Teacher Leader Sample Case: How Hard Do I Push?

08/09/2011
Debra Rose Howell

What a relief! Another strong finish to the school year! Again our kids’ test scores climbed. Yes, lesson study work IS continuing to make a positive difference in student achievement. The administration once again will be pleased. We have cross-grade-level professional discussions happening. People are getting along better than ever. image


“Oh my, is that Angie asking Valerie for feedback on a geometry lesson? I never thought that would happen!” Don and Terry are looking over each other’s student work from the recent lesson they worked on together. What a great conversation they are having. Staff members really seem to feel valued and respected by each other and by the principal. Nothing could be better!

“Wait! What is that I just heard over the clunking of the copy machine? No, that can’t happen! Did I just hear Harriet say that she has accepted a science specialist position in another district for next year?” I don’t care if that it is her dream job! She has been our strong, quiet experienced leader of the 4th grade, who has really advocated for lesson study.

Mike looks up from reading over last night’s school board minutes. “Hey Deb, Amy has been granted a leave of absence through December for maternity leave next year. Isn’t that great news?” You have got to be kidding me! She has been my resource for working on the district curriculum realignment of the math strands. I thought she would be back at least part time in the fall. I walk gloomily back down to my classroom.

I see Jody with a huge grin on her face running toward me. “Debra, I just got a call from the district office. I got the 3rd grade position over at the other elementary for next year! I’ll finally get a continuing contract,” she explains with elation. I am finding it difficult to look even slightly thrilled. I didn’t even know she had applied! She was the one who really helped bring the entire 2nd grade staff on board last year during our school’s reconfiguration.

Over the intercom the secretary reminds us, “The new principal will be meeting with us in a few minutes to introduce herself to everyone so we can feel more comfortable and less uncertain about next year.” Oh, let’s just throw in a brand new principal into the mix? Help! Now what will happen to lesson study Monte Cristo Elementary style? Can it survive with all these changes?

We just finished our fourth year of lesson study in our newly reconfigured K–6 elementary school. Five years ago, I secured two years of funding through a leadership grant. Our group’s initial focus was to establish collaboration between our nine 5th grade and multiage 4–5–6 teachers. We wanted to create an environment for critical reflection and focus on increasing our state test results specifically in math. I began by presenting to the 5th grade and multiage staff just what lesson study is. Lesson study brings teachers together with specialists and other educators to design lessons, make revisions, observe student learning and engage in professional discussions about improving student learning. When a lesson is fully developed by the group, one member teaches it to a class while the others observe and note the interaction between the lesson and the students. The entire group then meets to analyze and reflect on the lesson. This is further refined until it is ready to be tried out in another classroom. This cycle continues until the group is satisfied that the students fully understand the lesson.

I purposely chose this group to start with as 5th grade state math scores in rounding and estimation had been nose diving over the past few years. These classrooms were spread all over the building with no common planning time, so there was no teaming except in multiage. Most were experienced teachers with firm differences in philosophy on how to teach mathematics. The newer teachers were still “star struck,” trying to find their own way to eventually elbow in and share newer educational approaches. Many “behind the back” discussions were taking place regarding what and how we taught when the classroom door was closed. Further, teachers were suspicious of the multiage program, which many saw as the program that got all the special favors of the principal. Many staff felt that only high-achieving students (i.e., no problem kids or special needs kids) were placed in these multiage 4-5-6 grade classrooms. I wondered, could lesson study help us get past all of these misconceptions?

To my amazement every 5th grade teacher not only attended the informational meeting but they all volunteered to participate the following fall. In addition, some of our specialists, an instructional aide and the building principal asked to join us. By purposefully deciding to focus on just one math strand, it seemed to help everyone feel more comfortable and eager to join. Things were going smoother than I could have ever hoped.

After three rounds of lesson study, staff members continued their Lesson Study discussions during lunch and in the hallways. In addition, they realized through classroom observations that we all have needy students, including multiage classes. The bonus was that all of our state test scores in math went up significantly!

I knew we had found a good thing when Andrea, our music specialist, wrote to me, “Personally, the most beneficial part of lesson study was the camaraderie it built within our staff. We began with a group of teachers who were in no way a cohesive team. We now have people teaming up to plan education and extra-curriculum activities. I consistently say hi to people that I never used to. This might seem inconsequential, but it is actually hugely significant. When teachers are comfortable with each other and respect each other’s abilities, more cross-curricular planning occurs. Student learning benefits as a result.”

In the second year, I actively recruited and invited more grade levels to join, and our lesson study group doubled its size to 26. I deliberately asked Harriet and Amy to speak to the staff to help expand leadership in lesson study. I asked them to help me share with the staff their observations and reflections on the time spent on lesson study. Harriet has taught for many years and commands respect. Although Amy is less experienced, her devotion to aligning the math curriculum hooked the newer staff. They figured if she felt is was worth spending the time and energy on, then perhaps it was the right move for them as well. Nearly every teacher on staff became involved in the second year of lesson study; it was now “our project” instead of “my project.” With more staff members participating, the professional development continued to thrive!

I have to make sure I have the right mix of staff personalities and teaching experiences working together in these small groups. This isn’t always easy. Keeping a balance within each group of experienced to new staff, from outspoken to introverted, from organized to disorganized, I didn’t always anticipate the problems that occurred. Sometimes I found it best to mix across the grade-level groups, while other times it was best to keep a grade-level team together to work on their lesson development. Moving a quiet leader such as Harriet to be the small group leader of her team brought forth her organizational skills, and it also gave Sarah and Lynn a chance to see how children in their differing grade levels worked on this math strand.

As we moved into our third year of Lesson Study new challenges arose. Without the leadership grant I had to secure funding for substitute teachers and meeting time spent outside the school day. My principal, Wayne, quickly offered to use some of his building budget to fund this successful professional development. Since he had become an active participant in the group meetings, he saw the positive interactions and powerful lessons being developed. He also saw that using the staff to learn from each other, rather than paying for staff to attend expensive trainings out of the district, was cost effective.

During the third year our focus moved to reading. With little time during the day to read this kind of research material, I chose to add professional journal reading to our tasks during our half day release time. This additional task helped to nurture and inspire professional discussions across the building, as all groups were reading the same piece of research. Even staff members who were not in the lesson study groups started picking up and reading the research so that they, too, could be part of the discussions in the staff room and hallways. Our superintendent, another elementary building principal and a school board member came to the large group debriefings. We continued to give presentations to our staff, sharing the ways we found to better refine and present lessons. We were even asked to share our form of lesson study with the high school and middle school math departments, and they, too, started a joint math lesson study team. We continued to grow and change with the needs of our students and staff. Securing further funding, lesson study seemed to be becoming a permanent part of the professional development in our district.

That is, until we hit year four. Our two elementary buildings were restructured from one K–3 and one 3–6 elementary building into a K–5 building. My elementary building changed to become a K–6 school. Half the staff from each building made a move to the other building to round out the complete configuration of grade levels. My building seemed to comprise newer staff. Unfortunately, most of my devoted lesson study participants moved to the other building. Add to that a brand new reading curriculum for kindergarten and 1st grade classrooms that needed intensive training outside the classroom day, and you have a recipe for too much change too fast. How was I going to convince the new staff that we had something that really worked? How was I going to lead this inexperienced and overwhelmed staff into another year of lesson study?

Kindergarten and 1st grade teachers simply couldn’t take on another big commitment and decided to bow out. Our 3rd grade staff members wanted to do their own staff development because most of them were new teachers. This left the reluctant 2nd grade teachers, 4th and 5th grade teachers who had little teaching experience, an experienced multiage staff, and our music specialist, Andrea, who were, willing to participate. I started this year grouping by grade levels, hoping that would reduce stress. I had to do some coaxing to convince Marie, a brand new 5th grade teacher, that it was worth trying during her very demanding first year of teaching. I shared with her all the positive aspects of lesson study whenever I saw her. She dove in with every ounce of energy she could give it.

Unfortunately, early on, her group bombed, with several members choosing to leave meetings early, not participating fully, gossiping, not staying on task and purposely trying to sabotage the group’s work. Marie came to me ready to throw in the towel and swearing to me that she “would never put herself in that position again.” Terrific. Did she feel conned by me for convincing her to do this? Was it my responsibility to report back to the principal on this problem in her group so that he could deal with it? Should I intervene and talk to the other group members? How far did my leadership role stretch?

As I approach the start of another school year and potentially a fifth year of lesson study, I am again meeting new and complex challenges. After losing many of my strongest advocates to the other elementary school last year and with a handful of the lesson study leaders of the current staff, such as Harriet, Amy and Jody, leaving as well as Wayne, my supportive principal, I am left pondering many questions. The new principal is a rookie who will have her own concerns and demands of starting a new career in a new district. As the teacher leader, do I make the move myself and try to reorganize in September,….or do I present it to this new principal simply with the hope that she will continue to make it happen. And now with the expansion and implementation of the new reading curriculum to 2nd and 3rd grades, have I now lost too many supporters to make it work? Am I pushing too hard because I believe so strongly in Lesson Study? What are the boundaries of my teacher leader role? Should I let it go….or try to keep it alive? How hard do I push?

Questions for Discussion
  1. What are the boundaries for teacher leaders in a school? Where does/should a teacher leader’s role stop?
  2. What do you think of the author’s strategy to start working with the least collaborative grade level first? What are the risks and benefits of this approach?
  3. How can the dynamics of dysfunctional teams be addressed to ensure that their issues don’t undermine progress in the rest of the teams?
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