For nine years, I served as the school librarian at Inter-American Magnet School in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Even though there were many talented and experienced teachers there, I often felt isolated in the library and lamented the limited options the school’s schedule provided to observe and learn from my colleagues. Then one year, my school provided me the chance to break out of the isolation to which I had become so accustomed. My school engaged in an informal, short-term initiative in which teachers observed each other and provided feedback. This initiative not only provided valuable professional development but was also an important leadership opportunity. The experience of receiving positive feedback from a talented colleague was extremely validating. More importantly, I acquired valuable new skills that I put into practice immediately. The sense of isolation that many teachers endure—sometimes for many years—suddenly lifted. Even though this was temporary, the impact was significant for me. My brief collaborative experience made it clear that this kind of mentoring among teachers could be significantly more valuable if it was long-term, structured, accountable and built into the school culture and professional development. Such efforts should not be limited to short-term initiatives. Allowing teachers to lead and support each other should be the rule, rather than the exception.
Capitalize on the Expertise of Teachers
I have worn many hats within CPS—school psychologist, elementary school librarian and high school librarian—and obtained National Board Certification (NBCT) in 2009. One vital element of NBCT’s mission is to capitalize on the expertise of excellent teachers. Over the years it has become evident to me that this expertise lies within our ranks. CPS teachers are well-prepared, committed and highly effective. Many are eager to take on meaningful leadership within our schools without leaving the classroom. These teachers belong in hybrid roles where they have traditional classroom teaching duties as well as time built into their schedules for a range of tasks including mentoring, observing and providing informal feedback to colleagues to boost teacher performance and student achievement. Many teachers are qualified for this work; we need only identify them in a systematic way to become true teacher leaders in their schools. Unfortunately, the capacity of talented and experienced teachers to move into teacher leadership is largely squandered. This has grave implications for keeping educators in the classroom, and in Chicago teacher attrition is high. In May 2015, Ruthanne Buck, senior advisor to former Secretary of of Education Arne Duncan, explained:
If you don’t offer leadership opportunities for teachers to excel in their profession, to grow, and still allow them to stay in the classroom, you are asking for your best and brightest teachers to leave.
Teachers want to learn from other teachers, rather than from administrators or others who are no longer in the classroom. Teachers in hybrid roles have credibility, as they are facing the daily challenges of the realities of today’s classrooms.
Teachers Can Help Solve Problems
Creating more opportunities for teacher leadership would also provide much needed relief for school principals. In 2007, Charlotte Danielson, a former teacher and administrator, author and teacher effectiveness expert, asserted that: “The demands of the modern principalship are practically impossible to meet.” School principals are expected to be visionaries, managers, budget specialists, institutional leaders, compliance accountants and experts in all areas of education. They are expected to do this while simultaneously serving various constituencies including students, parents, teachers, district officials and the wider community. In reality, very few can manage all those responsibilities successfully. Shifting some observation, mentoring and other duties to trained and talented teacher leaders will better meet the needs of both teachers and principals.
We have the opportunity to solve many problems—administrators’ limited capacity, the hunger for increased teacher leadership and development, and the isolation many educators feel—by simply leveraging the talents of CPS teachers. The capacity for talented teachers to provide leadership, mentoring, modeling, coaching and relief for overburdened principals, is right in front of us. We would all benefit from seeing teachers—teachers who are still providing instruction in the classroom—lead through innovative hybrid opportunities. So how can we leverage the incredible talent that already exists inside our schools? We must encourage discussion of hybrid teaching roles in our school communities—in teacher lunchrooms and at faculty, department, grade-level, local school council, union, and Board of Education meetings. We must advocate to break down the barriers of isolation and create more schools where our most exceptional educators can increase their impact, support their colleagues and ultimately create connected, effective schools where all students are learning and thriving.
Fran Feeley is the school librarian at Jones College Prep High School. He enjoys teaching students to navigate the vast information landscape and to participate in the global information community—as users and creators of information—judiciously, productively and responsibly.