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Bringing It Together

Over the past few years, much has been written and shared about the importance of teacher leadership. This topic comes up frequently in blog posts, articles, speakers, and  conference presentations routinely comment about the importance of teacher leadership. The concept of teacher leadership is energizing and inspiring. Teacher leadership includes recognizing and honoring teachers’ expertise in their classroom and field. When teachers are serving in leadership roles, they have the ability to impact students beyond their own classrooms and use their voices to advocate for students, teachers, the profession, and education. It is not only exciting, it is necessary.

At the same time, deeper learning has been a topic of discussion. Two years ago, Teaching Channel launched a focus on Deeper Learning, and a quick search on TeachingChannel.org will reveal any number of resources, including this blog focusing on tools and resources for deeper learning. As I have continued to craft units and lessons for my students, I find myself asking if I am challenging my students. Am I pushing them to deeper thinking and deeper learning?

Teacher leadership and deeper learning may seem unrelated, but they aren’t. . We know all teachers lead students every day, and we strive to deepen learning for our students as we lead.  I hadn’t really given much thought to how teacher leadership and deeper learning impacts teachers more personally. However, reading Barnett Berry’s paper “Teacher Leadership and Deeper Learning for All Students” has brought it together for me in a meaningful way. His work articulates the challenges facing our schools and points out the resources and approaches we can take to meet these challenges.

Berry describes what deeper learning can mean for our students. He references the six competencies identified by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation: “core academic content, critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration in teams, effective communication, self-directed learning, and academic mindset” (6). Berry also points out the exponential growth of knowledge in the past fifty years. Putting the competencies together with the explosion of knowledge makes it clear that much is going to be required of our students in their adult lives, and to help them prepare for that, we need to provide them with the experiences, skills, and tools they will need.

It is here that Berry makes a point which many overlook in their considerations of what our students need for success in their futures: fostering deeper learning for students is going to require the involvement and support of teacher leaders. When teachers are given the time and support they need to invest in their own deeper learning, the possibilities for students to experience deeper learning grow significantly. Indeed, the examples Berry provides from the Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles, CA, showcase what happens for students and their learning when teachers have the time and support they need.

This is a critical point. My own experiences as a classroom teacher support this. In striving to meet the needs of my students and challenge them to grow, I need time to research, reflect, and design the kinds of activities that foster this. I also need the support of colleagues in a “critical friend” role, colleagues who can listen to what I’m planning to do or have done, and provide the kinds of feedback to help me refine my work with my students. Berry writes, “Teachers improve instruction the most when they have opportunities to apply what they learn and to help one another take instructional risks . . . (11)” I’ve seen this in my own practice. When I first implemented 20Time projects in my classroom, I took the summer months to read about how others had implemented this kind of approach and plan for how it would look in my own classroom. It was also risky. What if it didn’t work? What if students picked weak projects? What if parents didn’t understand or support this work? What if losing 20% of my instructional time with students resulted in lower test scores on state-mandated assessments? The support I had from colleagues and administration was an important part of work we did in our first year of 20Time projects.

Another important connection between deeper learning for students and teacher leadership is that teachers themselves need to be engaging in collaborative deeper learning. In my early years of teaching, professional development was largely provided by outside experts. Districts or consortia of districts brought in regionally or nationally known experts to spend a day presenting skills or concepts to teachers. The expectation was that teachers would take these ideas and work to implement them, often without any additional support. While teachers can learn from and be inspired by these experts, the kinds of change and growth teachers need to make isn’t going to happen through those brief sit and get inservices. The collaboration that comes from exploring ideas and approaches together is powerful and has a much greater potential for changing a teacher’s practice.

 For example, last fall I started reading Beers and Probst’s new book Nonfiction. As our 8th grade language arts teachers have continued collaborating throughout the year, I’ve occasionally shared my students’ response to some of the questions and strategies suggested within the book. A few weeks ago, my colleagues and I decided we’d like to investigate these strategies more closely. I wrote the request for the books and suggested a starting point for our first meeting to discuss the book.  It’s a collaborative study in which we share our reactions and ideas. In reading and discussing the first 30 pages, we’ve already generating ideas of how we might change our initial study for the 2016-17 school year, incorporating what we are learning through this book study. Because we’re working as a team, the worry that can go into trying some new is lessened. The collaboration becomes inspiring and contagious.

Deeper learning and teacher leadership are not two buzz words, here today and gone tomorrow as the next “fad” in education arrives on scene. They also can’t be implemented after a quick one-day inservice. It takes consistent, conscientious focus, providing teachers and staff with the time and space to delve into the kinds of learning we want for students. Teacher leadership is critical, too, in collaborating on the kinds of strategies that result in the kinds of learning we want for our students. The synergy that happens by bringing deeper learning and teacher leadership together will benefit our students and schools tremendously.

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