Education Opinion

Shakera Walker, Senior Manager of Teacher Leadership and Professional Development, Boston Public Schools

By Sara Mead — May 23, 2014 10 min read
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Many educators are realizing that the traditional teaching career trajectory--becoming a classroom teacher after graduating college, and continuing in a similar role until retirement--no longer appeals to a new generation of workers. Millennials, who make up the new generation of teachers, highly value opportunities for professional growth and development, as well as increased autonomy. Making the teaching profession attractive to these younger workers--and retaining them once they start--will require changing the structure of the profession, creating new career ladders and opportunities for teachers to grow as professionals and take on new responsibilities while remaining in the classroom. That’s what Shakera Walker is trying to do. As Senior Manager of Teacher Leadership and Professional Development for the Boston schools, she works to create teacher leadership opportunities that support schools in their improvement efforts and support the development of a new career structure that retains and rewards teachers for increased knowledge, skills, and performance. An accomplished Kindergarten teacher, Walker served as a U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow before taking her current role in Boston. Raised in New Jersey, she holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard Graduate School of Education. Walker lives in Boston.

What does that actually mean you do?

My primary role is to create teacher leadership opportunities in our district in an effort to support teaching and learning practices with the aim of improving student learning and achievement. In collaboration with my colleagues in the central office, we have designed a program that leverages school-based teacher leaders to address identified school-wide, team and individual growth needs and build capacity in their schools around data use and analysis, teacher effectiveness, and literacy and math, specifically implementation of the Common Core Standards. We consistently hear from teachers and principals that the best learning opportunities are job-embedded. So we have designed teacher leader roles that have enabled us to invest in creating those opportunities.

In addition, I co-lead the professional development team in my office and we are working to develop tools and resources for school teams to maximize school based PD time, in order to strengthen professional learning.

The most exciting part of this job is having the opportunity to work directly with awesome Boston Public Schools (BPS) teachers and school based administrators. I facilitate professional learning sessions with our teacher leaders and often visit schools to observe teacher leaders in action. I also oversee our National Board candidate support program. It is a real pleasure to observe teachers as they engage in this rigorous process and become more reflective practitioners as a result.

Additionally, I help to create opportunities for teachers to participate in discussions and provide feedback and input on district initiatives, through forums with district leaders and our newly established Professional Learning Advisory Board (PLAB), which is a joint collaboration between BPS and the Boston Teachers Union. I appreciate all of these opportunities to engage with, hear and learn from our teachers. It’s definitely been a humbling and eye-opening experience to serve in this way.

Why do you think teacher leadership is important?

I believe teacher leadership is a key lever for improving education. However, teacher leaders are often an untapped resource for change and improvement. There have been a wave of reforms and policy changes over the last several years, but many teachers have felt left out of the conversation and thus feel defensive about the reforms. Given their expertise, it is important we involve teachers as collaborative partners in any initiative-from development, implementation and evaluation. Teachers are the ones doing the work and play a major role in their students’ lives. So, it is critical we afford them opportunities to exercise their voice in decisions that affect their work and help shape the profession. It is equally as important to provide teachers with opportunities to take on leadership roles that serve to advance student learning and promote a culture of collaboration and success in our schools.

Teacher leadership can also be an effective retention strategy. One significant challenge that we often face in the profession is finding ways to offer teachers satisfying career paths that allow them to grow and take on new roles and responsibilities without leaving the classrooms they love. Giving teachers more opportunities to take on leadership roles will allow us to harness their talents and expertise and foster career growth in support of student and adult learning.

How can the education field become more intentional about supporting and developing talent? How would you like to see the field evolve in the next 5-10 years?

Great teaching matters! And so, it is important we support teachers from the time they enter the profession until retirement. Historically, much attention has been placed on recruitment, selection and induction. I believe the field will benefit from increased attention on developing and supporting our teachers to be effective as we strive to ensure every classroom has a great teacher. Some of this may require a shift in the way we think about professional learning and development. Teachers will benefit from customized support that meets their individual growth needs and enables them to become facilitators of their own learning rather than a “one-size-fits-all model.” We also have to offer professional learning experiences that are likely to best serve teachers’ needs at different stages in their career, and differentiated strategies to support and grow teacher practice. This will require utilizing information about teachers’ practices from a variety of sources, including direct conversations with teachers, to inform the content and structure of professional learning.

It is also essential for teachers to have time and space to collaborate around classroom instruction and reflect on their practice. And so I am interested in how we create and enhance the structures we have in place for teachers to work and learn collaboratively together in an effort to spread knowledge, discover and connect new ideas, inquire and take risks-essentially making learning a part of their everyday work.

In terms of supporting talent, it is important that we create meaningful career lattices and ladders that afford teachers the opportunity to use their talents in new ways. Teachers often say to me they want to grow as leaders and professionals, have their voices heard and be recognized for their contributions, so I’d like to see the profession transformed in ways that allow them to do just that.

Why/how did you come to work in education?

At the age of five, I loved to play “school” with my stuffed animals and dolls, so I suppose the seeds for my career were planted at an early age. As a young girl, I was inspired by several phenomenal teachers who opened my eyes to the infectious act of teaching and the impact of a transformative learning experience. I often dreamed about how I would mirror the immense passion, devotion and care they had for all of their students in my own classroom one day.

As a middle and high school student, I witnessed firsthand the inequities that exist within too many of our schools. This became even more compelling as I took on the role of student teacher in a variety of school settings. These experiences fueled my desire to teach students in urban settings and ensure that every student had access to an excellent education and opportunities in life.

I majored in Education/Child Study in college and became certified to teach before graduating. Upon graduation, I decided to enroll in graduate school to research achievement motivation of students of color. My passion for this work led me to Boston Public Schools where I spent 10 years working as a teacher, teacher leader, policy fellow and Principal resident. My experiences in the classroom and other arenas have led me to my current role in the district office where I am working with others in pursuit of the same goal I started with early on in my career: providing every student with an excellent education.

I truly believe this work is my calling and I am humbled and privileged to be able to make a difference in the lives of our students in this way.

Who are some of your heroes/mentors/people you respect whose examples shape your work?

Wow, there are so many from teachers, peers, students, and family members. But a few readily come to mind. First and foremost, are my mom and grandmother. They were my first teachers and I am always in awe of their enormous strength, determination and character in the face of adversity. From a very early age, they instilled the belief that “education is the key that will unlock the future you desire.” They saw education as the pathway to unlimited opportunity and helped me to build the knowledge, skills, and belief in myself to become the woman I am today.

Over the years, I’ve had several teachers who have inspired my lifelong passion for teaching and learning. But, the two that immediately come to mind are Ms. Sally Weil and Ms. Edith Mayner. They dared me to dream big, pushed me to work hard and certainly fueled my desire to become a teacher. Ms. Weil and Ms. Mayner were passionate about their work, fostered an appreciation and love of learning and helped me realize my infinite potential. I aspired to lead and teach by their example in my classroom each and every day.

I am also inspired by all of the teachers I work with. Teaching is complex, intellectually rigorous and rewarding work. Teachers change lives daily and I respect and admire the amazing work they do in their classrooms and schools each day. Their voices and experiences certainly keep me grounded and help shape the work I do.

One of my biggest inspirations are my students who continue to inspire me daily. Although I am not in the classroom, I remain in contact with many of my former students and interact with students when I visit schools. Each one of my students has taught me about both the “heart” and craft of teaching. I know for sure I would not be the educator I am today without them. I carry a picture of their smiling faces in my mind as both a source of inspiration and daily reminder of why I do this work.

What do you hope to be doing 5-10 years from now? What do you hope to have accomplished?

I hope to be working in public education, in an urban school district, continuing to make a difference in the lives of students and teachers. I enjoy this work and would like to continue supporting teacher development and growth in some form or fashion. No matter where I land, I aspire to a role where I can make a positive contribution to the field of education and where I am able to strengthen the teaching profession in ways that benefit students and also support teachers in doing what they love to do.

I hope that I can say that I have been a part of a community of leaders who have strengthened the teaching profession in our schools and district. I hope that we will have enhanced job-embedded professional learning opportunities to develop and support teachers. I also hope we have expanded leadership opportunities that enable teachers to advance in their career while substantially enhancing student learning. Hybrid roles would be awesome! Finally, I hope to say that we have reached a place where teacher leadership becomes a core commitment on which we organize all of our work.

What interests do you have outside of work?

Well, when I have free time, I love to spend it hanging out with my family and friends. I also love to travel and see the world. Even though I don’t get to do it as much as I like, I also love to cook. I have recently started Zumba and it has quickly become one of my favorite after work activities.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.