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DPS to expand teacher leadership program

As a teacher leader at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, Mandy Israel teaches history but also coaches and mentors fellow teachers.
As a teacher leader at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy, Mandy Israel teaches history but also coaches and mentors fellow teachers.

Denver Public Schools is announcing plans this week to expand a teacher leadership program officials say marks a fundamental shift in the way school staffs are structured.

In year two, the district is still tweaking a program it intends to offer to every school by 2018-19.

Both teachers and principals say teacher-leaders, who teach some classes while taking on additional responsibilities, offer support to and play a bridging role between administrators and teachers.

“It’s not always easy to go to the principal or assistant principals, so I like that I’ve been able to take on that role. I can really stand up for what teachers need so students can achieve and be successful,” said Mandy Israel, a high school history teacher who is in her second year as a team lead—one of the new hybrid roles for teachers—at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy.

Introducing a brand-new role has required adjustment. Administrators must plan for how to fit an entirely new position into their schools’ systems and structures. Teacher-leaders must navigate new dynamics within their schools while balancing classroom and administrative duties. And teachers who are not new “team-leads” must adapt to having a new coach and evaluator.

“This is an enormous paradigm shift from the traditional way we’ve done school,” said DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg. “We’re still learning and there are bumps along the road. But it’s been extraordinarily positive so far.”

A learning organization

Students in a mixed-grade high school history class at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy work on a "Document-based question."
Students in Mandy Israel’s mixed-grade high school history class at Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy work on a document-based question.

Boasberg said that the district introduced the “differentiated roles” pilot teacher leader program in an attempt to make schools more like other knowledge-based professions, where, he said, leaders tend to work with smaller teams of five, six, or seven.

In the more traditional school model, a principal might be responsible for managing dozens of adults, including teachers, nurses, and paraprofessionals. In recent years, principals’ responsibilities have grown even more unwieldy, as they must evaluate teachers, guide schools through changes in standards and instructional practice, and manage the demands of the district’s central office, all while also working with families and communities.

“This is about saying, we need to put the power in the hands of the people who best understand the work, getting teachers back in the position of being true leaders, and allowing the principal the space to be the organizational leader of the school,” said Justin Darnell, the district’s senior manager of teacher leadership and a former Colorado teacher of the year.

Nicole Veltze, the principal of North High, said that the new role was helping. “As a principal, having to manage 70 teachers is unrealistic if I’m really trying to improve their practice,” she said. “It’s done a lot to create ownership for professional learning and built relationships among teachers.”

The program also aims to give teachers more time with their evaluators and coaches, and to create a path to professional growth for teachers, both those who hope to become administrators and those who want to stay in the classroom but are interested in having a bigger role in their school.

“Teaching is such a challenging profession. The traditional structure of isolating teachers in their classrooms doesn’t help give them the learning they need,” Boasberg said.

Growing and changing

DPS’s differentiated roles pilot started in 14 schools in 2013-14 and expanded to 40 this year. Starting next year, 72 of the district’s schools will have a role that includes teaching and administrative responsibilities.

The program is partly funded by a federal Teacher Incentive Fund grant, which offered money to districts that created financial incentives for teachers to take on new roles. DPS plans to allocate up to $4.5 million to the program in 2015-16.

DPS’s teacher leadership program has garnered national attention: The U.S. Education Department chose Denver as one of three cities to host a national conference focused on teacher leadership this school year.

Darnell said the district is making changes as the program grows. For instance, administrative teams in the new batch of schools will have more time—six months instead of one—to plan for how they will structure their leadership programs.

Martha Burgess, a teacher leader at Kunsmiller, said that at her school, second year had gone more smoothly than the first.

Burgess said she and her peers had pushed for the administration to be clear about what qualified someone to be a teacher-leader. Lack of clarity about who was chosen “made it hard to build rapport,” she said.

“This year, it was way more clear,” she said. “It helped that everyone had had a year, they had had a chance to see that this is really helpful in serving a need in our building.”

At at time when DPS is struggling to reduce teacher and principal turnover, none of the 54 people who had participated in the pilot last year left the district, Darnell said.

A too-big role?

The teacher-leader role currently exists in two versions: Team leads receive a $3,000 stipend and are responsible for part of their teams’ evaluations. Senior team leads are entirely responsible for their teams’ evaluations and receive a $5,000 stipend. Both might also have additional responsibilities, such as supporting teachers working with new technology or standards. Teachers apply for the jobs, and only those with higher scores on LEAP, the district’s evaluation, are eligible.

All schools who will have eventually have the equivalent of a senior team lead, responsible both for coaching and evaluating their team, Darnell said.

Mixing those two jobs can be difficult, said Shelley Zion, the director of the Center for Advancing Practice, Education, and Research at the University of Colorado Denver’s education school. In general, she said, “when you try to link a coaching and mentoring role with evaluation, you often don’t get authentic results.”

Sarah Baird, who trains teacher-leaders and others in the district in coaching, said that it’s possible to strike a balance: “Research shows that the same person can do both, but there has to be trust in the person and the process, and there has to be a distinction between which is happening when—when I’m being coached and when I’m being evaluated.”

But both Burgess and Israel said the biggest challenge of the role was not in evaluating peers but in finding the time to complete their new tasks while also managing to plan and grade for their classes.

At Kunsmiller, Kate Claassen, a high school literature teacher, said she appreciated getting feedback from someone who is also teaching. “Mandy [Israel]’s observations are far more aligned with the LEAP framework but also with my practice.”

“I think the teacher leader program has allowed practicing teachers to get additional feedback, which is really crucial for our practice,” Claassen said.

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