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Some city schools look for support to boost teacher leadership

For many of the city’s strongest teachers, moving up professionally means moving out of the classroom and on to jobs in school management, consulting, policy, or academia. That was the conclusion of a recent survey from the New Teacher Project on the challenges districts face retaining teachers who have hit their stride.

The Department of Education is in the early stages of several experiments to encourage those teachers to stay in schools, offering higher-level professional development and sometimes higher pay. But some school leaders don’t want to wait to give their teachers opportunities to improve their leadership practices.

Enter the National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education, a fledgling training program for teachers who have already demonstrated strength and commitment to the profession, but want to improve even more. For the past two years they have offered teachers around the country an intensive leadership training workshop tailored to the experiences of classroom instructors. This year, six city teachers joined a cohort of 50 in Chicago, for a two week long summer seminar series.

The curriculum is split between teaching skills and leadership skills like public speaking and improvisation, and peppered with business school-style case study reading assignments, according to Deborah Levitsky, the program director. The idea is to help them to think deeper about non-supervisory leadership roles, such as grade-level team leaders and department chairs. The program runs for two years, with a winter weekend-long meetup and at-home reading and writing assignments.

One reason teachers leave the classroom, according to the TNTP study, is that they feel their talents are going unrecognized. The study authors posed paying teachers more based on merit as one solution. But in lieu of that option, school districts were encouraged to find ways to help teachers to refine their teaching approaches through special programs.

Jason Griffith, the only district school principal to send a teacher to the academy, said the stakes are particularly high for small and selective schools like his, Brooklyn Latin High School, where a smaller number of teachers makes up the total staff.

“We spend an awful lot of time trying to find great teachers and then supporting and developing them. If we do have a teacher who leaves after three or five years, we’re losing all their knowledge and skills they have built,” he said. “If there’s a program that can keep teachers in the schools for any amount of time longer, that’s a real benefit for us.”

Griffith,who also sent a teacher last year, said the program was worth the cost of about $5,000 from the school’s discretionary budget.

The teacher “came back with more tools in his toolbox to be a better teacher and a better facilitator in meetings,” Griffith said. “Budgets are tight right now, but as we grow as a school—we’ve almost doubled in the last two years—there’s a major need to build capacity and leadership.”

The other city participants hailed from local charter schools, including Explore Charter School and schools from the Democracy Prep and Achievement First networks.

John Huber, who has been teaching 9th grade literature at Achievement First Brooklyn for the past two years, said his supervisors nominated him for the academy at a turning point in his four-year teaching career.

“I’ve been given a great deal of responsibiltiy this year—I’lll be the department chair, and doing a lot more curriculum design work,” he said, noting that this would be particularly challenging this year with the citywide push to align curricula to the Common Core State Standards. “What I had the opportunity to work on at NAATE has enhanced by ability to meet some of those responsibilities.”

Huber rattled off a dizzying list of instructional and classroom management strategies covered during the summer workshops that he continues to think about as school year approaches.

“Issues such as, what does really high quality classroom discourse sound like? Issues surrounding test efficacy, and making sure each child is receiving the same high quality education despite different ability levels,” he said. “And selecting the best strategy to use to achieve a particular objective, whether the teacher is trying to decide if a teacher-led discussion is the best way to go, or a seminar, or small group discussions.”

Reshma Ramkellawan-Arteaga, a seventh-grade reading teacher and grade-level team leader at Democracy Prep Charter Middle School in Harlem, said one lesson that particularly stuck with her was a case study about a teacher called Mr. Chen.

He was highly regarded by his fellow teacher she said, and ran a tight ship in his classroom. But when he encountered a student whose learning style didn’t fit into the structure of his classroom, confrontation ensued. The moral of the story was to reconsider tools you use to help students who struggle.

“There are moments in the middle of February when you’re exhausted, and waiting for mid-Winter recess, that you don’t always see the best in your students,” Ramkellawan-Arteaga explained. “But the student [in the reading] was trying to pay attention. This forced me to take a step back and remind myself that I need to attempt to see the best at all times.”