How many of you have noticed that the expectations for the teaching profession have changed dramatically in recent years? Do you seek out innovative strategies and create interactive lessons? Do you attend oodles of professional development sessions and participate in professional learning communities so that your voice, as a teacher, is heard? Do you create formative assessments and analyze data to create next steps? Do you work to transform students’ lives so they are afforded a high-quality education that prepares them to graduate as responsible, active citizens ready for success in college and careers and prepared to advance in a global economy? Did you answer ‘yes’ to all or some of these questions? If you are a teacher, then I bet you did. You know first-hand that being a teacher is challenging and multi-dexterous!
My next question asks if you have considered quitting the profession--giving it up because it’s just too hard and too demanding? It’s a hard question to ask, and even harder to truthfully answer, because we’ve all been there. Maybe you heard that little voice in your head saying this is all too much for one person to handle. And then somehow you pulled beyond the feelings of self-doubt and mustered the strength to continue, didn’t you? I bet that you gave yourself more time to reconsider or perhaps you thought of an idea that would solve a problem. Then you implemented it and became so encouraged because it worked and led to your department’s, grade level’s or students’ success.
I bet you know that you, the teacher, are the one factor that has the most impact upon student achievement.
We can listen to all this hoopla about test scores and accountability, but none of it really matters if we teachers are not given opportunities to lead from the classroom to help close the gap. Dave Burgess describes in Teach Like A PIRATE: Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform, the best teachers are those who get in the pool with their students not those who sit in the lifeguard chair above the pool. To help students succeed we have to own their problems. This means that the power is in the classroom; it is the hub of training, advice and experience coming together to make learning possible. Therefore, it makes sense that ideas to improve student learning should be teacher-led and teacher-designed.
I speak from experience.
In 2004, while teaching at Lincoln Elementary in Jefferson County, Kentucky, I had the opportunity to lead with one foot in the classroom and one foot out by sharing a Curriculum Coordinator position with a colleague. Our principal envisioned that we would spend half of our time interacting with students in the classroom and the other half of our time analyzing data, planning instruction, attending professional development and collaborating with colleagues. My work started with a student who processed information slowly and had difficulty making sense of it. I was confident that graphic organizers would not only help her read better but would also prepare her to respond to open-ended questions. Working with her blossomed into the opportunity to co-teach with colleagues so that they, too, could learn this differentiated approach to help students who needed to process information and show it in paragraph-form written responses. As a result, teachers had a strategy to aid students to increase their chance of academic success, and I was empowered because I had a role in serving the needs of my profession by influencing the educational practice of my peers.
Soon after, I became a district instructional coach spreading my innovative ideas to teachers throughout the county. For the next few years I led from outside the classroom and although I had an impact on increased student learning, I knew deep down that I had to find my way back into the classroom so that I could recognize what students really needed, and I could craft better, innovative solutions. So one day instead of saying I needed to get back, I actually did it.
This was the best decision that I have ever made. It has given me a chance to grow in ways that I never imagined. How? A year later, I became National Board Certified in Literacy: Reading-Language Arts Early and Middle Childhood. The year after, I co-collaborated with several third-grade teachers to create a wikispace aimed at collectively sharing lesson plans and materials to add to our knowledge about implementing the new Common Core Standards. That same year, I initiated a paired-professional learning community collaboration project wherein Field Elementary and J. B. Atkinson Academy for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (a University of Louisville Signature Partnership School) teased out academic language and created answer stems for students to use to demonstrate their proficiency in meeting oral, listening, writing and reading standards.
The next year, when my principal at Field Elementary, Deborah Rivera, instituted Professional Learning Communities with Common Core Math, I clearly remember saying to myself, “I am going to love this opportunity. I am going to really have to stretch and grow. I haven’t really delved deeply into Math, and I am going to be on a learning curve.” And grow I did! Growing alongside me were my students and my colleagues. I am excited to say that our school went from 13th percentile (bottom and designated a “focus school”) four years ago to a school in the top 10 percent. I now am asked to share what we did to develop a culture of continuous improvement through strategies of innovative change in order to validate that what happens in classrooms matters the most! Essentially, what I’ve done is take everything I learned while a coach, taken all the professional development I acquired, all the best practice I was a part of and implemented it into the classroom, full force.
When I speak, my voice is that of a teacher. I am authentic because I am dealing with the real classroom and all the complexities that go along with it. Anyone who knows me knows teaching is my passion.
I am known for my innovative ideas and being intuitive to students’ learning needs and working with children who have struggled behaviorally and/or academically. Colleagues know that I am a leader and will share whatever works, so they too can use instructional approaches that allow students to shine!
In October, I was named 2015 Kentucky Teacher of the Year. Now, many people ask me when I will be leaving the classroom to pursue other leadership opportunities. However, having heard Maddie Fennel speak at the Department of Education Forum in Washington, DC about the Teach to Lead Program—whose aim is to encourage more opportunities for teachers to lead without giving up their role in the classroom—I feel that I need to stay where I am, in the classroom where I can work to create a teacher-hybrid role at my school. Right now, I am encouraged and empowered with an opportunity to envision a new world. I don’t really know what it will look like, but I have an idea brewing in my head, and hopefully I will be able to get it off the ground and continue to showcase the power of the classroom!