In 2010, a new student joined my class. He was a recent immigrant from Guinea. This didn’t surprise me as all students at my school are recent immigrants. The surprise came later when I realized this student was not only new to learning English, but he was new to print. Just as he was learning new words in English, he was also learning to write his name. At a traditional school, with a large student population, this student would struggle. Yet in my teacher-powered school (TPS), he thrived, and is on track to graduate. So what enabled this student’s success?
Undeniably, part of his success came from his own determination to succeed. However, the other part came from structures within the school that could be tailored to his needs. His teachers had autonomy in choosing their curriculum. The student was graded on mastery of content and not an average of his tests. He did not have to cram for any state tests at the end of the year since students at my school only take the 11th grade English Regents Exam. International Community High School is a member of the NY Performance Standards Consortium, a group of schools that assess students using Performance Based Assessment Tasks instead of standardized tests. Teachers have the autonomy to design the tasks they believe best prepare their students for college. At my school, the new student received highly differentiated work at a level appropriate to his needs. Our teacher team also has the autonomy to schedule students, so we placed him in a class we felt would be supportive. We always try to create classes with an equal mix of different languages and skill levels.
Some of these ideas might not seem unique, and I’m sure many schools work very hard to ensure their students succeed. What is unique about my school and other “teacher-powered” schools is the level of collaboration and collective decision making that occurs among all stakeholders. Also, it is important to note that many of the teacher-powered schools in NYC are part of PROSE, which is a United Federation of Teachers (NYC’s teacher union) and NYC Department Of Education’s initiative to allow schools the opportunity to implement contractual flexibilities. PROSE helped my school formalize many of the autonomies we had in place.
For the past five years, I have taught global history in this teacher-powered school in the South Bronx. This area of New York City has a high-rate of poverty, and most, if not all, of my students receive free lunch. These students, including the one mentioned earlier, need a supportive environment that will help them succeed. Being at a teacher-powered school that has a mindset of collaboration and certain pedagogical autonomies not only benefits the students, but benefits the staff as well. Students benefit by having lessons and content tailored to their needs and desires, thus creating more buy-in. The student from Guinea is succeeding in school partly because he is learning content that engages him as well as his teachers. Teachers having the autonomy to teach what they love has been transformational in overall teacher morale. (Not to say that morale was extremely low, but teaching in such a challenging area takes a toll on even the most seasoned teacher).
The problem of creating an environment supportive of students’ and teachers’ socio-emotional needs is not unsolvable, and I believe that teacher-powered schools can provide the right supports for teachers to lead schools to better serve their students.
An important source of the empowerment felt by teachers at my school comes from collaboration between teachers and staff through interdisciplinary teams. Our teams not only have budgets, but also make administrative decisions such as creating student schedules and setting annual goals. We generate ideas in teams, and then share them throughout the school (often through teacher-led PD sessions). One idea generated in my team was conducting home visits to get to know our students’ neighborhoods and personal home situations. This idea came from the need to connect to parents, especially in a non-school setting. It also demonstrated to students that we cared deeply about their education.
For my team, the effect was dramatic: our daily attendance rate has increased to over 90%, and many of our at-risk students are more engaged. The students and teachers on my team feel more connected. Students and parents are regularly made aware of missing assignments or behaviors (good or bad). Being a TPS gave my team the ability to plan and implement the home visits. Administration supported our plans by providing funding for our work. For my team, we created goals, developed an action plan, implemented that plan on a Saturday and Sunday, and reviewed data connected to the home visits (such as attendance at parent teacher conferences).
We also have the autonomy to design our own courses. These courses culminate in a performance based assessment task, or PBAT. This assessment provides multiple opportunities for students to show mastery, thus preventing them from failing the course if they receive a bad grade. This process was crucial for the student I describe earlier. In many ways he was not ready for high school and would have failed using traditional methods of assessment. By designing our own courses, which go deeper into the content, the school supports the socioemotional well-being of teachers by allowing teachers to teach the subjects that drive their passion. In designing our classes, we often go through a process of gathering feedback from department members and our instructional coach regarding the classes we want to teach, and what we expect the students to master. This process is especially important when the department designs its Performance Based Task Assessment required for graduation. Before this research project is presented to students, the department agrees by consensus about the details of the task and our expectations. By designing this critical task, teachers feel empowered and invested in their students’ education.
The vast majority of teacher-powered schools have learning program autonomy that allows teacher teams to choose the best curriculum for their specific students. This means curricula are not a sequenced, scripted parade of information that leaves students feeling detached from school. Instead, they are transformative, original, and better suited to the topics that will engage students.
Finally, teachers and administration collaborate on professional development. These PD sessions are often designed, implemented, and facilitated by teachers. We also create workshops once a year to highlight the work being done in teams.
One example is the recent professional development session designed by the English department. This session outlined what the English Regents exam required students to do in terms of assessment. The entire staff then brainstormed pedagogical strategies that would help support the English department across all subjects, not to mention their own practice of incorporating more language instruction in their curriculum since all the teachers at my school teach English Language Learners.
By having a voice and being teacher-powered, we have been able to improve our school. All stakeholders at my school are constantly engaged in a dialogue about how to provide students with the education they deserve. This is the power of a teacher-powered school: a continuous, sometimes difficult dialogue with all stakeholders that requires an acute ability to listen and empathize with colleagues.
Josef Donnelly is a 9th-10th grade Global History teacher at International Community High School in the South Bronx, NY. His school is part of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a network of public schools for recent immigrants. He is an Ambassador for the Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative. Prior to teaching, he served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Micronesia.