April 20, 2014

Published: April 9, 2008

Growing School Leaders

A charter school seeks to develop the leadership potential of its teachers.

I hijacked a class I was supposed to be observing yesterday. I couldn’t help it. I may have left my job as a special educator last summer to become a program director for Teach For America to build my educational management skills, but I still love teaching.

It’s a dilemma many ambitious educators face: to continue teaching the students they love and hone their craft as educators, or try to move to the next level in school management and have a broader impact. For many teachers like myself, this means going beyond being named department head or grade-team leader; we are looking for roles in which we can move beyond our own classroom walls, influence instruction, and create change in school systems.

Basically, at the risk of sounding spoiled, we want it all. And we don’t necessarily want to wait 20 years for our turn. In other fields, especially in business, exceptional employees with a history of exemplary effectiveness—regardless of the number of years of experience—are given promotions and more influential assignments. Why shouldn’t this happen in schools?

Well, in fact, in some spots around the country, it is starting to happen. In an effort to provide more instructional support, as well as build a pipeline of future school leaders, some administrators are trying a grow-your-own approach.

Take Natalie Basham, principal of the IDEA Academy and College Preparatory Mission in Mission, Texas, a charter school that is scheduled to open in fall 2008. Basham’s school is part of the IDEA Public Schools in the Rio Grande Valley, a charter network whose central mission is to prepare low-income students to succeed at four-year colleges. As a key part of the school’s instructional program, Basham has created a layered staffing and support system for teachers.

As Basham hires her team of 13 teachers for the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade classes, she is strategically selecting certain individuals to hold a dual role as instructional coaches. While the coaches will continue to teach, they will have fewer classes than other teachers in order to build in time for their mentoring role. In this position, their responsibilities expand to include observing other teachers, providing one-on-one feedback, data-based problem solving, and developing professional development action plans—that is, much of the clinical training principals, professional development directors, and administrators take on in most schools.

What stands out are the kinds of educators Basham has hired to join her in this critical role. The teacher-coaches’ experience level ranges from 2 years to 20-plus years. All are exemplary teachers with proven leadership skills and the ability to analyze instruction and data. Only one has held a formal school leadership role before. None have administrative degrees.

But based on the teachers’ previous work with students, adults, and data, Basham says she is confident she can train them to have the necessary management, support, and analysis skills to become instructional coaches.

“I believe I can train people to be leaders. I have trained people to do it,” Basham, a former Teach For America teacher and program director, explained. In addition to running the school and working with teachers, she will also provide direct management training and support to her coaches. “It’s what I would have liked,” she notes.

But why give standout teachers leadership skills that may ultimately take them out of the classroom? For Basham, it’s about providing an embedded support system and attracting ambitious educators in order to create a dynamic academic climate for students. “My primary goal is not about retaining teachers,” she says.”It’s about maximizing student achievement.”

“My responsibility is to develop teachers’ leadership,” she adds. “I want the best [for my teachers], whether I’m included or not, because they’re the ones teaching and leading the students in the classroom. It’s high stakes. We gotta get kids ready for college.”

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