Archives: Voices

Coaching a Culture

Losing Authority, Gaining Perspective

I became one of them.  I am the guy who left the classroom to become a coach.  To this day, I find solace in the idea that I am there to support teachers, however, I no longer can be seen as an expert as I am no longer in the classroom.  I have influence, but no real authority; I am not an administrator, but I have lost the authority that comes from being a practitioner.

I could jump on my soapbox about how coaching is important.  I could reach for the nearest megaphone to remind everyone reading this that they are who they are as a result of some type of coaching, even if it was a negative experience.   As I have grown into my leadership role in and out of my school, I have seen more and more teachers, both experienced and not, resistant to the idea of coaching.  And in writing this, I am consistently using the wrong pronoun.  I keep saying “I,” rather we should be saying “we.” We all believe that our kids need coaching, so why would we be any different?  As such, let us all accept two assumptions:

  • The need for systemic, ongoing coaching is not isolated to any one building
  • This problem is not a professional problem, but a cultural problem

These problems are not mutually exclusive, but rather intricately connected.  While the work surrounding school culture continues to grow in momentum, not enough progress has been made, yet.  There are examples of places where it works.  Thomas Nelson High School in Nelson County Kentucky has created digital infrastructures to support the practice of teacher growth while protecting the teacher’s time and professionalism.  Teacher-Powered Schools has gained a national following because of the work they do around empowering teachers to grow and lead.

And while there are certainly more, they are not the norm, rather the exception.  What are the schools doing the work around coaching well actually doing?  Are they addressing instructional issues?  Systems issues?  Whatever the answer, changing a school’s culture takes everyone, and I believe coaching is the key to the change.  Let us offer one more assumption; in this context, “coach” is not defined as someone with the title of coach.  A coach, in this case, is anyone helping others grow, whatever that looks like.

So What, Now What…Three Ideas to Implement


Teachers are notoriously resistant to change.  In talking to three colleagues, they all stated the same need.  Find two or three things to focus on for a year, and monitor its success.  People become frustrated when things change day-to-day.  Consistency is the key to student success, and according to my colleagues, also key to the success of teachers.  Teacher leaders need to advocate for keeping changes to a minimum and celebrating the successes of the implemented systems and visions.


Teachers are, for a myriad of reasons, often beaten down.  Their sense of self-fulfillment and self-direction become sacrificed as the onslaught of data talks, tests, and day-to-day bureaucracy take hold.  With the loss of personal fulfillment and self-direction comes an ugly outcome; teachers lose themselves and their passion.  They lose their sense of identity around their job.  They lose their voice.  They may be able to address the science of teaching, but they lose the ability to engage in the art of teaching.  Coaches and teacher-leaders need to build the next generation of teacher-leaders by helping them to reclaim their initiative.  When someone says, “we can’t do that,” the response should be a visceral “why not”.

Innovation and initiative are easy to stifle in a building, especially when the leaders of the building do not believe in the work.  The beautiful thing is, however, teacher-leaders can be innovative through grassroots work.  Subtle, little changes can make tremendous impacts.  Someone will value the work, and it is up to coaches to guide and encourage the work.  It is also imperative that those coaches and colleagues celebrate the achievements and impacts of that innovation.


This idea is the most important of three steps.  Everyone should receive coaching.  Top down, left to right, everyone needs coaching.  The time for coaching is a sacred time.  It should be professional, but collegial.  In short, even the principal can learn something from the classroom teacher.  This type of forced vulnerability can be difficult, but it also creates empathy and understanding.  Lastly, it gives teachers power.  Shared leadership emerges when everyone is given voice and authority.  Do you want to change a school’s culture?  Change how leadership is seen.  If people invest themselves through shared leadership, school culture improves.

In Short

Coaches can be no more than teachers who want to help.  They help others through formal or informal processes.  Every teacher-leader is a coach, and every teacher is capable of teacher-leadership.

As is written by Bill Mulford, the Director of Leadership for Learning Research Group for the University of Tasmania, student outcomes improve when teachers and those who support teachers have consistency, feel valued, and receive support.  From the same paper comes this graphic on page 16.  It shows that teacher recruitment, development, and retention increase when teachers feel valued, feel autonomous, see themselves as a leader, and see improvement in their capacity.

I have the title of coach, but I also have the self-given title of teacher-leader.  I see my role to help others grow, but I see my higher calling to be one of school culture.  My role is to improve my school culture by ensuring everyone is coached, empowered, and elevated.

My question of you is simple.  What coaching and culture experiences do you have that you can share to continue to grow the work?

A Collection of Shower Thoughts on Assessment

I stand before you, my fellow congregants of the Church of Pedagogy, to utter unto you a statement that verges on blasphemy.  And please, hold your slings and arrows for a moment and allow me to explain.

I do not hate standardized tests.

Stepping off the imaginary pew in my brain, I recognize that saying I do not hate standardized tests strikes an odd chord.  No teacher actually enjoys standardized testing, but as Ashley Rickards states, “…there is an in-between and I don’t think we’re there, yet.” There is a place for standardized tests because, when well crafted (insert laughs and scoffs), they provide insight and knowledge for students, teachers, schools, and districts. However, as a practitioner, I also recognize that a multiple choice test with culturally irrelevant information does not accurately reflect the whole child.

Shower Thoughts on The History:  How Did We Get Here?

There is no shortage of memes, speeches, and articles outlining the evils of our current testing system.  Starting with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and then continued with Race to the Top, the current testing system creates a culture of competition, not learning.  This fundamentally changes how we do school in this country.  There is a fundamental difference between schooling and education, and unfortunately, I believe we have lost sight of what true education is.  So, in an effort to recapture true education while maintaining the need for standardized testing, how do we rework our current system to better capture the true education, knowledge, and being of a child?

Shower Thoughts on The Shift

I do want to draw attention to the fact that I said “rework” and not “change.”  To rework suggests that the system’s resources are strategically reallocated.  Why create a whole system overhaul if only tweaks are needed?  As we tweak, can we consider the not-so-absurd idea that there can be more than one assessment format? Could students have a voice in the specific type of test (i.e. multiple-selection, product-based assessment, oral exam, etc.) they want to take to maximize their chances of successes?

Bringing it Home: Changing the Dogma of Assessment in the Church of Pedagogy

Sarah (name changed), a former student, and I were speaking during lunch during the first day of state testing last year.  She began lamenting that while she is smart (side note…REALLY SMART), she struggles with multiple choice tests because they are so limiting.  For a divergent thinker like Sarah, multiple choice tests are stifling.  Her brilliance struck me, so I decided to interview her.

Sarah’s words struck me in two ways.  First, Sarah stated that writing would allow her to express herself more effectively.  Furthermore, if writing is something she loves to do, why shouldn’t she have the opportunity to test in a way that is more engaging for her?  Wouldn’t her increased engagement equate to better scores?  Sarah also addressed the idea of drawing answers to demonstrate her thinking process.  With the rise of visual notetaking, could we not use this practice with assessment?  Sherrill Knezel notes that she experienced a juvenile detention center where the students used visual notetaking.  According to Knezel, “Personal expression, demonstration of comprehension, and confident engagement were visible through a dry-erase marker. Students who would not have been able to engage with the text in other ways could still do so through the drawings used to represent concepts.”  Imagine these successes if they were transferred over to a standardized testing system.

Here it is January and my administration is already speaking about preparations for state testing.  It got me thinking about a quote I have always found interesting.

“The one size fits all approach of standardized testing is convenient but lazy.”  -James Dyson

Multiple choice tests, even those with limited writing opportunities, are easy to make.  But as James Dyson said, they are lazy.

I understand the logistical implications of providing different testing formats.  This type of overhaul would take years.  However, in the future, our students will not demonstrate their knowledge and know-how through a one-size-fits-all method.  Why can we not collectively figure out a way to reallocate our resources to meet the needs of the students?  Teachers are nothing if not resourceful and innovative.  Why can we not figure out a way to assess our students’ education instead of their schooling?  To me, it is a no-brainer.  It is possible, we just have to preach the new gospel often enough to make it happen.  We are on the right path when it comes to assessment.  We just aren’t there, yet.  We just need some more converts.

What College and Career Readiness Looks Like

In our program, college and career readiness is everything. We are an early middle college and our students must complete Eastern Michigan University courses to graduate from high school. How many courses the students complete depends on many factors, but most students earn 60 credits before completing high school.

We are finishing up week seven of our 15 week fall semester. We have the same rhythm as college classes, so midterms are happening, projects are both beginning and coming due, classes are intensifying, the end of the semester is looming, and students and teachers are exhausted. Last week our staff held our first of two big meetings where we discuss the progress of every first-year student in our program. The rest of the week was then devoted to student-led conferences. This added another level of intensity and urgency to our students’ lives, because they are coming to the realization that some of them really will be registering for university courses in January, and some of them will not. In order to register for university courses, students must demonstrate college-level soft skills and academic readiness, and this brings me back to “in our program, college and career readiness is everything.” (A side note: we primarily focus on skills required to complete a Bachelor’s degree because we are located on-campus at a four year university).  However, we do our very best to prepare students for the careers they are interested in, even when those careers require a program not available at our university).

We directly teach soft skills. We use a variety of instructional methods for both soft skills and content. We provide as many supports as we possible can to the students and families. But ultimately, it comes down to the students’ grit and determination, and I saw a whole new level of that this week.  College and career readiness takes on many forms. These are some of the things I witnessed this week as students began to make that transition to college-ready. As they always do, the students amaze me and surprise me on a regular basis.

A student pushed herself to explain her reasoning in class even though she appears very hesitant about her knowledge. A young man consciously chose to sit away from his friends because he realized they easily distract themselves during class.  Another student tried sitting more towards the front of the room because I mentioned that in her comments. A different student consciously removed the words “How many points is this worth?” from the beginning of his statements because in his comment I said this was undermining his focus on content; as a result, I learned more about his thinking and processing this week than I have in the previous six weeks. I was met with genuine disappointment from students when I announced my office hours were reduced this week due to another school activity; many students wanted feedback on the assessment corrections, homework, and new study methods they had invested time in. Two students who have never been to office hours came this week to discuss their class notes and how to improve them. On the day I was late to class from a meeting, students were actively discussing math when I walked through the door. Student language has changed this week and I heard more statements taking responsibility for actions and asking for guidance. I saw students really looking at why a method works and how to connect this concept to their prior knowledge. I saw and heard some tears, but I also saw and heard many epiphanies, both about math and how to be a student. Students are beginning to trust us, and that says a lot, because they have only known us for seven weeks and we are asking them to change their beliefs about learning.

I am extremely proud of the work theses students are doing. Each part of the semester has a distinctive energy, and we are getting to my favorite part because I am beginning my transition from “teacher” to “facilitator and coach” as students become more engaged and directive of their learning. They are beginning to understand what it means to be a learner and this is exciting to witness and support. There will be some bumps in the journey, but students are starting to use the bumps as progress checks and signals that maybe a different strategy would be beneficial. They don’t all realize how much they have changed in the last seven weeks, but they will soon. And when students demonstrate the the soft skills and content skills we have specified, they will begin their journey through university classes and wonder why the 19 year old sitting next to them has no idea how to take notes and study independently. And that is my other favorite part of this job – watching our students wonder how other people get to college without these skills that they, themselves, argued against in the first few weeks of school this year!

First published October 23, 2015

My Experience with SREB and the Math Design Collaborative

“I challenge you to teach with creativity, depth, and have students think critically instead of teaching a mile wide and an inch deep” said my administrator.  WHAT??!!  I glazed at him from across the room thinking he was crazy and wondering how I could get everything I needed to teach all in one school year and hope for students to perform well.  There are so many standards and so many things I need to teach the students.  I must teach a new section or concept daily and assign homework every day expecting all students to do the work.  This was not a problem for many students placed in advanced or honors classes.  If students were placed in a “regular” class the material was not advanced which would be the only difference.  The pacing and expectation would be the same.  How was this ever going to be possible (taking time to teach at a deeper level) for all students?  This has always been my mindset for years.  This is how teaching was demonstrated to me and was the only thing I knew how to do.  I am teacher.  I must stand up in front of the classroom and demonstrate how knowledgeable I am and how great I can do math.  Since I can demonstrate the math to them they should be able to do the math.  I expected students to copy wonderful examples from me and therefore they could do it themselves at home on their own.  Of course, some students would do their work and some would not.  As the year progresses, why would only some of the students retain the information?  Why didn’t all students “own it” since I taught it?  I knew there were going to be some paradigm shifts in teaching as technology advances; however, I never considered there could be paradigm shifts in methods of teaching students.

I remember our first MDC training session, with SREB consultant Ivy Alford, reading about a set of key practices impacting student achievement, diving deeper into understanding the common core state standards, learning about formative assessments and the OMG’s (Obstacles, Misconceptions, Gaps) students would encounter and try to shift a traditional classroom of students in rows to a collaborative design.  This was all very exciting and great new information but, how was I going to get all of this done and still be the “star in front of the classroom”?  Do I have time to do all of this?  I know I want my students to be a better math student than I was in school so let’s try this.

Over the past few years, as we received more training, I continued to implement the new teaching practices as it related to the collaborative design and the eight student standards for mathematical practices.  This was very hard to “let go” of the control in the classroom and let the students do the work and the talking.  Asking inquiry based questions, changing how I would respond to student questions, instead of taking the pencil out of their hand while doing the work for them, and encouraging them to continue working through an attainable productive struggle was a struggle for me.  I just wanted to do the work for them because I thought I was really helping them.

While there are many situations I could share about the students and the change of the design in my classroom, the one that resonates with me the most is the progression of the implementation and results of the same Formative Assessment Lesson (FAL) I used over the past three years with regular Algebra 2 classrooms.  I gave students Representing Polynomials Graphically FAL.  The amount of suggested time to implement the FAL took longer than I had read or expected.  I guess I might not have been completely sold on the whole idea of when and how to implement a FAL.  The students were engaged and they seemed to like the activity.  Since I am a math teacher I thought I could just implement this the way I wanted since I can do the math.  I did not follow or read the script.  I just picked out the parts I thought were fun and going to be effective.  I did not consider the OMG’s that could happen and they certainly did happen.  The post assessment results were average but not as great as I hoped.  The next year, I decided to listen to the training we had and read the script but, I did not follow the activity completely as recommended.  Because students could not remember everything I had read from the script and I did not show the suggested projector slides, I improvised on what I thought would be helpful.  The students completed the FAL in a shorter amount of time than the previous year but, not in the amount of time as indicated in the lesson.  The assessment results were still improving but not to where 80% of the students were scoring 80% or better.  This year, I followed the script!  I created a PowerPoint slide as suggested.  All students were actively engaged and able to complete the lesson (with the extension piece) in the suggested amount of time.  I invited my administrator, evaluator, and instructional coaches from other buildings on campus to observe so they could provide me feedback to reflect upon.  I was excited to show case the students doing the work, constructing viable arguments, and critique the reasoning of each other.  I could facilitate a classroom and visit students working collaboratively together.  The implementation of the MDC helped my students to learn to work together as a team and support one another as they take ownership in their learning.  There were many times I would hear students say “I can’t believe it’s time to go.  Class is over already?”  They have fun learning in the classroom……yes, a fun math classroom. The post assessment results reflected at least 80% scoring 80% or better.

I wondered would a collaborative design work in a Precalculus classroom.  I started to create some collaborative activities like speed dating, gallery walks, formative assessment-like activities, and even stations.   They loved the “math noise” classroom and the conversations between the students for this level of a math classroom was very interesting.  This year, I was finally able to “let go” and require the students to do more of creating the work and reason with each other prior to a post assessment.  In the past, I would normally create the review practice for students since I knew what was on the test and what the test questions would look like.  This year, students created items for review, practiced each other’s items, provided feedback to each other and reviewed feedback left by their peers.

So, did all of this have an impact on the end of course performance for students?  Even though the state exam only provides us with one piece of evidence, the results from the Algebra 2 End of Course Exam compared to the Algebra 1 End of Course Exam for the same group of students is shown below.

While we continue to make improvements with teaching and learning, along with the implementation of MDC, I can honestly say there is a positive impact of deeper learning versus surface learning as it relates to the achievement of students.  Going a “mile wide and an inch deep” is what I used to do before I was challenged by my administrator.  The last words of coaching I received from the high school instructional coach my last day of school was “Great job!  Your data shows and proves it! We now have evidence that it works!”  😊

My Experience with SREB and the Learning Design Collaborative

One summer evening in 2015 my principal called me at home. We discussed school and upcoming plans before she caught me off guard. “Dr. Carter would like for you to serve as the LDC coach for our district,” she said. What, wait? Coach? But I am a teacher, and what is LDC? How can I do this?  I thought I knew all the educator acronyms at this point in my career. So many questions flooded my head. I hesitantly and timidly agreed to the position, because that’s just what you do when the assistant superintendent asks you to do something.

The next school year, I attended LDC trainings and learned the process right along with my colleagues that I was charged to coach. It was initially challenging getting used to the increased rigor, multiple complex texts, backwards planning, and the productive struggle I was requiring my students to do. Another struggle was coaching teachers during year one while also learning the components of LDC myself. Being a person that is not outspoken and somewhat meek, I had to find a happy medium between being a friend to my colleagues and giving them productive feedback to help them in their journey with LDC.

Last school year, I literally dove in head first with LDC. LDC has made me a better teacher in numerous aspects. I feel I am a more thoughtful planner, I better know my standards, I am a better teacher of writing, I scaffold more than I used to, and I reflect on these modules and observe my students’ growth more. These things are due to implementing LDC. Last year I was humbled and surprised to be awarded the LDC Outstanding Educator of the Year at the national conference. I am grateful to have been exposed to Literacy Design Collaborative. It is not just a new program, but a way of teaching strategically and successfully. I always prided myself on teaching writing; however, LDC forced me to teach it using multiple and complex texts.

It pushed me as a teacher and pushed my students to think critically. The year before becoming a part of LDC was the first year in many years that we had a writing assessment during state testing. In the 2014-2015 school year prior to LDC, only 12% of my seventh-grade students and 18% of my eighth-grade students benchmarked in writing according to ACT Aspire tests. In the first year of LDC implementation, 43% of my seventh-grade students benchmarked and 47% of my eighth-grade students bench marked. In one year, my students went up nearly thirty points in their writing data. This data shows that LDC is a mainstay in any classroom. The assistant superintendent of my school district, whose son has been in my class for two years in seventh and eighth grade, has even said to me, “I see the change in critical thinking with my own child this year through LDC.” I still have much to learn in my journey with LDC, but I am blessed to be on board for the ride.

The Future Leadership of Teachers by Barnett Berry and Vicki Phillips

It is increasingly implausible that we could improve the performance of schools…
without promoting leadership in teaching by teachers.
—Judith Warren Little (1988)[1]


Almost 30 years ago, Judith Warren Little, one of our nation’s most prominent scholars, offered a clarion call for teachers to lead school reform, not just be the targets of it. Since then teachers, slowly but surely, are beginning to serve in more expansive roles without leaving the classroom. Teachers, for some time, have served in a variety of formal leadership roles — such chairing a department grade level, mentoring a colleague informally, or facilitating a professional learning community. Now more opportunities are available. Teachers — by participating in external networks like the National Blogging Collaborative, NNSTOY, EdCamp, and the Literacy Design Collaborative as well as CTQ — are engaging in leading their own professional learning and finding ways for their voices to be heard by policymakers, administrators, and the public alike. Wendy Sauer, a close colleague of ours from the Gates Foundation, has estimated that at least 1 in 3 teachers are already in an external network of some sorts. And a MetLife Foundation poll a few years ago found that 1 in 4 teachers would like to serve in a hybrid role — and lead without leaving the classroom. It is definitely time for more teachers to lead in bold ways, and not need to leave the classroom in order to do so.

For most teachers, leadership continues to be defined by administrators through the prism of in-classroom support and coaching as well as an array of professional development activities. We want to suggest now is the time to rethink teacher leadership — just as more school districts, charter management organizations, and state education agencies, take the concept seriously. Now is time to begin creating ways for growing numbers of classroom experts to incubate and execute their own ideas as teacherpreneuers. As Katherine Prince poignantly pointed out in her recent blog, “the way we work, teach, live, and learn is changing at an exponential rate” and schooling will become “more fluid” and rely more “on network- and relationship-based structures that reflect learners’ needs, interests, and goals. Research from the private sector shows that “company performance increases when more time is spent on ‘noncore job roles’—for example, when leaders focus on roles such as innovator or team member.” School organizations would benefit from such thinking and action. Imagine if a significant proportion of teachers had time and space outside of direct classroom teaching to serve in new roles that could exponentially increase deeper learning for their students and them. [For over a decade Singapore has been offering “white space” or “free time” for teachers to create school-based curriculum innovations.]

Emerging Future Roles

We have thought about the needs of schools and how teachers’ pedagogical expertise can be leveraged for innovation. With the press for personalized learning for every student, every graduate being college or career ready, and the often poor quality of professional development, consider teacher leaders as:

  1. Co-designers of edugames and consultants to the exploding tech industry, and the need for classroom experts to offer insights into the what and how of personalized learning tools (As Vicki told everyone at the January 2015, BETT conference in London: “First, teachers improve technology, then technology improves teaching. When teachers get a chance to help design the technology it makes their teaching better.”).
  2. Content Curators to support teaching colleagues make good decisions about vast array of curriculum products and platforms for sharing resources.
  3. Assessment Designers who will create appropriate methods for evaluating deeper learning by students and other innovative forms of instruction;
  4. Community organizers who establish and sustain relationship with health and social service providers as schools need to serve high needs students with wrap-around programs; and
  5. Virtual Community Organizers who facilitate online communities so more practitioners can participate in the growing global trade in pedagogy and professional learning. (See Teaching 2030)

When we asked about dozen teachers of Teaching Partners community, who are very active in host of other networks, we learned a lot. As Christopher Bronke of the National Blogging Collaborative, told us, “I have been lucky enough to have experience in all of these roles, and simply put, each and every one of them made me a better teacher, better colleague, and better person.” For example, Joanna Schimizzi, who worked with the Institute for Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME) to curate content for literacy, has served as an assessment expert. Joanna told us, “I have found it so valuable to truly dig deeply into what a question is asking, what incorrect answers tell you and how to eliminate bias while creating a test worth taking.” Jessica Cuthbertson, a middle school teacher in Aurora, CO (and a CTQ blogger and recent teacherpreneur), told us that there is a “growing need for mental health expertise and teachers to be equipped to meet a wide range of social emotional and developmental needs of students.” And she sees the need for teacher leaders to help their colleagues learn the skills and processes of restorative justice antidote to traditional discipline practices that often cause more harm than good. And as part of CTQ’s training and micro-credentialing for virtual communities, teachers, such as Ernie Rambo, a Las Vegas teacher (and a virtual community organizer with CTQ and the Clark County Education Association) have been able to develop unique skills in online networking and assisting their colleagues documenting their collective impact as teachers. As Ernie told us the greatest value of the CTQ approach to virtual community is “sustainability” — leveraging all the digital platforms available. As Kriscia Cabral, a blogger with Scholastic, noted, “teachers are becoming leaders from the inside out because of the many platforms and opportunities that are now available.”

Katherine Everett, who has worked extensively with Digital Promise and the National Board Resource Center, explained the important link between teacher-led learning, that is now taking place online, and student engagement and achievement. She said:

One of my greatest pleasures was working with a team of highly motivated educators to design curriculum and assessments for an integrated PE/Math 1 course. All curriculum was placed online in an effort to increase engagement and promote technology use with our incoming 9th grade students. We became so excited about the curriculum it quickly developed into a passion. The most exciting moments were watching the students engage in our work. Much of our support was done through virtual coaching and mentoring. The level of student engagement blew us away.

To be sure our teaching colleagues were quick to point a number of barriers that need to be overcome for them to lead. Of course, the four-letter word — time — came up. As Kriscia pointed out:

Time is an issue however the opportunity to open up available time for teachers to lead. In many instances, becoming a leader means one more thing added to an overflowing plate of responsibility. The time that is needed to plan and more importantly collaborate with colleagues is not available and they are a crucial part to leading the way in empowering teacher leaders.

Angela Schoon, a teacher from Merritt Island, FL, who works closely with the Literacy Design Collaborative, noted that teachers are not accustomed to leading, or believe they are expected to do so. She said, “We need to break down the “walls” and encouraging teachers to reach out to one another.” And Katherine added, “This is where current administrators need to step up — and get to know teacher strengths and where to pair them to generate momentum and ways for teachers to empower themselves.” Joanna also noted, “If administrators and district personnel have never seen how teachers can be teacherpreneurs and engage in new and innovative roles, it can be hard for them to imagine how to allow a teacher release time to lead.” Joanna continued, “The big barrier is creativity and vision.”

Opportunities and Moving Forward 

Our teaching colleagues told us that more teachers are getting engaged with external networks, as the Gates Foundation recently pointed out. And these networks are, in many cases, leadership developers for teachers. As Beth Maloney, the 2014 Arizona State Teacher of the Year (and NNSTOY leader) told us, “My networks have grown me as a teacher leader and reinforced my commitment as a professional.” In fact, a host of research points to the power of external networks in helping teachers find the skill, agency, and efficacy to lead.

But teachers should not wait on administrators or others to prompt their leadership. As Joanna said:

I think that teachers can lead from the classroom by communicating with their administration about
their interests. Often administrators need support, but they may not be aware that a teacher has an
interest in mentoring new teachers, writing curriculum, being involved in literacy initiatives, etc.
It does require honesty and creativity from both sides. I’ve experienced this in really wonderful ways
when administrators truly leveraged my potential and interests.

More school districts offer full-time coaching roles for teachers to play. But our colleagues told us of the importance of hybrid roles. As Beth said, “I think it is important for instructional coaches to keep at least one ‘leg’ in the classroom at all times.” (Dylan Wiliam has pointed out that teachers learn to take instructional risks when they are supported by a colleague who has credibility as a coach.) And as Joanna added, “As a teacher who has crafted her own medley of part-time opportunities, I know the value of getting to add variety to my roles while still reaching students.”

And while there are a number of Teacher Voice organizations that recruit teachers to their cause, we heard that classroom experts want even more opportunities to lead, and independently, when it comes to policy development. (See Celine Coggins’ new book, How to Be Heard: Ten Lessons Teachers Need to Advocate for their Students and Profession.) As Beth noted, “I would like to see more teacher leadership roles in education policy since we are the ones who implement policy each day in our classrooms and see the impact on our students, schools, and communities.” As Kriscia added, ““As a collective group, teachers value teachers and want to hear from those that are in the trenches, experiencing it all and making connection to real world happenings.”

But Beth probably said it best:

Now, more and more teachers seem to see the benefit in “leading from the middle” and more teachers may be retained in our field if given more opportunities to lead from inside the classroom. Momentum could be an opportunity! We need to spread the word about what it means to lead from the middle. Writing, blogging, and vlogging are huge opportunities here, as more and more teachers build their Virtual Learning Communities and we can learn from each other.

We have a few recommendations for:

  • Teachers: Work with your colleagues to make the case for leading from the classroom. Tell your story (See recent CTQ Roundtable on storytelling and Justin Minkel’s podcast on writing for policymakers.)
  • Administrators: Teachers are your greatest asset. They know what works in the classroom. Create ways for them to design and lead improvements in your districts and schools.
  • Education Technology Entrepreneurs: If technology is going to work in schools then designers need to understand the problems teacher are trying to solve. Spend more time listening to and co-designing with teachers. Greater collaboration will make a striking difference in the value of education technology for improving student learning.
  • Policymakers: Teachers can help you solve policy problems and design impactful solutions. Put them at the table when policy changes that effect the classroom are being considered.

As Angela put an exclamation point on it: “You are right on target here —teachers are busy and often need to network from the comfort of their own home after the school day ends.” And she continued, “We also know what works and our expertise often goes unnoticed.”

[1] Warren-Little, J. (1988). Assessing the prospects for teacher leadership. In A. Lieberman (Ed.), Building a professional culture in schools. New York: Teachers College Press, 78-106.

Cracking the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Code

I teach in a school that is 99% poverty yet has virtually 0% turnover. See if you can figure out which of the following are responsible for so many skilled teachers choosing to teach at Jones Elementary, a school where virtually every child lives in poverty.

  1. Hefty performance bonuses are tied to standardized test scores.
  2. It’s a charter school, so it’s more innovative than public schools.
  3. Salaries are high.
  4. Teachers are respected by the principal, superintendent, and one other.
  5. There is a culture of collaboration, innovation, and support.

Here’s the answer key:

Nope, not A. No performance bonuses here.

Nope, not B. We are innovative, but we’re a traditional public school.

Yep, C. Our superintendent values talent and knows compensation matters. Despite 40% of families in the district living in poverty, he has prioritized teacher salaries in the budget. Our district has the highest salaries in the state.

Yep, D. Teachers at my school know we are respected as professionals, which translates to a high degree of professional autonomy. Our opinion is sought on changes to school and district policies.

Yep, E. Our principal builds collaboration time into the school day in addition to our daily prep period. This collaboration is dynamic, purposeful, and teacher-driven.

Many of us have chosen to teach at our school for over a decade. It’s not because we couldn’t get hired in a heartbeat at a more affluent school where kids face fewer challenges. Five teachers at our school are National Board Certified and most have a Masters. One of our teachers won the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science last year, and both our Principal and Assistant Principal have been named Principal of the Year for the entire state of Arkansas. A report by the Learning Policy Institute from February of this year points to the critical role principals play in recruitment and retention. 90% of the demand for new teachers stems from attrition, and that attrition is directly tied to the absence of factors identified in the report including, “School culture and collegial relationships, time for collaboration, and decision-making input.”

Barnett Berry, founder and CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality, identifies seven conditions necessary for teacher leadership: inquiry and risk taking, collaboration, supportive administration, hybrid roles, adequate resources, redesigned work structures, and a vision co-created with teachers.

The reasons the teachers I work with have chosen to stay at such a high-poverty school have everything to do with these abstract “working conditions” that aren’t as easy to quantify as criteria like class size, salary, or benefits. Deeply felt at a visceral level, these factors include respect, support, professional autonomy, opportunities to innovate, and the chance to collaborate with like-minded colleagues.

While these elements are harder to measure than the “bread and butter” issues that mattered to the Baby Boomers aging out of the teaching profession, they are particularly important for the younger teachers who will make or break the teaching profession in the decades to come. An article on the ten workplace issues most important to Gen Y job-seekers reveals the disconnect between traditional structures in the teaching profession and the kind of profession younger teachers want.

Here are three examples and how they play out at my school:


Hybrid roles have increased in visibility, thanks in part to organizations like CTQ, but they’re still incredibly rare. Part of why I have stayed at my school is that my principal has twice worked out a job share for me when I wanted to teach half-time. Initially I sought out that flexibility because I wanted to be home in the afternoons with my three-year old son. This year, now that he has started kindergarten, I use the afternoons to write and plan for school so I can devote my evenings to my family.

Many principals would have responded to my request with, “No way. We don’t have a policy in place for that.” Instead, my principal said, “Sure. We want to keep you here, and we’ll make it work.”


I talked with a teacher this week who has taught for 10 years. Every year for the past five years, she has asked for a mentor because she felt her teaching was stagnating. She always receives the same response: “But you’re so good already!” There is a persistent, troubling notion that mentoring is only for new teachers and struggling teachers.

Our school takes an individual approach to ongoing professional growth. Every year we set our own goals and make a “wish list” of teachers we’d like to observe—often in our own school, sometimes elsewhere in the district—who excel at the things we want to improve or refine in our own practice. Our principal makes it happen. It’s not rocket science, but having that kind of individualized approach to professional growth makes it possible for teachers who have taught for twenty years to keep getting better. Not by  flying in high-paid consultants to “deliver” PD, but by mapping the strengths in our school and district, then using those collective strengths to address our weaknesses.


Many of us who have taught a long time, developed a reputation as good teachers, and received recognition for our teaching, have gotten baffling comments from friends, family, and colleagues. These comments take the form of, “You’re so good at teaching…you could make more money and enjoy more status doing something else.”

There is still a troubling assumption that if you want to have a systemic impact, or simply move up the salary scale by more than $500 a year, you have to leave the classroom. My principal supports teachers who want to become administrators, but she also makes sure those of us who plan to teach for a lifetime have opportunities to “advance.”

For me, that advancement included taking new ideas to scale. When I started a home library project with my class that showed a tremendous impact on reading development, fostering a love of books, and family literacy, my principal worked with me to scale it to every classroom in our school and two neighboring schools. She also found funds for me to be compensated for additional hours I invested in the project.

That kind of respect and support for innovation does more to keep me at my school than any external incentive, like a one-time bonus for high test scores. Daniel Pink makes the point in Drive that we tend to assume rewards and punishments are the best motivators for human behavior, when research tells us that other factors–like meaningful work that makes a lasting impact–are deeper drivers.

Alfie Kohn had a great quote in a column on the perpetual debates about incentives like merit pay: “So how should we reward teachers? We shouldn’t. They’re not pets. Rather, teachers should be paid well, freed from misguided mandates, treated with respect, and provided with the support they need to help their students become increasingly proficient and enthusiastic learners.”

That’s how my high-achieving, high poverty school cracked the teacher recruitment and retention code.

Justin’s post first appeared in the Center for Teaching Quality’s blogging roundtable on teacher shortages. 

Parent and Family Engagement: 15 Tips to Help High School Students Achieve

I teach high school, and parents and families often ask me “What can we do to help our high school student succeed? Is there something we should be doing at home?”

To answer these questions, I turned to the research. I wanted to be able to give parents and families a “toolkit,” which would assist them in helping their high school-aged student achieve. Harvard researcher, Nancy E. Hill (2009) has uncovered a series of strategies – differentiated from the elementary school model of parent involvement – that can help the parents and families of high school students. The core of Hill’s strategy involves “academic socialization,” a term she uses to refer to a family’s ability to communicate academic expectations and foster education and career aspirations. Academic socialization has proven extremely effective in supporting students during their middle and high school years. It focuses not on what parents can do AT the school, but what parents and families can do AT HOME to support their child.

15 Tips for Helping the High School Student Achieve

1. Communicate your expectations for the student often. You don’t have to be overbearing, but let students know you expect them to do their best.

2. Almost all schools now have parent portals, where parents and families can check a student’s overall grade or a grade in a particular assignment. You should check that at least once a week.

3. Discuss learning strategies with the student: using flashcards, making revisions to writing drafts, how to proofread (my favorite method is reading aloud to catch mistakes), studying with a family member, reviewing notes, etc.

4. Research has shown that youth are incredibly influenced by the discussion of aspirations and goals. Foster career aspirations with the student. Those aspirations may change frequently over the student’s four years in high school, but it is important to talk about setting goals and discussing pathways to achieving those goals.

5. Specifically, encourage and promote high achievement and academic goals – both long term and short term. As stated above, discuss these goals frequently with the student, including how to overcome obstacles to success, and what work will have to be done to achieve the goals. Review weekly, monthly, and by semester. Some examples:

Long Term Goals

Graduate high school with 3.0 GPA

Get into Duke University

Short Term Goals

Get a B in English

Go up 100 points on the SATs

Earn Proficient on the state test

6. Make plans for the future. Discuss the future with the student often, asking what s/he would like to do with his/her life, where s/he envisions him/herself in five years.

7.  Brint (2006) noted that “the people who tend to move up are those who have the habits and skills that bring success in school.” These include:

  • Regularity – be prompt to school, limit absences, go to teachers for extra help
  • Diligence and Perseverance – encourage your student not to give up, to continue to work hard, be conscientious, attentive, and careful with schoolwork
  • Reasoning Ability – work with students to develop reasoning ability through games, discussions, and questioning.

8.  Work to cultivate “academic ethos” – the discipline to study when others are out with friends, socializing, and having fun. Help your student to see the “big picture.”

9. Encourage your student to join clubs, sports, and other activities at the high school and bond with fellow classmates. There are many wonderful activities at the high school level that can provide students with unique experiences; most are free. Visit museums – the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, for example, is free on Wednesdays. The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston is free to students under the age of 18. Lectures at colleges are often free to the general public.

10. Help students to understand how an education helps them economically. For example, more than 1/3 of high school dropouts live their lives in poverty. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2013, the median of the earnings for young adults with a bachelor’s degree was $48,500, while the median was $23,900 for those without a high school diploma or equivalent; $30,000 for those with a high school diploma or equivalent; and $37,500 for those with an associate’s degree. In other words, young adults with a bachelor’s degree earned more than twice as much as those without a high school diploma or its equivalent in 2013 (i.e. 103 percent more), 62 percent more than young adult high school completers, and 29 percent more than young adults with an associate’s degree.

11. Ask brothers and sisters (and cousins and aunts and uncles) to be sources of advice and support to encourage high achievement in students. That’s why this article is entitled Parent and FAMILY Engagement. Families can play a huge role in a student’s success.

12. Take advantage of free services for your student such as SAT prep programs, summer college enrichment programs, and state test ramp-up courses. Your student’s teachers and guidance counselors can provide this information.

13. Encourage students to take Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses. Talk with guidance counselors freshmen year to find out the requirements and work towards helping the student meet them. AP and IB courses are extremely important when it comes to college admissions.

14. You don’t have to help your teen with his/her homework – rather foster teen management of schoolwork by encouraging and taking a supervisory role in overseeing that work.

15. Augment or supplement instruction where needed through books, enrollment in co-curricular activities, and free on-line courses like Khan Academy, which offers a variety of few study programs in many subjects.

Most importantly, talk with your student’s teachers early and often. We are here to help, and together, we can make sure your student excels in high school and has a wonderful learning experience!


Berzin, S. C.  (April 2010) Educational Aspirations among Low Income Youths:  Examining Multiple

Conceptual Models. Children & Schools, 32(2).

Bourdieu, P. and Passeron, J. (1977) Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture. London: Sage.

Brint, Steven.  (2006) Schools and Societies (2nd ed.)Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press.

Hill, Nancy, E. and Chao, R.K.  (2009) Families, School and the Adolescent. New York: Teachers College Press.

Patterson, J. A., Hale, D. and Stressman, M. (2007) Cultural Capital and School Leaving: A Case Study

in an Urban High School. The High School Journal.

What are You Doing to Encourage Curiosity in Your Teachers?

In a response to my recent bit on the importance of encouraging curiosity in the classroom, an undergraduate education student going by LaurenUSA made an important point that I hadn’t considered.  She wrote:

“Ironically, I also see that I will have to use my own curiosity and creativity alike to come up with the actual assignments that will engage students in their own curiosity! However, I feel that as an educator this will be an important part of my job.”

That’s legit, isn’t it?  Learning spaces that value interesting questions over correct answers are most likely led by curious teachers.

But here’s the hitch:  We do next to nothing in most schools to encourage curiosity in our faculties.  Instead, we develop rigid pacing guides and require everyone to work through them in the same order without question.  We provide highly structured sets of instructional materials that require little in the way of imagination to be delivered.  We set predefined learning requirements for professional development that everyone is expected to master regardless of their current levels of experience or expertise.

Sadly, learning for the adults in our school buildings is rarely inspiring or creative or self-directed.  Teachers aren’t free to explore and experiment their way to new discoveries.  Our work is heavily governed by decisions made by people in positions of power.  If we want to wonder or imagine, we do that on our own time and our own dime.  Curiosity becomes a subversive act — a risk taken by those who simply aren’t satisfied with the scripts that we are expected to follow.

Can we REALLY be surprised, then, when those same practices define today’s classrooms?

Why would teachers who are rarely encouraged to take intellectual risks make intellectual risk-taking a priority in their classrooms?  How can we expect teachers who spend their careers learning to follow paths created by others to design learning experiences that facilitate multiple paths to mastery?  When will we realize that every choice that we make for the teachers in our buildings sends explicit messages about what we value as a learning organization — and that the work happening in our classrooms is a mirror reflection of the work happening in our professional development sessions?

So here’s a challenge to every principal and district level professional developer in Radical Nation:  Start your next school year by asking individual teams of teachers to develop sets of three or four learning-centered questions that they are curious about.  Then, commit regular time during faculty meetings and inservice professional development days to the exploration of those questions.  Ask teams to share what they are learning.  Push them to take their questions further.  Celebrate every discovery regardless of how small those discoveries may seem to you.

You will have to be patient and prepared to provide differentiated support to the teams in your building.  Teachers — like students — haven’t had many opportunities to set their own direction.  Some will struggle to get started.  Others will stumble along the way.  All will benefit from targeted and timely suggestions about new directions worth considering AND your ability to marshal resources and opportunities uniquely suited to individual needs.

I promise that there will be moments where you question whether anyone is learning and whether the time that you are investing in the entire process is “producing tangible results” or “having a direct impact on student learning.”  In those moments, remind yourself that the outcome that matters most ISN’T testing results.  Instead, it is giving teachers first-hand experiences with the excitement that comes from asking and answering interesting questions.

The simple truth is that teachers who see learning as a joyful act are more likely to create joyful learning experiences for their students.




Related Radical Reads:

Is Learning a Joyful Act in YOUR School?

Rethinking Teacher Professional Development

The Teacher Professional Development Fail


Open Letter to Pre-Service and Early-Career Teachers

Dear Pre-Service and Early-Career Teachers:

Recently I finished the semester at the University of Montana where I have spent four years as an adjunct. I can describe the attitude most of you pre-service teachers have toward your new career: cautious idealism. You have some sense that the job ahead will be difficult yet gratifying, poorly compensated yet rewarding. And you are amenable to the drawbacks because the returns are so great.

Pre-service teachers learning about Twitter in my media literacy methods course

What you don’t yet know about yourselves is that although you may become wonderful teachers, most of you are humble. Although you may become true professionals, many of you will not become teacher leaders. Although you will advocate for your students, you will not often use your voice for yourselves.

I know you. You are teachers, and it is in the nature of teachers to serve and support others wholly and selflessly. It is almost antithetical for teachers to advocate for ourselves. We do not know how to talk to others about our work or our successes, and we certainly don’t feel comfortable asking for support.

Despite all its best intentions, Teacher Appreciation Week reinforces this notion that teachers should quietly and humbly accept our gifts and discounts for a week. It says, “please take this latte from the PTO since we all know you’re not getting a raise this year.” It says, “let us recognize these professionals who help raise the nation’s children and forget for a few days how policies often undermine their agency.” It says, “teachers are martyrs who sacrifice everything, including themselves.”

On Teacher Appreciation Day I received two lifesaver candies in my mailbox from an administrator. I choose to see one candy as a metaphor for my work with kids (a total overstatement, in most cases) and the other as a metaphor for self-advocacy. And it’s not ironic that I, myself, am wielding the second lifesaver, for myself.

I would love to trade the candies and coupons for a raise and recognition of my profession as such. But here, here is the place of tension: advocating for ourselves belies our very nature and desire for humility. The attitude I want to cultivate feels self-serving. How does one ask for more, when one is advised by the inner counselor to be satisfied with less?

This inner counselor came to mind as I listened to you, my pre-service teachers, struggle on the last day of class with the mock interview question, “Why should we hire you?” One after the other you said you didn’t feel right “bragging.” I chided, “You have to get over this feeling. You serve others, but you cannot do so effectively if you are meek about your career choice. You are your own best advocate, and when you speak for yourselves, you lift up the whole profession!”

With that small pep lecture, I hope to plant a seed of agency inside you, new teachers. I hope as you move into your careers, you will hear the rising voices inviting you to join teacher leadership. Above all, I hope you will lift your own voice as a professional, knowing that your work and your commitment are worthy of respect – both from others and from yourself.


The Why of Teacher Leadership

By Barnett Berry and Vicki Phillips

Robin “MeMe” Ratliff has taught Health and PE for almost two decades, and like many teachers she has been active in her discipline, joining the Kentucky Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance and leading workshops for her colleagues. But as MeMe recently told us, “I was expected to be a giver of information, not a taker of it — and I was not expected to learn.” She had little knowledge of or experience in how she and her teaching colleagues could take joint responsibility for their learning. And this is what seemed to tamp down MeMe’s leadership potential and capacity to spur ambitious instructional improvements among her colleagues.

But that all changed quickly, beginning in early January 2014, at Kentucky’s first Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers (ECET2) conference. With support from the Gates Foundation, MeMe and 49 other teachers from across the state engaged in a variety of activities where they were expected to construct their own learning — and not just subscribe to someone’s PD agenda for them. No doubt a blizzard, which dumped eight inches of snow in Louisville overnight, limited the number of teachers who were able to attend. But the enthusiasm among those 49 teachers who made it was palpable, as MeMe noted in a blog. MeMe not only found her “tribe” at ECET2 — she developed new confidence, agency, and leadership skills.

“It was not until that day when I learned I could grow my network — and learn from anyone, anytime, even beyond my content area of health and P.E. — that I saw myself as a teacher leader,” MeMe told us. She later noted, “We had a chance to engage, which led to a sense of empowerment, and then we had these organizations (e.g. CTQ and Hope Street Group) that helped us advance our own ideas.”

Most recently, MeMe has been tapped by her district — Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisville, KY) — to bring together disparate professional learning efforts for teachers and empower them to lead their own professional development. The goal is to open “solid lines of communication extending beyond the walls of (individual) schools,” MeMe said. She helped launch JCPSForward. This initiative brings together JCPSVoice (a cohort of virtual community organizers trained by CTQ), #JCPSchat (which recently became the nation’s most expansive district-level Twitter conversation on professional learning), and EdCampJCPS (which creates space for teacher-led PD).

MeMe and her colleagues realize that in order to achieve their district’s goal of personalizing learning for every one of its 100,000 students, the district’s 6,700 teachers must take charge of their own professional learning. So far, she has helped engage over 25 percent of the district’s teachers, first by ensuring they are connected to each other and then by engaging them in a variety of pedagogical and policy reforms; this includes developing formative assessments for deeper learning and cultivating cultural competencies in teaching, as well as mentoring new teachers in order to stem the tide of attrition.

While teacher leaders like MeMe are beginning to build their influence, albeit in more organic, grassroots ways, mounting evidence demonstrates the importance of teacher leadership for student learning. Here are five recent and powerful examples:

  1. In a study conducted in Tennessee, John Papay and colleagues found that students achieved higher reading and math scores when both higher and lower performing teachers were “encouraged to scrutinize each other’s evaluation results, observe each other teaching in the classroom, (informally) discuss strategies for improvement, and follow up with each other’s commitments throughout the school year.”
  2. Using social networking analysis tools, Kenneth A. Frank and colleagues found that teachers are more likely to make instructional shifts when they have indirect exposure to new ideas through collegial interactions, coupled with formal professional development.
  3. Alan J. Daly and colleagues, employing similar research methods, found a strong relationship between teachers “reaching out” each other sharing knowledge of teaching strategies and higher student scores on formative assessments.
  4. Carrie Leana and Frits K. Pil showed that when teachers report high levels of social capital — when relationships among them facilitate positive action — student performance in math and reading improves dramatically.
  5. Recent research sponsored by the Wallace Foundation found that collective leadership has a stronger influence on student achievement than individual leadership — and administrators do not lose influence when teachers gain it.

The evidence is compelling — and so are the prospects for more teachers like MeMe to amplify their leadership to the benefit of their colleagues.

  • In California alone, researchers documented over 60 teacher networks;
  • A recent national survey revealed that nearly six in ten teachers are now using technology to work with teaching colleagues they would not otherwise know, while another poll by Digital Promise indicated that 18 percent of America’s classroom practitioners engage in an online network;
  • Across the nation, one in three teachers participates in some type of external network,[*] and according to the Digital Promise poll 72 percent are involved in informal learning outside of their school and district.

While the debates over school reform remain contentious and most teachers remain isolated from each other — with too few chances to contribute to public education, much less to lead its transformation — MeMe’s story is a growing one. Increasingly, teachers are stepping up to lead, and the multiplier effect that can have on improving teaching and learning is becoming clearer. In the next blog, we will explore examples of the collective impact of teacher leaders who are working to ensure our young people get the education they deserve.

[*] The 1/3 estimate was recently derived recently from Gates Foundation program officers, supporting growing numbers teacher practice networks across the nation.