By Thomas R. Feller, Jr., Ashley Smith and Lauren Bowers
John Hattie wrote “the greatest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers” (emphasis ours) (Hattie, 2012). Based on our combined 50+ years experience in multiple districts and states, as well as conversations with colleagues across the nation, many teachers have felt like they had little-to-no say in their own learning, even sitting through “personal goal setting conferences” where they’ve been told, “This is your goal for the year because ________.” A recurring theme in teachers we have talked with is that some have even chosen to not learn because they felt they had lost their voice in their own development; staff development was practically 100% prescribed by others. Even principals have shared in this frustration. One principal told us she felt like all she was doing was “yelling at my teachers because if I don’t get my scores up somebody is going to come in and make decisions for us.” In a beautiful moment of transparency she then added, “I hate coming home feeling this way, but I feel like I don’t have any other choice.”
But she did have a choice because it doesn’t have to be that way. Over the last several years Pitt County Schools has intentionally worked to be different than these stereotypes. One focus we have implemented is developing teacher leaders who can lead and facilitate teacher-lead professional learning for themselves and other. We do not view teachers as problems to fix but rather as the solutions to the problems we face, with the job of school and district leaders being to support them in that effort. Whole-school and district improvement happens as a result of principals and teacher leaders working together to bring about change, and teacher-directed professional learning leading to increased student achievement is one effective strategy because it empowers teachers to make decisions about their own and their students’ learning. Our current experience suggests that when district and school leaders empower and trust teachers to lead inside and outside the classroom, everyone wins. In this article we share two examples of how district and school leaders are supporting teachers who are transforming the way professional learning is happening. Through an intense focus on and commitment to developing teachers’ identities and capacities as teacher leaders, Pitt County Schools is changing the very way teachers engage in professional learning and expand their influence.
TLI & CoPs
Beginning in 2013, Pitt County Schools set out to intentionally develop teacher leaders across the district. Two initiatives in particular, the Teacher Leadership Institute (TLI) and the Communities of Practice (CoP) model, have specific components where teachers have a great degree of responsibility for their own learning.
The TLI is a two-year training program focused on developing participating teachers’ skills and identities as leaders. While the first year of training is a predetermined curriculum, in the second-year teachers complete a capstone project using the skills and capabilities learned in year one. The purpose of the project is to allow teachers to (1) lead other adults in addressing an identified problem, (2) empower them to support the adults they are leading, and (3) allow them to step outside their comfort zone while remaining in their safety zone because of the support of district staff. Their project foci are aligned to both the Teacher Leadership Competency rubric (Center for Teaching Quality, National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, & National Education Association, 2014) and school/district-level data related to their professional goals.
CoPs in our district are comprised of a single Facilitating Teacher (FTs) and multiple Collaborating Teachers (CTs). The FT leads the group in a collaborative inquiry cycle designed to address an identified problem impacting student learning. This cycle involves the (1) identification of a problem of practice, (2) development of a theory of causation, and (3) implementation of a theory of action.
Step two, the development of the theory of causation, is a critical component which has traditionally been overlooked in most professional learning. While individuals often see connections between contributing factors and results in simple problems, they often fail to transfer that to the school setting. For example, if someone continually struggles to pay their bills every month they may step back and examine their income and expenses. Perhaps they ate out too many times, or maybe there was a car or home repair requiring extra money to cover, both resulting in insufficient income to cover end of month expenses. When this happens, the wise person identifies what contributed to the gap and then plans accordingly to change results in the future. This is an example of identifying a contributing factor and implementing a change to influence future results. But while many people do this in their personal lives, too often they forget the same theory applies in organizational life. Our teachers are learning that when they aren’t getting the results they want, they can consider different contributing factors.
Given this basic description of the two programs, we offer some specific examples of these programs in practice, starting with TLI projects and then some specific CoP inquiries.
Example #1: TLI Leadership Projects
One year, a third grade TLI participant focused on students’ mental dispositions in an effort to support their learning in the classroom and their achievement on State and District assessments. She and her teammates collaborated to implement common lessons focused on the development of self-directedness in students through the Habits of Mind framework (Costa & Kallick, 2000). As a result of her collaborative leadership, each third grader at the school now has a common language and tools to be successful. Words like persistence, accuracy, and impulsivity were merely big words to students at the beginning of the year, but now they use them frequently to support their learning. This TLI participant used her knowledge and skills to empower both herself and her colleagues to be the solution to their problem.
Another TLI participant believed collaboration with peers to be powerful, but, as the only Physical Education (PE) teacher in his elementary school, he had limited access to it. Realizing many PE teachers were in the same predicament, he started district-wide seminars open to all PE teachers. These teachers would share best practices, and, over time, he was able to transition from him leading the meetings to others sharing games, strategies, and tools they found useful. This one PE teacher saw the need for collaboration and, rather than accept the status quo, became the solution for a problem faced by multiple teachers across the district.
Example #2: The Community of Practice
In one K-5 school, two CoPs researched new strategies to address some of the issues in student achievement the school was facing. Through the collaborative inquiry cycle they identified data related to the causal category of Assessment. Upon further investigation and implementation of strategies, they learned that one factor impacting the learning of their students was the way in which the benchmarks were delivered, and when they changed the delivery method the students actually performed better. They took this data to their principal, who was able to see the connection between the causal factor, the interventions, and student achievement. This group, empowered to research and investigate a problem of practice, was able to lead up the chain of command at the school, advocating for themselves and their students. Rather than being part of the problem (or even being the problem itself, as some politicians might argue), these teachers became a solution to the problem.
In another school, identified just six years ago as one of the lowest performing in the state, a group of teachers working together in a CoP examined how second grade students were comprehending texts. As they went through the cycle of inquiry, they identified that, in general, dual immersion students were comprehending text at a significantly higher level than their peers in the traditional second grade class. This data led them to investigate whether implementing some of the same instructional strategies in the traditional class might influence the achievement of the students in that class. Ultimately, those changes resulted in improved learning for all students at the school – those in both dual immersion and traditional classrooms. The Facilitating Teacher in this group stated, “It felt good to be able to use data this way.”
Teachers in both schools found using data as a third point placed them and administrators on the same side of the issue, creating a bridge for conversation. These teachers were empowered to advocate respectfully to their administrators. Again, these teachers became part of the solution they were seeking rather than being the problem others were trying to “fix.”
Challenges and Opportunities
The successes we have identified have not come without their fair share of challenges. Specifically, CoPs need time to engage in the cycle of inquiry. As the district leadership team worked with principals to design structures to support CoPs and identify candidates to fill the Facilitating Teacher and Collaborating Teacher positions, one question regularly asked of principals and school leadership teams was, “What are some of the things you are going to take off the plates of these teacher leaders to enable them to have time to meet?” The answers to that question were as varied as the people who provided them, but the common theme identified was the same: time needed to be given, and the only way to give time was to take some responsibilities away from the people serving on CoPs.
A second challenge was the cultural need for a “quick fix.” A common theme in education seems to be, “I’m not sure I have time to ________.” One of the things we’ve learned over the last several years is when we attempt to change a system so teachers have opportunities to lead their own learning, we are changing people’s deeply-seated beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes about what professional learning should look like. When we started this work several years ago, we adopted the adage of “go slow to go fast.” While there was clearly a sense of urgency for results, we provided time and space to explore and inquire. By examining causal factors our teachers started addressing some of the root factors rather than just the symptoms of the problems we face; once they did, they began to make progress.
A third challenge was realizing teachers were shifting their own professional identity, especially in terms of what it meant to be “a leader.” Many of our teachers actually balked at the idea they were a leader. During one training on how to work with and equip the people they were leading, some TLI participants responded, “But we aren’t leaders – we don’t want to be leaders.” When asked why, the participants reported it was because “leaders are those people who just tell others what to do.” As we inquired into these statements, we discovered they were based on experiences rooted in life experiences with over-bearing parents, micromanaging bosses, and even what they witnessed or experienced with political leaders. We realized that they did not want to be the type of leader who tells others what to do, but rather the type of leader who collaborates with and empowers others to work together. As they progressed through the TLI program they started to realize being a leader can happen from within a group; leadership really doesn’t come from giving orders to followers but rather from empowering colleagues to work together toward a common goal. The teachers had to broaden their definition of “leader” before they could identify themselves as one, and an important aspect for district leaders was to model being that collaborative, supportive, empowering leader so the teachers could see it in action.
Impacts and Results
Data from both internal and external sources shows that as a result of implementing initiatives where teachers are able to lead their own learning, our teachers are growing into real leaders for their respective schools and the district at large. Specifically, data collected by the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation at NC State University indicates ⅔ of teachers surveyed reported the work they have engaged in has positively impacted their classroom instruction. Even more, according to reports provided to the district by Measurement, Inc., one facilitating teacher stated, “I now feel part of something bigger than just teaching in a classroom,” while another teacher reported she now had a voice in the building, stating that teachers would be able to “be the ones to answer questions and analyze, and strategize, rather than being given” something from outside, which “really motivated me.”
Teachers feel leading their own learning has transformed them, increasing both their sense of efficacy and craftsmanship as professionals. They are not the same as they were prior to these experiences, they are different people with transformed perspectives on the potential for what it means to impact students and adults. Graduates of the TLI program reported they had a new vision for what it meant to be a collaborative leader. And one CoP reported that through their collaborative inquiry they no longer felt like data was “being done to” them but that they were able to “facilitate our own journey, to map our own path, and influence students more effectively.” In each of these instances, teachers became their own solution.
We opened this article by quoting John Hattie, and so as we come to a close we return again to his work. Hattie argued teachers need to become effective evaluators of their own practice, that a teacher’s mind set is critical to being an effective teacher (Hattie, 2012). Of primary importance is teachers having a mindset in which they see it as their role to evaluate their effect on learning, which involves making calculated interventions and providing students with multiple opportunities and alternatives to learn. These are all strategies our teacher leaders have learned to do and are now doing. As teachers learn, so do their students.
In short, teachers are the solution to our problems in student learning, they are not the problems themselves. Empowering and trusting teachers to lead their own learning, including leading others and focusing on implementing reflective practice around the influence of their actions on student learning, may be one of the best chances we have of increasing student learning for all children. And that starts when district and school leaders having a willingness to trust, support, and develop teacher leaders who can facilitate and lead professional learning.
Center for Teaching Quality, National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, & National Education Association. (2014). Teacher Leader Competencies. Retrieved from http://www.teachingquality.org/sites/default/files/Teacher%2520Leadership%2520Competencies%2520-%2520FINAL.pdf
Costa, A., & Kallick, B. (2000). Discovering and exploring habits of mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York, NY: Routledge.
Wellman, B., & Lipton, L. (2017). Data driven dialogue. (2nd Edition). Sherman, CT: MiraVia.
Thomas R. Feller, Jr. is currently the Director of Professional Learning and Leadership Development with Pitt County Schools in Greenville, North Carolina, and a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He has served as an elementary, middle school and high school teacher, middle school administrator, and district administrator. He is a certified trainer for Adaptive Schools, Cognitive CoachingSM, Habits of Mind, Crucial Conversations, Situational Leadership: Building Leaders, Leading with DiSC, and Situational Coaching, and a certified coach for the Center for Creative Leadership’s ASW-360 Surveys. Mr. Feller is the co-director and co-author of Pitt County’s federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant focusing on the development and implementation of advanced teaching roles and career pathways for teachers in the district.
Ashley Smith is currently a Career Pathway Specialist with Pitt County Schools in Greenville, North Carolina. Prior to her current position she served as a classroom teacher, instructional coach, and adjunct faculty with East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. In addition to her current position, Ashley is currently a certified trainer for Situational Leadership: Building Leaders, Leading Teams: A Situational Approach, and Leveraging Your Power to Influence, and a certified coach for the Center for Creative Leadership’s ASW-360 Surveys.
Lauren Bowers is currently the Teacher Leadership Coordinator with Pitt County Schools in Greenville, North Carolina. Having grown up in a family full of educators, Lauren Bowers always knew that her future career would be in education. Ms. Bowers has served as a middle school teacher and elementary school administrator and is a certified trainer for Adaptive Schools, Crucial Conversations, Situational Leadership: Building Leaders, Leading with DiSC, and Leading Teams: A Situational Approach, and a certified coach for the Center for Creative Leadership’s ASW-360 Surveys.