teachers across eight schools within Ascension Parish School District, all part of the TAP System.
Each day, my work was embedded in a school with teachers and students. Whether I was field-testing alongside the master teacher, sitting in a leadership team meeting analyzing results, or co-leading professional development meetings, the work was still in the trenches, right next to the students. Soon, these eight schools in our district began to surpass other higher performing schools. For example, in two years, Pecan Grove Primary went from a school labeled as a “D” to a “B.”
As a result, our district was rated as thethird highest-performing district in the state. Even today, I pride myself in saying that I lead from the middle, as I work alongside the educators in the classroom. I continue to sharpen my practices as a teacher of students and a teacher of teachers.
And most importantly, as I have grown in my experience as an educator and as I’ve watched my title change, my work still puts me directly in the place where I never want to leave: the classroom.
Laura Roussel is a Senior Program Specialist with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, and a former Executive Master Teacher at Ascension Parish Schools in Louisiana.