(guest commentary written by Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Chris J. Rodriguez of Waipahu Elementary School)
Before I became a teacher, I would dream about my career and imagine how things would be. My future classroom occupied my thoughts. I saw this one room as the place where great learning would take place. But as I was thrust into the role of teacher, I quickly learned that I would have a lot more to learn than the students to do the best job possible. Teacher learning, it turns out, is vital for student learning. And my learning would need to happen outside my classroom.
Over time as a new teacher, I learned much that was not taught in teacher preparation programs. I attended many professional development and training sessions. I read a lot of books, tried a lot of things in my classroom. I worked some with my colleagues, though not consistently. Our collaborations produced some ideas and outlines of plans, but nothing particularly deep or that really pushed our profession.
And then education changed. Common Core emerged. New assessments. New ideas like Lesson Study or Data Teams. Many new teachers are surprised to learn that our profession is under tremendous scrutiny and is being asked to adapt to continual change. It can be difficult even for experienced teachers to manage these changes and to help new teachers learn what they need to succeed. This is especially true when there are not enough skilled leaders to help teachers and schools move forward. State education departments must employ mindful planning at all levels to build the capacity to handle change and increasing demands. I am pleased to say that our own state department is beginning to make great strides toward meeting this challenge.
There has been a growing trend in Hawai’i of not only recognizing the teacher leaders within our ranks, but also utilizing them to increase the capacity and effectiveness of our state-wide system. This trend is playing out at multiple levels. In the Waipahu complex, teacher leaders form a Math Core – a K-8, multi-school collaborative group focused on making sure students will be successful in Algebra I. They do this by serving as the link between their respective schools and the collaborative team, communicating and sharing key strategies and understandings, and by creating ways to monitor student achievement and growth from kindergarten all the way to high school.
The Waipahu Complex Mentor Program regularly invites teacher leaders to speak and provide professional development to our newest members. They hold professional development sessions that allow our new teachers to learn, collaborate and network with teachers from outside their campus boundaries. These experiences open up many more avenues and perspectives for teachers to learn than may otherwise be available to them.
The state has recently started two initiatives that will encourage and utilize the amazing leaders we have in our schools. Teachers are now able to earn a Teacher Leader designation that becomes a part of their licenses, recognizing their distinct skill sets and experience. There is even a current push to recognize those with this designation with some sort of financial compensation. The other initiative, a Leadership Academy, was pulled from an idea existing in other states. The Mathematics Leadership Academy, which met for the first time this year, is comprised of teacher leaders from across the state. Together, they will work to build the capacity of districts to support the schools on all islands with the Common Core standards.
I feel honored to have the opportunity to be a part of such diverse groups, to collaborate on a variety of ways to move all of us forward, to witness all the great strides our schools are making. In nearly 10 years here, I have not had such chances to push myself forward in these ways. I have not seen so many avenues for teachers to be recognized and utilized at such high levels. I have learned so much more about how to help students in the last three years than I did in the six prior years. I truly believe this is the way to accelerate teacher learning.
We have amazing teacher leaders in each of our schools. They are the focal point of timely, systemic improvement. Instead of “top-down,” I am beginning to see “together up.” The state and school districts are identifying what works on the front lines and using those perspectives to better serve our diverse populations.
When I imagine my career now, I don’t see a room. I see a community of teachers led by a corps of teacher leaders. I see schools networked by collaboration and celebration. I see the foundations being built for a global classroom, and that vision is inspiring.