By Sarah Yost, NBCT
For two years, I’ve served my school in the hybrid role of teacher and lead teacher for English/language arts. I teach two hours of reading intervention every day and spend the rest of my time working on various leadership initiatives for the school. When my principal gave me the opportunity to serve as the ELA Master Teacher to improve our school’s ELA performance, she did make specific requests throughout the year, but she did not specify everything she wanted me to do each day. Instead, she allowed me to delineate the school’s literacy needs and how best to use my time to meet those needs.
Thus my self-determined responsibilities (in addition to anything my principal requests) include whole-school Response to Intervention (RtI) progress monitoring; organization and allocation of all school resources for reading and writing; development and implementation of literacy initiatives; creation and facilitation of professional development; compliance with school, district and state requirements; teacher support and feedback; and two-way communication between administrators and teachers to refine school systems and improve school culture.
It has been an extremely challenging role. One challenge has been to earn the trust and respect of my colleagues as a teacher leader. Some teachers had had negative experiences with instructional leaders, experiences that had given them the impression that leaders did not respect teachers because they remained in the classroom. Others described instructional leaders who, the teachers felt, did not have strong work ethics, or were perceived as arrogant or pedantic. I knew I could not successfully lead a department without the full respect and trust of my colleagues, and I made this my first priority.
Remaining a peer in the classroom has been a critical component to earning that respect, as the other teachers in the department knew I faced the same daily challenges as they did. I was intentional about identifying myself as a teacher leader, rather than Master Teacher or Instructional Coach, and I made symbolic gestures of that identity regularly, such as sitting among teachers at faculty meetings rather than with school leadership.
Beyond my identity as a teacher and an equal peer, I sought to earn teachers’ respect through hard work, and I made sure my work was visible. As an instructional leader, my work, such as preparing reports or data for my principal, was often not seen by other teachers. Particularly in my first year, I was careful to do a lot of public work for the teachers to make their jobs easier.
This work included bringing loads of literature books, dictionaries and other resources to the teachers’ rooms, creating lists of novels and resources and making them available to teachers, creating data sets that made their work in Professional Learning Communities easier and more efficient, finding articles that related to content, designing WebQuests for students upon teachers’ requests, and even grading, making copies or running errands for teachers to save them time. I was careful to be cheerful and positive when teachers requested something, no matter how stressed or busy I was.
I know how time-poor classroom teachers are, and I always try to bear in mind that no matter how much I had to do, the full-time teachers have more essays to grade, more students to move, more kids to manage, more parents to keep informed. Keeping this in mind, I have used my teacher leadership position to support teachers and help them be more efficient.
In addition to working to support the teachers and make their work easier, I also have sought to earn their respect through my content knowledge. I’ve pushed myself to read professional articles and stay abreast of the latest research, state and national policy, and best practices in English language arts and adolescent education. Even though I’ve worked hard to stay current on issues related to education, I’ve never assumed that I knew more than my colleagues. This has not been difficult in my situation, because the ELA teachers I work with are an impressive, knowledgeable and extremely talented group of educators. For every department meeting, I’ve invited teachers to present creative and effective strategies I’d seen them use in their classrooms. This built a positive climate of mutual respect in our department, wherein all teachers felt valued and respected as professionals.
While my work ethic and content knowledge may have earned respect among my colleagues, these genuine demonstrations of respect for my colleagues have earned their trust. I listened to their concerns and challenges with empathy. When appropriate, I have advocated for teachers’ needs among school administration and presented the teachers’ perspectives while protecting their anonymity. Supporting the teachers directly supports the students, and our English/language arts scores demonstrate as much, as every grade level’s ELA scores have increased each year for the past three years.
As our state rolls out the Professional Growth and Effectiveness System (PGES), I believe these lessons are worth sharing. Teachers who will be Peer Observers will be much more successful if they are careful to earn the trust and respect of their colleagues first.
The Peer Observation component of PGES is one of the greatest opportunities we have for teachers to develop their own personal plans for individualized growth in instruction. We have a chance to spark rich discussion that can lead to authentic reflection and meaningful development for teachers at all levels. The Peer Observer can use these opportunities to improve his or her own practice, and making these reflections and growth public will help alleviate anxiety and foster a growth mindset among teachers.
Teacher leaders do not need to wait for principals and policymakers to show them how to lead these conversations, or how to build the relationships that will create the conditions for growth among our peers. The Peer Observer component is our opportunity to take the lead in demonstrating how building trust among our colleagues can lead to real progress in public education. The stakes are high, and I believe it comes down to teachers to make this new model of teacher growth and effectiveness improve instruction for our students.
Sarah Yost serves in a hybrid role at Westport Middle School in Louisville, where she teaches 7th- and 8th-grade reading intervention and is a master teacher for English language arts. She is a Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow.