Second in a Series by Mike Whittlesey
Last Week: In January 2015, Union Community Schools was awarded a $375,000 grant to participate in the state’s Teacher Leadership and Compensation (TLC) System. Eight months later, Union began a new school year with five distinct groups of teacher leader positions established throughout the district. With approximately 25% of the district’s teachers leading the way, a new model designed to increase collaboration among educators and improve classroom instruction was ready to be initiated.
The first day of the 2015-16 school year was unlike any other for Union K-12 Instructional Strategists Michelle Keegan and Corindy Stoakes. Ordinarily, Keegan, who previously taught second grade at Dysart-Geneseo Elementary, and Stoakes, former first grade teacher at La Porte City Elementary School, would have been busy welcoming another group of young students to their classrooms. The new year also marked a change for Dale Wambold, who was transitioning from high school Business/Computer instructor to the role of the district’s Technology Integrationist.
Instead of the usual first day routine of setting expectations and communicating the rules of the classroom with their students, Keegan, Stoakes and Wambold were busy doing something very similar, but for a much different audience- their fellow teachers.
At every level, educating students presents a unique set of challenges for teachers, from the youngest students entering the school building for the very first time, to seniors in high school preparing to meet the increasing demands life has to offer. Taking three teachers out of the classroom to work full-time with and for their fellow colleagues had never been done before at Union. No longer a teacher in the traditional sense, but also not an administrator, these new positions would require a tool belt equipped with trailblazing skills, as Keegan, Stoakes and Wambold would help lead the effort to improve the quality of instruction being delivered in Dysart and La Porte City classrooms.
Keegan, a long-time leader and participant in staff development activities at Dysart-Geneseo Elementary School, welcomed the challenge the Instructional Strategist position represented, calling it a “next level” career move and “a natural place to go.” Stoakes had similar motivations.
“The whole coaching aspect intrigued me. I wanted to learn more about it and develop those relationships with other colleagues,” she said.
Wambold, the de facto technology guru at Union High School, viewed the Technology Integrationist position as an opportunity to “spread the wealth” to all of the district’s schools.
As with any new initiative, communication was important to help staff understand the duties and responsibilities associated with these new positions. Among them:
• Oversee district initiatives
• Observe, model and coach teachers
• Collaborate with teachers in other TLC positions in the district
• Provide resources and tools to help teachers to carry out district initiatives and implement Iowa CORE
• Assist with professional development activities
As the three prepared to chart a new course in their educational careers, there were many resources available to assist them. With the goal to incorporate the Teacher Leadership and Compensation System into each of Iowa’s 346 school districts, the trio found ample support from Area Education Agency 267 and the University of Northern Iowa, which offers teachers an Instructional Coaching Certificate upon the successful completion of a series of classes.
Working through coursework at UNI and attending regional meetings for area educators has provided opportunities for the Union staff members to network with teachers from other school districts in northeast Iowa. Conversations about how the process is going in neighboring districts has given them insight into the successes and challenges other schools, like Union, are working through.
Improving the quality of classroom instruction is a complex process with many challenges. Classroom teachers make hundreds of decisions each day. For the vast majority of their day, they are the sole adult responsible for the activities that occur in their classroom. With one 30-40 minute planning period daily, there is precious little time to collaborate with colleagues during the school day.
To make the TLC process work, schools have the logistical challenge of finding time for teachers to meet with their instructional coaches. There is also the challenge of building trust and relationships that will allow for the constructive dialog that is necessary between teacher and coach. At Union, the initial response to these challenges has been promising.
“Everyone has been so open and willing. I think the majority of our staff was excited that we got the grant and we’re anxious to see how this can help them in their teaching,” Corindy Stoakes noted.
“This [new model] has changed where we can individually sit down with a teacher and help them enhance their classroom. They love that,” Dale Wambold added.
Keegan, Stoakes and Wambold are also adamant that success would be difficult without the contributions other teacher leaders in the district are making, those serving as Instructional Coaches, Mentor Teachers and Special Program Coordinators.
“It is very much a team process. We’re always looking for ways to improve. Everyone on our TLC team has been a huge part of [the district’s] success,” Keegan said.
When the school year began, the trio invested considerable time surveying their colleagues and offering ways they could be of assistance. As they began working with individual teachers, they used a research-defined process called a coaching cycle. While there are many different strategies and activities that can be part of a coaching cycle, the process generally follows these steps:
1. PLANNING – The teacher and teacher leader meet to discuss the scope of a project focused on an instructional need. They review available student data and set goals.
2. IMPLEMENTING – The planning process is put into action. Activities may include observing, modeling and co-teaching, to name a few.
3. ASSESSING – The success of the instructional activities is measured. Student data, both formal and informal, is reviewed.
4. REFLECTING –Focusing on the original goals of the project, the teacher and teacher leader closely examine its level of success. If the target is not met, they go back and improve the plan.
Midway through the first of a two year journey that will be funded by the grant, Keegan, Stoakes and Wambold are proud of the coaching in-roads that have been accomplished to this point and appreciate the collaborative spirit that has permeated throughout the district.
“We have a really good relationship with our administration. We have a really good relationship with our staff. We have really good support all around,” Keegan said.
While acknowledging there is still much work to be done for the students in the Union Community School District, the group’s immediate goals include encouraging teachers to continue to reflect on their work and be willing to try new things. They also want to build on the positive momentum that has been established and very much want the district’s teachers to continue to feel supported. The end result, they hope, will result in a better educational experience for their students, stating in unison, “It’s all about the kids.”