Teacher leadership rings true at Bell Elementary

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First-grade teacher Sara Harris explains a project using QR codes during a teachers' meeting at Bell Elementary School (Wayne County). Photo by Amy Wallot, May 20, 2015
First-grade teacher Sara Harris explains a project using QR codes during a teachers’ meeting at Bell Elementary School (Wayne County).
Photo by Amy Wallot, May 20, 2015

By Brenna R. Kelly
Brenna.kelly@education.ky.gov

Derrick Harris might be the principal but he’s not the only one making decisions at Bell Elementary. Every teacher at the Wayne County school has a say in the policies and decisions that affect the nearly 500 students.

“At some schools you are in your own little hole with just you and your kids,” said Brandy Shoemaker, a curriculum coach. “It’s not like that here at all.”

At a time when new more rigorous standards, a new professional growth and effectiveness system and an increased emphasis on college and career readiness have changed how many teachers do their jobs, many Kentucky teachers are taking on another new task, becoming teacher leaders.

Though the definition of teacher leader can vary, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan last year said it means teachers who have a voice in the things that affect their students, their work and their profession.

“It means sharing in decisions that used to be only made by administrators,” he said, “and the best administrators know they’ll make better decisions when they listen to teachers.”

Being a teacher leader can mean a hybrid role that blends administrator/teacher, or remaining in the classroom full time.

The Collaborative for Teaching and Learning is working with the Kentucky Department of Education and other statewide education groups to create a statewide teacher leadership framework.

The draft framework defines teacher leader as teachers who “transform their classrooms, schools and profession, activating teacher growth and achieving equity and excellence for students.”

Just as the definitions vary, the ways in which schools and districts empower teachers to become leaders vary. There’s no set of rules about how teacher leadership should be implemented at schools.

At Bell Elementary, Harris and his staff have figured out a way to share leadership that they say benefits teachers, administrators and students.

“It’s all about a change in culture and realizing that everybody has strengths and that we are just better together,” Shoemaker said. “To have teacher leadership everybody can’t go in their classroom and shut the door.”

Everyone has a role to play, Harris said. And if a teacher doesn’t know what his or her role is, Harris will figure it out.

“I tell everyone, there is going to be a task that you are going to lead or facilitate at this school,” he said.  “I will find your strength and use it.”

Principals sometimes try to micromanage or feel like they need to make decisions alone, he said.

“The advice I would give to principals is, really understand that everybody in your building has a talent, everybody has a gift,” he said, “It’s your job to utilize those and find out what gift they have that can impact your building in a positive direction.”

The teacher leadership structure at Bell started about three years ago when Monticello Independent merged into Wayne County Schools, reconfiguring the school  to house first and second grade.

One third of the staff was new and there were about 11 teachers per grade level. Harris decided that building Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) would create staff cohesiveness and allow the teachers to learn from each other.

“I realized that that would be my only ticket to getting all of my 11 teachers per grade level together at the same time and building capacity for how I wanted our culture to go,” he said.

The PLCS meet twice a week before school. Teachers also post highlights of the meetings on a private blogging website where teachers can leave comments and often end up continuing discussions from the meetings.

“The professional learning time went from 30 minutes prior to instruction two days a week, to teachers blogging in the evening. They are blogging on the weekend and they are sharing ideas,” Harris said.

In addition to the PLCSs, teachers also meet in groups called families. The teachers for each grade are divided into two groups that meet during common planning times. Each group has a representative who meets with Harris every other week.

That system laid the foundation for teacher leadership to take hold and “I just kind of kept rolling with it,” he said.

Next he used the committees of the Site-Based Decision Making Council as the decision makers for school. The school has five committees: Learning Environment, Curriculum and Instruction, Budget and Efficiency, Assessment and Data Analysis and Program Reviews.

One teacher per grade level, a special education teacher and a special area teacher are on each committee.

Teachers who serve on the committees share the information with their PLCs both in person and through the website.

“I’ve worked at schools where if you wanted something you go to the principal to ask,” Shoemaker said, “but here you go the committees, the committees make decisions.”

The committees report to the Site-Based Decision Making Council and are able to share the discussion that’s taken place prior to the item coming to council, Harris said.

“Do I have to give up some control? Absolutely,” he said. “But it’s probably done better or more efficiently than I would have done it.”

Harris admits that all the meeting and keeping up with what’s going on in the different groups could seem overwhelming for teachers.

“They are doing more now than they have ever done,” he said. “And it’s absolutely what’s best for the building and for students. But at the end of the day, it is more that they’ve got to do.”

Second-grade teacher Sarah Bertram who will serve as a grade representative for the next school year said teachers appreciate knowing everything that is going on with the school and what is coming down the line – but it is more work.

“I could see for a first year teacher it being overwhelming,” Bertram said. “Yeah, it is a lot, but we’ve done it for a few years so we are used to it.”

Another benefit is that there’s no need for full staff meetings because everyone already knows what’s happening, said Hannah Parmley, also a second grade teacher.

But the system can only work with a leader who is comfortable with giving up some control, she said.

“I really feel it’s Mr. Harris’ personality that makes the shared leadership work,” Parmley said. “It’s more of a team rather than just one person doing all the work or one person making all the decisions. I came from a culture that was completely opposite.”

That culture of teamwork is evident in the teachers’ responses in this year’s Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning (TELL) Kentucky Survey.

Among the results:

  • 100 percent of teachers agreed they have enough time to collaborate with their colleagues
  • 97 percent agreed that “we take steps to solve problems”
  • 100 percent agreed that teachers are effective leaders in the school
  • 97 percent agreed that the faculty and leadership have a shared vision

With so many people involved, Shoemaker said, not everyone is going to be happy with all the decisions, but everyone continues to work as a team. And they feel empowered because Harris has put his trust in teachers’ ability to make the decisions, she said.

“At the end of the day we are going to come to the best decision with all minds working together,” Shoemaker said. “It’s pretty awesome, but it’s tough. It does put more pressure on our teachers – but we are happy to have it.”

MORE INFO…

Derrick Harris Derrick.Harris@wayne.kyschools.us

Brandy Shoemaker Brandy.Shoemaker@wayne.kyschools.us

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