Teachers as Leaders

A look at an alternative to ‘pay for performance,’ one that addresses teacher quality but doesn’t rely on test scores.

By Monica Solomon

At Bramble Developmental Academy, a small neighborhood elementary school on the east side of Cincinnati, lead teacher Rosaland Robinson is scurrying around her sixth-grade classroom with enthusiasm and energy, teaching today’s mathematics lesson. “Aaron, please read the directions aloud. … Who’s ready to go to the board and solve the equation?”

Robinson, a 26-year veteran, never sits down. She walks between tables, talking, listening, outwardly praising students while gently reminding them to keep the noise level down. Silence prevails. While students work at the board, Robinson confers with a Xavier University education major, who has been assigned to observe her classroom. When her students leave her classroom, Robinson’s day is far from over. She supervises the school’s extended day program, facilitates a grueling budgeting session with colleagues as chairwoman of the Instructional Leader Team, and makes telephone calls to certain parents. She estimates she’ll be home by 7:00 p.m.

It’s a typical 12-hour day for Robinson, doing what her peers say she does best – teaching, modeling, listening, leading. She has earned “lead teacher” status and is part of Cincinnati Public Schools’ Career in Teaching program, a joint project of the district and the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers (CFT). Negotiated as part of the teacher contract in 1989, the Career in Teaching program is designed to create a professional leadership corps within the active teaching profession and to provide incentives to keep excellent teachers in the classroom.

“Lead teachers are the change agents within the school,” said CFT Professional Issues Representative Denise Hewitt. “They are the first line in terms of change, curriculum, mentoring, providing resources, and initiating professional development. They are the ones others – students and colleagues – look up to.”

HIGHER STANDARDS

For years, the only way teachers in the Cincinnati Public Schools could advance their careers was to move to administration, either by becoming a principal or assistant principal or going to central office. By the late 1980s, the district and the teachers union recognized the need to keep talented teachers in classrooms and schools and allow teachers to play leadership roles within their profession.

CFT President Tom Mooney said there was a mutual interest to change the culture of the teaching profession, reduce teacher attrition, and keep the best teachers in school by rewarding them. “Our goalwas to cultivate a cadre of instructional leaders within the ranks of practitioners,” Mooney said.

Teachers in the Career in Teaching program progress through intern, resident, career teacher, and lead teacher levels, with increased financial rewards at each step, based on a combination of assessment, advanced education, and experience. Only those teachers with at least six years in teaching – the last three in the district – can apply for lead teacher status. An extensive application is reviewed by the Career in Teaching panel, made up of three administrators and three teachers. If the application meets all criteria, the teacher is observed by a skilled veteran teacher called a trained teacher observer (TTO), who also interviews the applicant’s principal and several teaching colleagues. Highly proficient teachers with demonstrated leadership ability are then recommended by the TTOs for lead teacher status.

Of the 3,500 teachers in Cincinnati Public Schools, currently 417 teachers have lead teacher credentials; 277 are actually serving in lead teacher positions. Only credentialed lead teachers can apply for professional leadership roles created by an agreement between the school district and CFT. Lead teachers serve in a variety of roles including interdisciplinary team leaders, subject area leaders, primary (K-3) and intermediate (4-6) level leaders, curriculum development specialists, instructors in professional development, consulting teachers, curriculum council chairs and facilitators of new or special programs. Lead teachers also serve as consulting teachers as part of the district’s Peer Assistance and Evaluation Program.

A TEAM APPROACH

The career ladder program gives teachers a much greater voice in setting direction for Cincinnati Public Schools. Nowhere are their voices heard more than in local schools, in particular, the district’s team-based schools. A central focus of Cincinnati Public Schools’ five-year plan, team-based schools have few restrictions in terms of staffing models and budget allocation. Teams of three to five teachers stay with and take responsibility for a common group of students for an entire instructional level.

Robinson works in a team-based school where the role of the lead teacher takes on even greater meaning. Accountability and ownership are part of her daily routine, especially as chair of the school’s Instructional Leadership Team (ILT). The ILT – consisting of the principal, lead teachers, a union building representative, a parent representative, and a non-teaching employee – develops, reviews and evaluates programs, practices, and procedures for effective operation of the school and the continued improvement of instruction. As ILT chair, Robinson is charged with building consensus around difficult issues, such as allocation of resources under the district’s new student-based budgeting model.

Peers listen to each other, acknowledged Christine Robertson, principal of Bramble Developmental Academy. “Teachers are often more responsive to each other than to an administrator,” she said. “Lead teachers like Rosaland (Robinson) plan, communicate, help other teachers, and serve as role models in the school.”

CHALLENGES AHEAD

Most importantly, the Career in Teaching program is designed to be flexible to meet the needs of the school district. One of the challenges is to encourage lead teachers to transfer to more challenging schools in need.

“Teachers are reluctant to go to a dysfunctional school, but being part of a new leadership team to turn around a school might encourage teachers to move,” said CFT President Mooney. He noted the district’s new School Assistance and Redesign Plan, a plan developed jointly by teacher representatives and administrators to turn around low-achieving schools. The plan recognizes high-achieving schools and schools that are improving, subjects schools that have low achievement and stagnant improvement goals to program changes, and closes a handful of schools with the lowest achievement and no improvement. School redesign – which closes a school then reopens it with a newly selected team of a principal, teachers, and other staff- is one way to encourage lead teachers to move to low-performing schools.

The lead teacher program is also related to solving another challenge facing most large-city districts – providing professional assistance to “teachers in the middle,” as CFT’s Hewitt describes it. According to Hewitt, such teachers in the middle, who make up the vast majority of the district’s 3,500 teachers, are often the teachers who can benefit the most from mentoring, coaching, and guidance from lead teachers. “What do we do with the mediocre teacher who goes into their classroom day after day, closes the door, performs well on their annual observation by the principal, but does little to affect the achievement of the students in her class?”

Hewitt said the union and the district need to work together to ensure that lead teachers are working directly with the principals to improve learning, especially in the content areas. CFT President Mooney agrees, “Our goal is to get more lead teachers observing, coaching, mentoring other teachers.”

Monica Solomon is an educational consultant specializing in strategic communications planning. The above is condensed from Transforming Teacher Unions, edited by Bob Peterson and Michael Charney (Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools, 1999).