A r c h i v e d I n f o r m a t i o n Teachers Leading the Way: Voices from the National Teacher Forum - April 1998
Teachers need support to move into leadership positions, but at the same time they can take steps to become leaders and initiate changes. So how can they get started? First, they need to identify a change that's needed in their school district, school, or classroom. Second, teachers can stop waiting for someone else to make this change and move ahead on their own.
Identify a Need
- Teachers often become leaders after recognizing a need and committing themselves to taking action. The needs for change can vary greatly from community to community, from school to school, and from classroom to classroom.
- John Funk and other teachers in Salt Lake City, Utah recognized that their district's kindergarten program was not developmentally appropriate. Among other things, it was long on worksheets and short on providing students with hands-on opportunities to learn. So the teachers went first to the district's kindergarten teacher leader to voice concerns. This did not produce any results. Fortunately, as the teachers were voicing concerns, the district replaced the early childhood leader. The new teacher leader, along with the concerned group of teachers, went to the assistant superintendent over elementary school instruction and then to the school board, which deliberated and agreed to support changes. The district's kindergarten program is now regarded as a model within Utah; observers have come from six hours away to learn about it.
- Billie Hicklin and fellow teachers in Boone, North Carolina, were unhappy with the proposed school day calendar, which lacked sufficient time to plan classroom activities or schedule staff development sessions. So they lobbied their school board for a change. "The details of our presentation to the board were planned when we realized how little many members knew about the job of teachers," she said. "They are rarely in our schools, and most (80 percent) have no education background." During their 10 to 12-minute presentation, teachers: (1) gave introductions and a positive list of reasons why teachers stay in teaching; (2) walked board members through the steps of planning a lesson; (3) talked about what happens in the classroom ( for example, coaching, monitoring, guiding, listening, probing, and problem-solving); (4) described the non-instructional duties that take time away from classroom instruction; and (5) talked about teachers' extracurricular activities that are meaningful to students (for example, supervising clubs and competitions and chaperoning dances). Following this presentation, the teachers asked for improvements to their calendar, including 5 half-days when students would be let out of school early to allow time for planning and staff development. In the discussion that followed, Ms. Hicklin said, "One board member admitted that he thought all teachers did for planning was to look at the next chapter in a book!" Their efforts paid off--the teachers "got the calendar we wanted because teachers all over the country spoke out," Ms. Hicklin said.
- Judy Prescott from Arizona recognized that she and a colleague across the hall faced similar teaching challenges and shared a need for more appropriate learning materials for their hearing-impaired high school students, who were college-bound but reading at a first or second-grade level. So the two paired up to create materials that would suit their students' needs. "We started writing our own series of books and stories, and rewriting fairy tales and everything that we could get our hands on," Ms. Prescott said. "We rewrote Shakespeare and Poe." The two arranged to have their books published, which lead to opportunities for them to speak to organizations throughout Canada and the United States about the importance of language and individualized instruction.
- A group of South Carolina teachers saw the need to change a major bill that aimed to boost student achievement by making teachers more accountable for the education of their students. South Carolina teachers have long struggled with how best to boost test scores on the SAT and other nationally normed tests, which are among the lowest in the nation. "We all are tired of the embarrassment of (the low test score rankings) and continually work hard to have this status leave us," teacher Debra Templin reported. But many South Carolina teachers including Templin were disturbed by benchmarks imposed in the original version of the state's Accountability Bill of 1996. Among other things, the 20-page bill: (1) called for 95 percent of the state's students tested in the year 2001 to meet the national average SAT and ACT score for the previous year, and (2) would have removed the principal of any school not meeting designated benchmarks for the third consecutive year and would have prohibited that person from seeking any administrative position within the school district.
As chairperson of the South Carolina Teacher Forum, Ms. Templin orchestrated efforts to revise the bill, which included a major letter-writing campaign and many meetings with key players. The new bill, among other things, called for an assessment system that measured each student's achievement from one year to the next. The South Carolina Teacher Forum also suggested that each district use portfolios and other assessment techniques now thought to provide a better handle on student achievement. "I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Teacher Forum participants made the Legislators change the original bill," Templin said. "They thought they could slide it by us, but as one legislator told me, 'I have been receiving 45 letters a day from teachers.' He said it was unbelievable."
- A North Dakota teacher, Curt Leslie, saw a need for teachers and students to make better links between what they taught or learned in class and what goes on in the "outside" world. So Mr. Leslie applied for and received a $7,000 grant to start a program at his school that allows teachers to participate in "externships" in area businesses. All too often, Mr. Leslie said, students didn't connect what they learned in math or in art with the working world or their lives beyond school, and teachers often had trouble helping their students make the connections because 85 percent of North Dakota teachers have never held a job other than teaching. Teachers in externships were required to learn about the businesses and write up a lesson plan incorporating information about how the business fit into the teachers' area of expertise. The grant money paid for substitute teachers while the regular teachers were at the businesses, as well as for teachers' travel time, and a little stipend.
- Ann Brock recognized the need to encourage and reward students with outstanding academic achievements. Students excelling in sports often received more recognition than those with high grades, she realized. So she and fellow teachers asked each area business to donate $40 to provide students who excelled academically with a sweater with an academic letter on it. Students with a range of academic inclinations, from those in classes for the gifted and talented to those in special education classes, received academic letters. "It was a big deal," Ms. Brock reported. Teachers then invited parents, businesses, and students to attend the awards ceremony in the high school gym. Since its inception the program has evolved to award trophies instead of letters for academic excellence.
- Michigan teacher Diane Sheperd recognized the need to support hearing-impaired youth at risk of abusing drugs. With a grant from the Detroit mayor's office, she began a program that provides drug prevention workshops and job skills training for these young people. The program is called Project HIYARDS, which is an acronym for Hearing-Impaired Youth at Risk for Drugs and Other Substances. The program also helps educate employers who are reluctant to hire hearing-impaired youth because they don't understand sign language. "We try to let the students know there's another way to make money, other than being out there selling drugs," Ms. Sheperd said. "We helped employers understand that these youngsters are employable, and they're excellent workers."
- Cynthia Appold's first leadership efforts occurred about 12 years ago when she proposed to the local board of education that it provide $20,000 for 10 computers for a computer graphics class. Ms. Appold, from New York, saw computers in science, math, and business classes, but none in her art department. Without computers, she said, "I wasn't educating my students for the future, and that was very important to me." In the last decade she has lectured and led workshops to build up the computer graphics program in her school and was delighted when the first 10 computers were recently replaced with more powerful ones.
- "When you need money or other resources for a project, don't be bashful about calling people," advises Bill Martin from Alabama. "I'm not opposed at all to picking up the phone and saying, 'Hey, this is Bill. I am over at the school, and we really need this.' Sometimes I say, 'Mr. Kelly down at the bank has given us $500 for this. Would you be interested in matching that?' You pick up the phone and call, and people usually will help."
- William Bratberg from Missouri also doesn't hesitate to ask for what he needs to be a good teacher. "I just wonder how many teachers have ever said, 'This is what I really need to be able to do my job,'" said Mr. Bratberg. "I guess I'm not afraid to ask for stuff. Sometimes, I get strange looks, but if you never ask for something, how does anyone know you need it? You need to let people know what you need. I think you can do that in a professional manner."
- When Jeffrey Carter moved from a school in New York City to one in Prince George's County, Maryland, he felt that the curriculum in his new school was outdated in its depiction of blacks, Hispanics, and women. "I felt that I had a choice," he said. "I could go along with the usual line, or I could try to agitate and get some changes. I got a lot of static from my colleagues, who said basically, 'If you don't like the way things are going, go back up to New York.' But I kept with it, and I was subsequently named to a year-long, district wide committee to revise the K-12 curriculum. By the time we got through, we had all sorts of people in the curriculum who reflected the multi-cultural nature of the country. It was a very fair curriculum, but we didn't stop there. We made sure that the curriculum was implemented in the schools. As I said, I could have gone along the way things were, but I chose not to. I wanted to make sure that I tried to find a solution to the problem."
- "I found out that no one was representing our remote district at state-level mathematics curriculum meetings, so I volunteered to attend," Diana Suddreth from Utah said. "Since that time I've been attending regularly, bringing information back to our district, and providing leadership in making curriculum reforms. I've helped set up in-service opportunities and met regularly with other math teachers to pass on information from the state level. Since I've had a chance to meet a lot of people, I've also been influential in supporting reform efforts throughout the district."
- Steven Levy was concerned about the dearth of opportunities for teachers in his Massachusetts school to talk about teaching and learning. "Our teacher meetings were always business," he said. "Although everyone always agreed it would be great if we had time to talk to each other about what was happening in our classrooms, there was simply no time for this." So Levy joined with other teachers to create a schoolwide Faculty Forum. "I think there is no power as encouraging or transforming as teachers meeting regularly to discuss their work," Levy said. Every two weeks anywhere from 3 to 12 teachers met in a different classroom after school. Each meeting had four parts. First, the host teacher would show participants his or her room and describe what she was doing with her students. Second, the teachers shared anecdotes, each of which raised issues relevant to the participants. "The challenge was to find stories that somehow spoke of something bigger than themselves, that illustrated issues we all face," Levy said. Third, the teachers discussed an article that all the teachers had read the week before, or a principle they had previously agreed was relevant to their teaching. Finally, participants discussed ways that they could apply that principle to their work. The Forum met for three years. "We even got a small grant, which we used to buy refreshments and to hire substitutes so we could visit each other's classes," Levy said. "It was interesting how the grant gave our group a certain legitimacy."
Once a need for change has been identified, it is time to take action. Stalling lessens the possibility that reform goals will be reached. Waiting for someone else to take the critical first steps also contributes to the stereotype of teachers being too passive to lead effectively.
Forum participants acknowledged the resistance of some teachers to taking action.
- "We all tend to sit back and say, 'Someone needs to address that,' said Jeff White from Georgia. "We forget that the very middle word in 'someone' is 'me.'"
- "As a profession we are insecure," Jill Olsen-Virlee from Iowa explained. "We wait for researchers. We wait for somebody to tell us what we intuitively know is right. We wait for somebody to say it's okay that we do it. It has been very hard for us as a profession to take risks because of the pervasive culture (which provides limited support for teachers who take action)."
- "I have to volunteer. I have to look for opportunities," said Ann Brock from Texas. "If you wait till you are asked, you will not ever be asked, because people don't know that you are interested."
- Frustration fuels some teachers' drive to action. "A lot of teacher leadership starts with the natural pressure that all teachers face," said Edward Silver from Maryland. "You hit that level of frustration when something's going on in your classroom and you ask yourself, 'How can we do something differently? Why can't this happen?' Then you hit a fork in the road, and either you're going to gripe about it, or you're going to do something about it."
- "For 30 of my 38 years of teaching, I believed my only role was to be the best teacher I could be," recalled George Beyer, who retired recently but remains actively involved in Montana's schools. Mounting concerns with the slow pace of reform. nudged him into the leadership limelight. In recent years he's been involved in everything from fund-raising to lobbying legislators. And like many teachers who have assumed leadership roles, today he's convinced that he contributes most by maintaining a balance of education responsibilities inside and outside the classroom.
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