Opinion
Professional Development CTQ Collaboratory

My First Year at a Teacher-Led School

By Kathleen Melville — August 18, 2015 4 min read
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I thought my first year at a “teacher-powered” school would be the perfect dream. After 10 years of teaching in fairly traditional settings, I was butting heads with my principal, chafing against school policies that didn’t seem right for my students or me, and itching for a new challenge. After several years of advocating for teacher leadership, I imagined myself gliding right into place at a school collectively led by teachers.

My first year has definitely been transforming, but it has also been a little unsettling. I’ve learned that a school powered by teachers is radically different from most schools. My school, the Workshop School in Philadelphia, was founded by teachers, and their vision for teaching and learning emphasizes relationships instead of content, projects instead of classes, and real-world problems instead of standard curriculum. Putting teachers in control doesn’t just change staff meetings: It changes everything.

I had a lot to learn, and I remember my first year as a messy process of trying to adapt, trying to help my 9th graders adapt, and making lots and lots of mistakes. But looking back, I realize that, in addition to all that I had to learn, I also had a lot to unlearn. During the year, I began to recognize the ways that the historical constraints of the profession have shaped my practice and my identity as a teacher. I realized that I had internalized ancient assumptions about teaching as work that is solitary (one adult per classroom) and hierarchical (with a principal in charge). These are deeply rooted ideas, and I was surprised to find how uncomfortable it made me to let them go.

Unlearning PD

I started my first year at the Workshop School with two weeks of UD—Unprofessional Development. My experience of traditional school-based “professional development” was that it had very little to offer; the only way to salvage the time was to tune out the noise and try to get some work done on the sly. Far from being “unprofessional,” I found that the alternative type of training offered by my new school demanded all of my professional energy. Instead of listening to lectures by outside consultants, we envision how we want our school to look, sound, and feel like in the coming year. Instead of analyzing data that bears little relevance to our students’ lives and hopes, we put ourselves in our students’ shoes, going through many of the activities and tackling many of the same challenges we will ask our students to try in September. Instead of watching videos about classroom management, we work to build honest, supportive relationships that will sustain us throughout the year.

The “un” in “unprofessional development” serves the same purpose as it does in the word “unconference.” It signifies a break from convention and a deep trust in the collective genius of the people in the room. It is a reminder that our time together will be different from the top-down, sit-and-get, once-and-done workshops that I had come to associate with professional development. For me, this “un” has come to signify all the things that I have had to unlearn about my profession in order to work well at a teacher-powered school.

Unlearning Isolation

During my first few months at the Workshop School, several of my colleagues came by to check in with me.

“How’s everything going?” they would ask. My immediate response was to beam my biggest smile and say “Great!” After all, they had invited me to join their staff, and I didn’t want them to think that I was doing anything less than an excellent job. During my 10 years of teaching, I had come to accept that my students were my responsibility (and mine alone) and that I couldn’t rely on anyone but myself. I learned to keep my door closed and do my best on my own.

But at the Workshop School, the work we do together to shape the school and its future make us all invested—in our students’ success and in our colleagues’ success. As teachers, we know that the classroom can be a lonely place, and at our teacher-led school, we take care to combat that isolation through community-building. This happens during UD but also in the way we have designed our schedule. We make time for co-planning and co-teaching as well as weekly whole staff meeting time. Slowly, I began to unlearn the norm of isolation and started to rely on my colleagues. My conversations with them not only help me work through the most immediate challenges (like how to engage a particular student or how to survive an exhausting day) but also the long-term, systemic changes we need to make for the school as a whole (like changes to the curriculum or schedule). These conversations fuel my work with students as well as my growth as a teacher.

Unlearning Hierarchy

Because I was in my first year at a new school, I often sought out the principal (who’s also a teacher) to answer my questions about the students, the school, and my role as a teacher. I assumed he would have all the answers. Instead, what he offered were reflections on his own experience as a teacher of our kids, guiding questions about our work and my goals as a teacher, and suggestions for other resources. Sometimes this was frustrating. I was accustomed to a principal who had clear answers, even if I didn’t agree with them. But after a while, I came to appreciate the way my principal trusts and values my instincts as a teacher.

Sometimes I still crave a quick, clear-cut answer. But I’m learning that at a teacher-led school, I co-create the answers. I’m becoming more comfortable with the process of seeking answers together. My first year at a teacher-powered school was far from a smooth transition. But heading into the second, I’m confident that I am exactly where I want to be.

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Kathleen Melville is a National Board-certified teacher and a founder of Teachers Lead Philly. She teaches at the Workshop School, a small public high school in West Philadelphia. She is a member of the CTQ Collaboratory.

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