Teacher Leadership: The good, the bad, the ugly, and the surprising!



This year I worked with two dynamic groups of educators working to affect change within education: The ASCD/National Board Teacher Impact Grants and the Network to Transform Teaching. I taught full-time as a second grade teacher, facilitated grant processes, acted as a Candidate Support Provider to NBCT candidates and attended national gatherings of inspirational educators. As I reflect on this journey, I categorize what I learned about Teacher Leadership into The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Surprising.


The good:

Stepping onto a larger national stage affirmed one of my most deeply held beliefs: amazing teachers are working to improve schools—all across our nation.  I can now match this belief with the names, faces, and stories of people I met.  Feeling connected to these people empowered me to continue to work with my colleagues to make our school better for our students. Their ideas provided energy for our work in New Mexico.


Our grant project involved using videos to reflect on our instruction.  With a strong team of leaders, we tackled the feelings of reluctance teachers have when challenged to share our practice.  Along the way, we learned some lessons, laughed, and pushed each other to grow and learn.  I will forever appreciate the strength and courage of my team who enthusiastically supported the project.


I learned new skills and felt the thrill of walking on the edge of failure all year. (To be truly honest, there were a few topples off the edge…but isn’t that learning?)


The bad/the ugly:

My 11-year-old daughter told me, “I think your hobby is having meetings because you are always in a meeting.”  Mom, wife, teacher, grant facilitator, CSP, friend…There were times I wasn’t sure I could do it all (and I couldn’t…not really… not the way I wanted to).   There were times I was sure I had done it wrong (and I had). My life listed out of balance as I tried to juggle the many roles, tasks, and emotional challenges I had committed to for the school year of 2016-2017.


What I learned: Don’t be afraid to ask for help.  When I asked for help, my colleagues, friends and family members stepped up and helped out.  I didn’t need to do it all by myself.


One persistent problem remained throughout the year.  How do I teach my class of 17, 2nd graders and attend these invigorating national conferences?  How do I continue to teach and complete the required grant paperwork?  The role of teacher leader is both fulfilling, exciting, and overwhelming. Districts and school leaders need to explore ways to keep teacher leaders teaching successfully while also expanding their roles.  Without some type of hybrid role, the romantic notion of leading from the classroom can crumble into a bit of chaos.



And The surprising:

TWITTER!  When I learned I had to tweet and write blogs as a part of my quarterly deliverables for the ASCD TIG grant, I almost sent the money back.  I had no desire to learn about twitter, but I am so glad I did.  Working in a rural community in New Mexico, twitter opened up a whole realm of national discussions about education that had been going on- without me! If you’re looking to expand your horizons, try twitter.  The most influential changes in my teaching this year came from twitter: Flipgrid and EdCamps.  Both brought a refreshing breath of fun to my instruction.


Also, surprising… I survived, and you can too!


Investing in Teacher Leadership


I am not a teacher of color. And I care deeply about why young teachers of color are leaving education at higher rates than other teachers. I am concerned that our teaching workforce is growing progressively less diverse while our student population is growing more diverse.


Why do I care? I teach in a rural, Title One school serving a majority of students of color whose families are deeply affected by poverty. My students — and students across America — deserve to have successful role models from their community as teachers.


Attrition of good teachers — particularly teachers of color in schools that serve communities affected by poverty with a majority of students of color — is an essential issue in education reform. So we ask: Why are teachers leaving? And what can be done about it?


Research on teacher retention indicates that teachers of color who leave teaching say the decision is a result of working conditions that stifle decision-making power of the faculty and do not support teacher autonomy. Clearly, the schools where teachers of color work need to change in order to retain teachers.


Empowering teachers at the frontlines can make all the difference.


Ray Salazar, NBCT, a high school English teacher in Chicago Public Schools and blogger speaks to this need. “Good teachers want to find their own solutions to the problems that affect the students in front of them,” he said. “ Instead of simply accepting what someone in an office far away from the everyday struggles of our classrooms said.”


For decades, we have invested in teaching recruitment, and it has been largely successful. But if we continue to lose our young teachers—especially our teachers of color —-because we haven’t invested in changing schools, the investment in teacher recruitment is wasted. If we are serious about setting up for success young teachers of color and their students, then we need to expand programs that empower teachers to improve their schools.


Investing in teachers’ ideas for improving their schools is exactly the idea behind Teacher Impact Grants.


These funds send a clear message that the U.S Department of Education, ASCD and National Board, as well as the Leona M and Harry B Helmsley Charitable Trust and the Carnegie Corporation believe in the capacity of teachers to change their schools from within and recognize the decision-making power of faculty members. The funds provide an avenue for teachers to become agents of change in their own schools.


Using Teacher Impact Grant funds to institute school change, my colleagues at Ranchos Elementary and I shifted our model of professional development. Instead of bringing in expensive outside consultants, we called on the expertise right in our building. We analyzed video of our own instruction, critiqued and supported each other’s classroom efforts. And we explored systems or protocols within our school that we could adjust to improve learning outcomes and teacher morale.

The change in professional development had an impact.

One colleague shared, “This is the one bright point in my year. This is what is keeping me in teaching.” Teachers reported feeling more supported by their peers and learning from one another.


A small change at the very bottom of the system can make the difference that keeps our teachers of color in the classroom. A grant from outside of the system can also contribute to positive change. For an investment to be truly effect, a combination is needed to truly address the critical concern and stem the loss of teachers of color from our classrooms.






Minority teacher recruitment, employment, and retention: 1987-2013

Richard M. Ingersoll, Henry May













Get off your island and build some bridges


Collaboration: Building Bridges of Understanding



“You can always go to your room and shut your door.”


The idea that my classroom is my domain, cut off from the rest of the school, has appeal. When I feel my power to change the school environment is limited, focusing on a place where I can make a difference feels right. Early in my career, a fellow teacher and I talked lovingly about “our islands.” Our islands provided a shelter from swirling messages, directives, and school politics. On my island, I could teach my students my way. I felt in control and safe.


But islands are self-contained and isolated. While I helped my students learn how to succeed in my classroom, did I prepare them for the next classroom? Or did I leave my elementary school students with the task of building a bridge of understanding from my island classroom to another where the culture, expectations, and methods could be like visiting another country?


When we collaborate with our peers in different grade levels and departments to develop a common understanding of student learning, we build the bridges between our classrooms, helping our students become successful. As we work together to build these bridges, we learn about tools we could use in our classrooms. Why not ask each other for help? There are tough problems we need to solve. Working together, we realize that we are not alone in our challenges. The work we are doing becomes possible only when we open the doors to our classrooms.


Last year, a small group of teachers in my school and I chose to use video to “open the doors” of our classrooms. We found that our viewpoints and ideas differed, but our desire to improve united us. We loved using our insights to improve learning for our students rather than relying upon some outside “expert.”


Energized, a group of us wrote and received a Teacher Impact Grant from ASCD and National Board. This grant seeks to increase teacher leadership in our school by creating opportunities for teacher leaders to facilitate the process of video analysis with a new group of colleagues. Cross-departmental teams work together to capitalize upon our knowledge of our students and our community. Certainly, it is intimidating to share some of our videos with colleagues, but there is a freedom as well. This freedom was best expressed by one of my colleagues, “We don’t have to be perfect. We can all help each other.” When we open ourselves up and take risks, we can improve.


As I reflect upon the process of starting this grant, I am most impressed with my colleagues. They have refined and improved the original proposal. Rather than rushing straight into sharing video, my colleagues suggested we take a little time to learn more about the content and set group norms. In that way, we have more solid foundation to build upon. What a great idea! Why didn’t I think of that? Teacher leaders have also gone out into the community to locate resources, found articles pertaining to their areas of study, and generated enthusiasm for the grant. Truly without their insights and commitment, the project would grind to a halt.


I am grateful I ventured off my island, rolled up my sleeves, and began to talk with my colleagues about how to build bridges. The learning I experienced and the connections I built enriched my life and my teaching. This growth never would have been possible had I remained in my classroom with the door closed doing things my way. I encourage you to venture out and take some risks. Your students will thank you.