I am just a teacher. You know, one of those people who has spent the last 21 years dedicated to educating the children in Denver. I specialize in working with second language learners. Yet, I am just a teacher.


I am just a teacher. You know, one of those people who has spent the last 21 years dedicated to educating the children in Denver. I specialize in working with second language learners.  I have attained my Masters degree as well as my National Board Certification so that I can better serve my students and improve my professional practice. Yet, I am just a teacher.

Unfortunately, this sentiment is all too common in the field of education today.

Often, my colleagues feel beaten down by the public rhetoric. So instead of waiting for someone to ask what our students need, and what they should be able to do, we decided to create our own teacher-powered school where teachers, in collaboration with parents, call the shots. At the time that our school was created, we had numerous “reform” groups– legislators coming forward to weigh in on what our students needed. Of course, we wanted to listen to other’s opinions, but when it came down to actual teaching and learning, we felt they were far removed from our classrooms.

As an active member- and President at the time- of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, we have consistently worked to proactively affect positive change in teaching and learning. We have negotiated numerous “innovative” things in Denver related to teacher voice in school decisions and a comprehensive alternative compensation system. In thinking about a teacher-powered school, I knew our union was just the place to get support for doing things differently. I solicited volunteers to come together to begin to design a teacher-powered school that would put teachers in the driver’s seat. Teachers know their students, and therefore should be empowered to make decisions, in collaboration with parents. This is a foundational belief of our local union.

It is for that exact reason that my colleagues and I began to dream about how “just teachers” could have a bigger impact on our communities, and ensure that our students are prepared for this 21st century world.  After all, outsiders rarely ask us what we need to do our jobs better, let alone what our students need to succeed. There are a lot of policy makers out who have never worked with students. They make decisions based on their own experiences. The rationale of “I went to school, too” does not make for effective policy or practice. Most teachers would argue that classes of 35+ students who are taught by following a script are not having their needs met. Teachers, working with students every day, are the ones who best know what students need in order to succeed. They know where their students are, and where they need to be.

We know that our students are mostly recent immigrants, and their families are depending on them to acquire English. We know that their parents have high expectations, and that they want their children to achieve higher levels of education and success. Many people assume that because our students are ethnic minorities, they cannot succeed, and that their parents have low expectations. We know this is not the case.

Thus, the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy was born. We are a teacher-powered school specifically designed for our 97% Latino, 97% free or reduced lunch student population. We focus on mathematics and science; two fields in which ethnic minority children are under represented. We chose to open a school without a principal, because we know that giving decision-making power to those closest to students- the teachers- will have a greater impact on student learning. At our school, we wanted to make decisions regarding what curricula are implemented, and what resources would best help us reach our student learning goals. Because the achievement gap is widening, particularly in the areas of math and science, we wanted to create a school where our students would be prepared to compete in these fields, with the skills necessary to lead. Thus, we continue to spend a lot of time looking at where students are as well as where we know they can be.  We then investigate what programs, technology, and resources will get them there. We continually reflect and adapt our instruction based on student learning.

To us, learning is more than being on page 53 on Tuesday at 1:57 p.m. Learning is about tapping in to the interests of our students, and making our lessons relevant not only to their interests, but to real world applications.

One example is called “Passion Areas”.  Every Wednesday, our students spend 45 minutes engaged in learning about topics that interest them. While each teacher may not be an expert in topics such as fishing, race cars, legos, or jewelry making, we submit proposals to the Instructional Design and Practice Committee to show how we will guide our students in standards based units infused with science, math, engineering, civics, or the arts. Our students think that this is just a “fun” time, but we know that they are learning critical thinking skills and the scientific method, as well as learning about ecology, force, motion, and economics.  The excitement in our students when they get to choose what they are learning, and use their strengths to learn more deeply about a particular interest, is energizing. They go to and from Passion Areas with a deep interest and investment in their learning. This excitement is what we imagined when we created our school.

At our school, teachers make all of the decisions; from books purchased to schedules, to personnel, and even to evaluations. Every teacher serves on a team that makes decisions regarding curriculum, school climate, technology, and teacher evaluations. We spend significantly more time meeting together to arrive at our decisions. In the end, we know that our structure puts students first, and has a greater impact on student learning and engagement.

Some teachers in other schools are forced to spend time submitting requisitions for even the smallest things, like staples. At our school, we look at our students’ needs and decide important issues, like which writing method or program will have the biggest impact on student learning. Our time is valuable, and decisions are truly student centered. Teachers are empowered to make these decisions, instead of following the lock and step programs that other schools are forced to implement, regardless of student need.  Our decisions put students in the middle, and parents and teachers surrounding them. Everyone and everything else is peripheral. For example, when we talk about curriculum, we reflect on what our students know and are able to do, and then look for programs/ curriculum to meet their needs. In short, we discuss and vote on what curriculum will help get our students to the next level and achieve our mission and vision.

Our vision is to create a teacher -powered school where everyone is a learner, teacher, and leader. Teaching and learning are fundamental in every school, but another unique focus of our school is leadership. Everyday, we spend time teaching and recognizing leadership skills based on Sean Covey’s Seven Habits of Happy Kids. Our students learn what life skills are needed to make them successful in school and life. We practice these skills in our classrooms, and celebrate them widely.

Yes, at our school, even “teachers” can be trusted to make instructional decisions for their students. After all, teachers are the ones who work with students directly every day. Though we are “just teachers”, we also have individual strengths and varied leadership styles. At our teacher-powered school, we celebrate each others’ strengths, and use them to best serve our students. Who best to conduct professional development on science instruction than a teacher with a degree and experience in science?

Working in a teacher-powered school, where teachers make the decisions, has been the most rewarding experience of my career. Knowing that my professional expertise and experience is valued and appreciated makes a big difference for our students. I know that my decisions are based on what is best for my students, and the school as a whole so that we can prepare our students to compete in the global society. My colleagues and I work together to ensure that our students receive the instruction and support they need. They are treated as individuals with their own strengths and interests. The opportunities and challenges given to me as a teacher leader have significantly changed education for my students and profession. I may be “just a teacher”, but as Robert Frost said, “that has made all the difference.”

Kim Ursetta is a teacher at the Math and Science Leadership Academy in Denver, CO and an Ambassador with Teacher-Powered Schools.

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