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Teacher Leadership and Change

Stacey Gauthier, a co-principal of Renaissance Charter High School, and Marc Waxman, a principal of a charter school in Denver, are corresponding about school policy. Read their entire exchange.

Hi Marc,

Your last letter to me discussing Denver Green School got me thinking about the absolute necessity of teacher voice in the whole discussion of improving education. Before I answer your question about Renaissance’s collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) let me frame it first with some recent experiences I’ve had.

Last week, I saw “Waiting for ‘Superman.'” It is a heart-wrenching documentary about families seeking a great education for their kids and mostly not getting it. It raises the important issue of teacher quality as the mainstay of this great education. Who can argue with that? No one — not labor, special interests, charter advocates, politicians, educrats. This is good news because we can agree on something and that is a starting point for constructive dialogue.

And speaking of dialogue, over the last year, I have followed the New York Post and its series called “The War on Charters.” I would like to change the tone of this to “A Dialogue on Charters.” This might seem to be just semantics, but sometimes, as in the classic Gloria Estefan song, “the words get in the way.” Being in a war and having a dialogue are two very different experiences. I also followed all the education reform conversations around Race to the Top and improving education in America. As for these dialogues, teachers as agents of change were never really mentioned. Huh, you say?Sure, we talked about serving more special needs students in charter schools, eliminating rubber rooms, tying teacher performance to test scores and tenure (all important), but not the actual role of teachers themselves in bringing the change we all agree must happen into fruition.

In the DPS piece, Buck highlights a core premise that is missing from “Waiting for ‘Superman'” and the political debate — the role of teacher leadership in promoting real and meaningful systemic educational reform. Why is it the very people we say matter the most in effecting positive change are excluded from being an active part of making the change happen? Is it because we think they are paralyzed by the status quo, oppressed to the point of inaction, have such strong self-interest that nothing else matters or are incapable due to some deficit? I guess there are some who might think that way. I am confident that teachers can be the change factor and that they want to be. Who wants to go to work every day and see kids fail? Not most of the teachers that I have had the privilege to work with over the years.

Renaissance has three CBAs with the United Federation of Teachers, the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, and DC-37, which represents school staff. Only the CBA with the CSA, the principals union, has been officially modified, in a process I was very involved in. This modification includes giving up some of the traditional job protection contained in the union’s regular agreement with the city. However, before the hate mail comes flying in, the provisions at our school include a corporate-type severance package for parting ways in instances where fit or lack thereof is an issue. Due process, a hallmark of why people unionize, is still present, but in a realistic way for the times we live in. This is an important modification and one I fully embrace as a union member living under a contract that respects me as a professional in many more ways than I have room to elaborate in this letter.

We have not officially modified the other CBAs, but in practice how we work at Renaissance has allowed for an environment that promotes teacher empowerment and accountability. Three teachers have seats on our board of trustees and can hold executive office. This is a huge deal since the board is the ultimate governing body of a charter school.

We also have a sophisticated teacher leadership model that allows for growth and opportunities to lead initiatives within the school. Four years ago teachers voted overwhelmingly to participate in the Teacher Incentive Fund program (run by the Partnership for Compensation in Charter Schools, a collaboration between CEI-PEA and nine charter schools). They are part of its yearly plan design and have active leadership roles in its implementation and evaluation. Our school is organized into professional learning communities where peer review, not administrative review, is the driving force in continual teacher improvement and support. I hope to expand on each of these in future posts.

We have strong teacher retention and, most importantly, our school works for kids. In 2008, we received a UFT Partnership Award, confirming that unions and charters can be collaborators for change if they work together. In 2010, we received our second full five-year renewal from the Board of Regents — recognizing that we met the academic, fiscal and organizational goals in our charter.

So, Marc, I look forward to hearing more about your thoughts on what I’ve discussed and on making change really happen.

Best,
Stacey

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First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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