“Teacher Leaders are the most important leaders we have in the district!”
–Cobb County School District Superintendent, Chris Ragsdale
Many district leaders have been similarly quoted regarding the importance of developing and partnering with teacher leaders. However, only 57% of teachers report that meaningful professional development opportunities exist in their district (Quaglia Institute, 2016). We CAN do better, and MUST do better.
Valuing Teacher Leaders
Cobb Country School District believes that they must care about the engagement of teachers, listen when teachers suggest what they need and what their students need, and provide them with opportunities to make decisions about their own professional learning. Currently, only 48% of teachers nationally report they have a voice in decision making at their school, and 56% believe that building administration is willing to learn from staff (Quaglia Institute, 2016). It is difficult to imagine a teacher feeling valued, if they do not think their leaders are willing to learn from them, or that they are worthy of participating in decision making. Cobb County believes that the investment in listening to, valuing, and empowering teacher leaders will increase teacher and student success, both the kind that is traditionally measured and in other areas that we know to be important like self-worth, engagement, and purpose.
Cobb Teacher Leader Academy (CTLA)
In an effort to turn their talk into action, the Office of Instruction and Innovative Practice in Cobb County created a Teacher Leader Academy that serves approximately 100 teachers a year who are selected through a rigorous application process. This is not a program where teachers come to meetings and are tasked with relaying new district mandates back to the teaching ranks in their schools. Instead, a thoughtfully designed “Deeper Learning” summer institute and quarterly meetings throughout the school year provide teachers with hands-on, engaging training on developing their voices so they can listen, learn, and lead from their position in the classroom. Too often, movement into administration is seen as the only way to advance in education. We believe that when given opportunity and support, teacher leaders will drive innovation and transform teaching and learning.
To develop their voices, participants of the CTLA explore the concepts of Self-Worth, Engagement, and Purpose as a teacher leader (for more information, see quagliainstitute.org). They also cultivate deep content expertise of new standards and strategies specific to their areas of certification. Teacher leaders leave each session with new skills and resources ready for immediate implementation and sharing with colleagues. In addition to applying their skills as teacher leaders back in their schools, CTLA participants develop and implement individualized Legacy Projects in which they are asked to “Dream Big” and think about their influence and impact beyond their classroom.
At the culmination of each school year, CTLA participants are honored at an official graduation ceremony in which they share the results of their personalized Legacy Projects which range from social studies teachers creating a community mentor program for Hispanic youth, to STEAM teachers creating new coding programs for students in the district. The adage that success breeds success is certainly proving to be true in Cobb County. As teacher leaders are provided with opportunities and support to take action on their professional passions, improvements that no mandate could ever force are in abundance!
In addition to the impact of individual teacher actions and Legacy Projects, here are a few of the many systemic benefits observed in Cobb as a result of the CTLA:
- The reach of district leaders has been extended through partnership with teacher leaders who can guide programs of innovation at the grass roots level. District leaders are often accused of being out of touch with the realities of schools and classrooms. Only 42% of teachers report that the central office understands the unique culture of their school (Quaglia Institute, 2016). Empowering teacher leaders is helping to close this gap in Cobb County.
- A continually growing cadre of go-to-teachers with trusted voices to provide feedback and leadership has been established district wide. CTLA graduates now sit on many district level teams and are serving as valued advisors in a wide variety of capacities.
- Principals are reaping benefits of the CTLA as teacher leaders bring their growing expertise, enthusiasm, and leadership to building initiatives. Principals trust these teachers to create and influence change in their schools. Jonathan Tanner, principal at Campbell Middle School shared, “Participating in the Cobb Teacher Leader Academy has been a great growth experience for Ms. Monica Farzad. While she was already a very passionate, motivated teacher that cares deeply for her students, the academy has assisted her in focusing her talents in the development and support of opportunities for our students. She has a passion for working with ELL students and she implemented a mentorship program for a group of ELL students. The program served to inspire these students to set academic and social goals and to strive toward higher learning and career opportunities. In addition, she, along with another group of teacher leaders, supported our school’s service trip to Cartagena, Colombia in which we raised money to support underprivileged schools. Her leadership skills continue to grow and the academy has served to support that growth.”
The CTLA has helped to empower teachers in finding their voice as advocates and leaders. Teacher leaders are coming to the table as thoughtful and active problem solvers as they grow in their ability to listen to the concerns and ideas of others, learn from what is being shared, and collectively lead for positive change.
As the Academy begins its third year, some key lessons learned have emerged that can be applied by all schools seeking to empower teacher voice and provide meaningful opportunities to teacher leaders:
- Effective recruiting of teacher leaders is essential. Rather than begging teachers to participate, teachers WANT to participate in the CTLA! Over 300 applications were received for only 100 spots in the first year of the academy, in part due to engaging marketing and branding that has clearly communicated to teachers that valuing their voice is a top priority of the district.
- It is important to balance developing teacher voice and leadership skills with deep content area expertise. Both are necessary for teachers to be equipped to lead meaningful and sustainable change in the classroom and beyond.
- Leaders must tell the story of positively empowered teacher voice. The idea that classroom teachers are some of our most important leaders is foreign to many educational leaders. The narrative of teacher voice must reflect the passion and incredible impact of teacher leaders when they are provided with opportunities to engage in meaningful professional learning, and are then supported to take action.
While the story of the CTLA will continue to grow, we conclude this piece of the narrative through the voice of middle school teacher Kerri Waller:
“CTLA has impacted me as an educator, a leader within my school, and as a leader within my Visual Arts community. I found my teacher voice and by doing so, I gained confidence as an educator to leave my comfort zone and to have a more impactful teacher leader experience. My legacy project and my experience with TLA was a catalyst for change. Change in myself, change in my students, and change in my program. My vision for the future has changed as a result of the CTLA. I not only became a better leader but I also became a facilitator of leadership for my students and my peers. I used to see my teaching leadership constrained within the walls of my classroom and now I see it spreading within the community- and that’s an amazing thing. I can’t wait to see what is next.”
The possibilities are endless when empowered teachers harness their voices to make classrooms and schools what we know they could, and should, be for students. An investment in teachers is ultimately and investment in students.