I didn’t quite understand what it meant to be an “island” until I started teaching eight years ago. For years, I was the only United States history teacher at my small, inner-city Houston campus where most of my students were below grade-level. I did not have a partner teacher to bounce ideas off of, so I had to build a strong curriculum over time to help my students understand how our nation’s history continues to impact us today.
Last year, I became a teacher leader facilitating the US History Professional Learning Community (PLC), a part of a series of the PLCs my district was implementing. Initially, I was confused as to what would take place in the PLC and how it would be effective for teachers and students. It all made sense when I realized that the PLC would give myself and other US History teachers in the district a chance to sit down together, look at our students’ performance data, and talk through the strategies for teaching certain topics and skills.
I didn’t have to be an island anymore; I could collaborate with my peers several times a year. And even better, I could use my experience to positively impact other teachers who were new to teaching or the subject, so that they didn’t have to feel like an island either.
In one of our early PLC meetings, we lamented that lecturing about the Native American wars of the 1800s left our students feeling bored and unsure. As a group, we decided to use pictures and journal entries to demonstrate the changes that Native Americans faced over time. The images and journals of the Native American children at the Carlisle Indian School were powerful visual tools that gave my students a true sense of what assimilation was really like, and allowed them to connect to the content and experience the injustice. Suddenly, my students started asking questions about whether this kind of assimilation still happens. By the end of the lesson, I knew that my kids got it, and ultimately, it showed in their test scores on both district assessments and the standardized test they took in the spring.
I have met countless teachers who want to positively impact their peers, students and campus or district climate through leadership opportunities that allow them to continue teaching their students effectively. Unfortunately, strong teachers are not always able to lead, because the opportunities might not exist or are not incentivized by the district.
Recently, the State Board of Education released a draft of their long-range plan that emphasizes teacher leadership. It includes the vision, “Educators will have opportunities to advance their careers while directly impacting the classroom, including increased compensation and leadership opportunities, based on their effectiveness, aspirational goals, and challenging school environment.”
Making this vision a reality would transform the teaching profession in ways that benefit teachers and students. When the 86th Texas legislative session begins in January 2019, we’ll have a chance to send a message to lawmakers that teacher leadership matters.
As a teacher leader, I see several steps we should take in this effort:
First, the legislature and school districts should incentivize teacher leadership. By compensating teacher leaders for their work, we send the message that it is valued. Offering stipends or other financial incentives helps to alleviate a nationwide issue of low teacher pay that has to-date resulted in teacher strikes and marches on six state capitols. And strong, quality teachers who are paid for their leadership are less likely to leave the profession, which could hurt Texas students.
Second, leadership roles should be given to experienced, effective teachers based on merit. Too often, quality teachers are passed over for opportunities because of politics or nepotism. There needs to be a transparent process for choosing quality teacher leaders, so that fellow teachers and students can benefit from their experience.
Lastly, districts should dedicate quality time to teacher collaboration with the goal of increasing student outcomes and achievement. Asking teachers to collaborate during the 15 minutes before Monday’s first period sends the message that collaboration is not valued. Rather, allotting a regular block of time gives teachers a chance to authentically engage with each other to analyze student data and formulate lessons or plans of action for increasing student achievement.
I urge lawmakers and school districts to find ways to address and emphasize teacher leadership. By identifying strong teacher leaders and using their talents and skills to support fellow teachers, school districts can contribute to tremendous growth for new teachers and their students. Without the teacher leadership opportunities that I was given, my students would be at a disadvantage. Let’s try to populate the island of the lonely teacher, so that our students can reap the benefits of teacher leaders.