On a sweltering morning in late July, dozens of stalwart District of Columbia teachers were gathered around tables in an air-conditioning-challenged elementary school gymnasium, laptops and water bottles spread before them.
“I want you to close your eyes … and imagine you are a teacher and one of your colleagues is going to be your coach,” said presenter Matt Radigan, a leadership coach with the New Orleans-based nonprofit Leading Educators. “What would you want in an initial conversation?”
It was an apt reflection. The educators in the room were all newly minted teacher leaders, charged with providing hands-on mentoring to their peers and helping their schools reach their learning objectives in the year ahead. Over the course of this weeklong training at HD Cooke Elementary School, they would dissect some of the finer points of instructional coaching, learning how to craft conversations with skeptical colleagues, gather evidence from classroom observations, and provide nuanced feedback.
The summer coaching intensive is a key component of the District of Columbia’s Teacher Leadership Innovation program, or TLI, a 2-year-old initiative designed to provide structural support for teacher-leader roles in schools. At the heart of the undertaking is the idea that, given time and resources, expert teachers can play an instrumental role in driving overall school improvement at a time of mounting instructional challenges, including integration of the Common Core State Standards.
“First and foremost, it’s about expanding the reach of great teachers and ensuring we get more feedback to more teachers,” said Katie Michaels Burke, the district’s director of teacher leadership. “It’s a way of pushing great practice.”
The program in the District of Columbia is one of a small but growing number of initiatives around the country aimed at giving more concrete and practical form to “teacher leadership,” a term that has often remained vague in U.S. schools despite its rising cachet.
Formal efforts to give some teachers advanced roles outside the classroom are not new, extending back at least to the 1980s. But experts say that, though they are not without inherent risks, such programs have gained standing in recent years as school leaders and policymakers have sought both to provide principals with greater bandwidth to make instructional changes and give accomplished teachers more opportunities for career development. They’ve also been given a distinct boost by the Teacher Incentive Fund, or TIF, a federal grant program established in 2006 to provide financing for districts to establish performance-based-pay programs for teachers.
More Than a Title
The District of Columbia’s initiative is backed in large part by a five-year TIF grant and operated in partnership with Leading Educators, which specializes in creating leadership-development models for teachers. The organization supports similar programs in Kansas City, Mo.; Memphis, Tenn.; New Orleans; and New York.
The program in the nation’s capital is voluntary for schools. A total of 29 of the district’s 111 schools—with 105 teacher leaders—are participating, up from 21 schools last year.
One explicit goal of the TLI is to make “teacher leader” more than an adulatory moniker. Teachers chosen for the position are given an annual stipend of $2,500—not a life-changing amount, district officials concede, but on par with raises given for other promotions in the system. Perhaps no less important, the teachers have significant stretches of release time—as much as half their total hours—built into their schedules to observe and work with their colleagues.
There is also the training aspect. The coaching intensive was the second of two weeklong sessions held for new teacher leaders this past summer. In the first, the teachers worked with facilitators and their schools’ leadership teams to frame out how the new arrangement would work in the year ahead, developing school and individual action plans, detailing teacher-practice and student-learning goals, and aligning schedules. (Picture classroom walls strewn with dense networks of sticky notes and marked-up easel-pad pages.)
During the school year, the teacher leaders meet weekly with coaches from Leading Educators to review their progress, analyze data, and hone their techniques. They also attend quarterly group-training sessions organized by the district on coaching and leadership.
While some prominent national teacher-leadership efforts are predicated on giving accomplished teachers a greater voice in education policymaking, the District of Columbia’s TLI program focuses on harnessing their instructional know-how.
In particular, the program seeks to leverage teacher-leaders’ experience to create a model for more customized, school-specific professional-development opportunities in schools.
Since the teacher leaders are working alongside their mentees, the “PD [is] much more targeted to schools’ needs, and much more honed to the teacher-practice needs,” said Burke, the district’s teacher-leadership director. “This isn’t some person from central office coming in and saying, ‘This is what we’re doing now.’ ”
The educators involved in the program tend to subscribe to this notion instinctively.
Rhonda Ferguson, a new teacher leader in early childhood at Turner Elementary, a high-poverty school on the city’s southeast side, believes that the teachers she’s supervising will have an advantage she didn’t have in her first years in the classroom.
“They’ll have someone who understands the work we do and what they’re going through,” she said. “I’ll be helping them figure out how to make these things work—able to spell out priorities while also being able to step back if needed and look at the individual needs of the teachers.”
For school administrators, meanwhile, the prospect of expanded instructional-leadership capacity within a school can be difficult to pass up. Ferguson’s principal, Eric Bethel, says that the primary reason he chose to adopt the program this year is that “the work of turning around a school is too much for just a principal and a leadership team and [one] coach.”
Bethel is in his second year at Turner Elementary, tasked with making significant achievement gains in a school that is among the city’s lowest performing. He said that, by freeing up three of his top teachers to guide their colleagues, the TLI program “essentially builds capacity to do more, faster,” including deepening use of the common standards.
“Last year, we kind of attacked deficits at a smaller scale,” Bethel said. “With TLI, we can extend the work. We can concentrate on using data [more effectively] to target areas of need and develop strategies to grow.”
So far, at least as judged by educators’ perceptions, the program appears to be meeting expectations.
The district has not yet parsed the student-outcome data in connection with the TLI, but according to an internal survey conducted last winter, 90 percent of teachers who were supported by teacher leaders said the program has had a positive impact on their practice, while 95 percent of teacher leaders said their new role has allowed them to expand their influence and reach more students. Fully 100 percent of the principals who responded said the program has improved collaboration and instruction in their schools.
But experts caution that, despite their common-sense appeal, high-quality teacher-leadership or -advancement programs can be difficult to sustain. Historically, they have even been “a little bit fraught,” said Julia E. Koppich, a San Francisco-based education consultant who has provided technical assistance to recipients of TIF grants.
Koppich said that one common problem with career-ladder programs for teachers is that they often rest on the assumption that “just because you’re a good teacher ... means you’re going to be a good mentor.”
“But some great teachers don’t necessarily know how to work well [in advising] adults,” she said. “Not everyone’s a good mentor—which maybe can’t be learned in a week.”
Another potential risk is that, particularly in high-pressure situations, school leaders can come to rely on teachers with outside-the-classroom roles to take on administrative responsibilities for which they have not been trained or paid.
“Exploitation has happened in a number of cases,” said Koppich. “There’s been some abuse of programs by principals, though not usually intentionally. They just saw another person who could help with the tasks that needed to be done.”
But the coordinators of the District of Columbia’s initiative believe that, particularly after making some early recalibrations, they have been deliberate enough in their planning to counter such complications.
Burke pointed to the program’s explicitly team-oriented developmental approach, saying that the ongoing training is designed to deepen both teachers and principals’ understanding of their roles and their school and individual action plans. She also noted that the district conducts quarterly reviews of each participating school to make sure the program is on track and to make adjustments as needed.
“We know this is incredibly hard work,” she said.
Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2015 edition of Education Week as To Tailor PD, D.C. Looks To Groom Teacher Leaders