Shifting the system towards hope

I began my teaching career in 1975. For the first 20 years, the changes were modest alterations to the existing system. Lauren Hill clearly labels these as “initiatives sprinkled onto us”. I have notebooks full of “sprinkles” in the recycle bin. With the introduction of tech enabled communication, teachers began chatting and sharing. The changes accelerated but traveled slowly through disconnected online groups. My colleagues and I had always talked casually about what worked for our students’ learning, but it took a while to see what was possible, challenge what was not working, and begin to change the structure of the system. We began this work, often against the grain, one classroom at a time.

From isolated efforts to networks

At the time when the principal’s role was focused more on documenting and managing than leading learning and building effective teams, networks of teachers connected online and began to examine the possibilities of a system designed for more effective and engaging learning, with teachers serving in new leadership roles and directing their own change efforts. I benefited from the timing of that shift.

To create an altered system that might shift power, a greater diversity of voices and experiences was necessary. I needed to hear from others how they helped move the teacher leadership idea forward. Renee Moore describes the shift towards “a generation of teachers who believe becoming a highly accomplished teacher and teacher leader is a normal expectation.” It took some heavy lifting to get there. Networks like TLN and CTQ provided the energy and opportunity for that work to begin.

From networks to systemic shifts

Sarah Henchey explains that the networking beyond her classroom walls helped “shape her growth and leadership and stretched her thinking.” That stretch is only possible when we are able to see beyond our own walls to imagine what we could do in our own classes. Podcasts, online videos, and the CTQ Collaboratory all helped a host of teachers modify what they were doing into a more efficient system of teaching and learning and to ask important questions. These questions led to greater opportunities to have a voice in important conversations and decisions. Cindi Rigsbee and Lauren Hill talk about being opened up to ask the deeper questions. That is where the systemic shift began.

Schools, like Hal the computer in 2001 A Space Odyssey, are designed to protect the existing system of schedules, networks, hierarchies, and other sacred cows. Many of those have not changed much in my 45 years of teaching. Now, because teachers, administrators, parents, and kids are asking deeper questions, there is a shift. That has been brought to us by these networks where teachers  are allowed to look at the larger system and ask “what if.” There is positive movement where teachers have a place at the table.

From teacher to teacher leader

I wanted to have a voice in policy and state innovations without leaving the classroom. I wanted to teach in a system that provided time to focus on bigger questions that would impact all students. I was tired of teaching well in spite of a system that did not provide the time I needed for dissection and examination of my practice. I created time by having outside agencies help me negotiate a hybrid contract that allowed me to take on important projects outside my district, hire my own substitute, and provide some lessons using digital media I produced. I gained greater autonomy over how I spent my time. Districts creating these hybrid roles are ahead of the curve.

I, like thousands of my colleagues, remain hopeful. I hang that hope on some positive shifts  occurring at the local and state level.

Some states and districts are implementing stronger teacher leadership opportunities and networks, schools led by teacher leadership teams, local school shared decision making, a slight shift in outdated policies and alternative schedules, teacher designed and directed staff development, micro credentials, and more effective use of digital learning and communication tools. Researchers are focusing on the important questions about how the system needs to shift to give teachers more flexibility and support while making greater use of the deep skill set teacher leaders possess. At the national level, we still have not felt the full force of these smaller local shifts.

I know that funding control and a voice in setting policies matters. I see more policy makers asking groups of teachers for advice. That shift has led just recently to more sane policy shifts. Online teacher platforms have steadily kept the flame of teacher voice alive. Their unwavering view of having teachers included in decisions beyond the classroom has helped to open leadership opportunities for folks still in the classroom.

From teacher leader to teacherpreneur

CTQ led the charge for this with their powerful focus on
“teacherpreneurs”. I jumped out of face to face teaching about 10 years ago  and into online learning. Encouraged and mentored by a state level policy maker, who had been a classroom teacher, I was given a voice in thoughtfully designing a system that delivered quality science instruction to rural students where qualified teachers were not available. I have seen many good innovations change and become less effective when policy does not match good practice. Sadly, great ideas often morph into nightmare initiatives when bureaucracies are in charge of delivery. Giving teachers greater autonomy in their professional learning yields more positive results.

However, once stretched, a system, even education, cannot go back to the original position. Gains once made are putting pressure for the system to move forward again.

There are now more paths to teacher leadership than 40 years ago. Rob Kriete followed a path through union involvement that led to his powerful work today. Kris Kohl worked with change agents and returned to the classroom with a full teacher leadership mindset and tools that will deepen his impact. Each path to leadership is unique, and all change the system for the better.

So, despite the glacial pace of of change, I remain hopeful and optimistic. The teachers in TLN and CTQ were the fuel for that optimism to remain a steady flame, and I see the new generation of teachers as keepers of that flame. I can’t wait to see how their efforts, skills, and new leadership opportunities change the system. Nothing remains the same. Change is inevitable. How we manage that change to create the education all children deserve is the work ahead. If we stay connected to each other, it is in good hands.