366 & 7: My Year in Teacher Leadership

366 & 7: My Year in Teacher Leadership

Abstract

366 days ago, teacher leadership resided somewhere around “HC SVNT DRACONES” on my mental map.  Now, I live and breath it.  How is this possible? This blog post explores my journey into teacher leadership during the past year and its connection to the Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium’s seven domains of teacher leadership.

Behemoth Blog Post Table of Contents

 “Time passes. Will you?”

As a younger man, I may or may not have hung a poster with these words emblazoned upon it beside the clock in my classroom as a reminder to my students to make good use of their time in our classroom. Time has passed, my pedagogy has changed significantly, and my current classroom contains no such menacing reminder of the inexorable passage of time.

The perpetual passage of time haunts me, perhaps more so now in than in my younger days.  Having climbed over the proverbial hill during 2016, the persistence of time and its partnership with change dominate my remembrance of this year.  The passage of 366 days precipitated tremendous change for me professionally.  While I went through my regular routines as normal this year, I also migrated from the realm of classroom teacher to the land of teacher leadership.

366 days ago, teacher leadership resided somewhere around “HC SVNT DRACONES” on my mental map. Seriously, what is teacher leadership?  It sounds like something teachers made up to make themselves feel better about their relatively meager wages, or, even worse, a title that administrators made up to give teachers more work without more compensation.  How does one actually become a teacher leader, and why would anyone want to?  I did not even know teacher leadership existed, and now, I live and breath it.  How is any of this possible?

For me, the answers to these questions about teacher leadership began with my participation in the Maine Teacher of the Year program during 2015.  Through this program, I learned that not only is teacher leadership a real thing, but it also embodies the best of teaching.  Teacher leadership provides challenge and opportunity for growth for educators, and not coincidentally, increases student engagement and achievement.

So, while I had more questions than answers about teacher leadership 366 days ago, I learned that people much smarter than me have identified 7 model standards for effective teacher leadership, and that my most recent 366 included experiences encompassing all of them.  The Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium’s 7 domains of teacher leadership follow, along with how they emerged in my life during my most recent 366.

Domain I: Fostering a collaborative culture to support educator development and student learning.

Since beginning my participation in the Maine Teacher of the Year Program in 2015, the network of individuals associated with this program has become like a second extended family for me.  When the newest members of this program were announced in April 2016, I desperately wanted to be in our state capital to meet them and celebrate their success.  However, one or two obstacles existed.  The first problem, I lived three hours away from our state capital at the time.  The second problem, I had to teach that day, and “Hey boss, I want to go to a party, so I can’t come and teach today” does not a happy administrator make.

So, I wanted to support my colleagues and their professional growth through the Maine Teacher of the Year Process, but I needed a valid reason to miss teaching to make it possible. (Note #1: For the record, I love being in my classroom and working with students.  Serious illness or serious professional development are generally the only things that prevent my presence there.)

Enter the first domain of teacher leadership, “Fostering a collaborative culture to support educator development and student learning.”  While this domain normally occurs within a school building, through our teacher of the year program and other statewide initiatives, Maine is building a collaborative network of educators at a statewide level.  When the director of the Maine Teacher of the Year Program invited me to present about using social media to enhance professional development to our newest county teachers of the year, I had my excuse…er, my reason to miss teaching for the day and the opportunity that I wanted to meet and support some outstanding educators. (Note #2: I may or may not have emailed said director of the Maine Teacher of the Year Program begging to be included in the day’s proceedings in some fashion.)

With all of the conflict surrounding this year’s presidential election on social media, it probably seems counterintuitive that social media can be a great place for building a collaborative culture.  Nevertheless, educators throughout Maine and the nation have built amazingly supportive and inclusive professional learning networks on social networks, particularly on Twitter, a.k.a. Trollville.

My teaching practice has been greatly enriched by the professional resources and conversations available to teachers on Twitter, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to share this, and many other, amazing resource with other educators.  As a result, my presentation “Why me?  Why Social Media?” was born.  You can view the presentation on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/uawiuNpGzEI, but the important thing to know is that several of the audience members that night became regular Twitter users and #EdChatME (https://edchat.me/) participants.  Since our time together in April, our personal learning networks have grown, yielding positive results for our development and student learning.

Domain II: Accessing and using research to improve practice and student learning.

While change is constant, during my last 366 daily professional reading continued to be a fixture in my life.  I cannot imagine a day without exposure to new perspectives and stories about our schools and what takes place within and beyond their walls. Articles that flashed across my social media feeds, books recommended by other educators, and personal selections like Jonathan Cassie’s Level Up Your Classroom or Clayton M. Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma compelled my attention and brought new perspectives and practices to my classroom this year.

Still, my participation in the XQ Super School Project with a group of students, educators, and community members interested in changing the very essence of secondary education was without a doubt the most profound example of Domain II of the Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium’s 7 domains of teacher leadership this year.  Is there a better way to “models the use of systematic inquiry as a critical component of teachers’ ongoing learning and development” than conducting and reviewing research to completely redesign our students’ high school experience?

While this process, which actually began in September of 2015, was incredibly daunting, the rewards of imagining what high school could be for students in places as diverse as rural Washington County Maine and urban Silicon Valley, California were immeasurable.  Working together, our team built a plan for a bicoastal high school focused on project-based learning designed specifically to harness the strengths and face the challenges of these two diverse communities and prepare our students for a world in constant flux.

As if the personal reward of learning what works and what is possible through this project were not enough, our team also received significant validation from experts and the press, being named one of 50 XQ Super School Project Finalists,receiving significant local media coverage and even garnering the support of Maine’s amazing Senators in the process.

While our team did not win one of ten $10 million dollar grants to build our super school, we did learn that systematic inquiry into the process of education can definitely inspire students, educators and a community to consider new possibilities for student learning and capture the attention of a state in the process.

Domain III: Promoting professional learning for continuous improvement.

This domain of teacher leadership often involves moving from attending professional development to planning and presenting it, and the transition from attendee to presenter was true for me during my 366 in 2016. 

As a participant in the Maine Teacher of the Year program in 2015, I was invited to attend many outstanding professional development programs, not the least of which was ECET2 Maine at Colby College during August 2015.  This conference quickly and easily became the most thrilling of all of the professional development experiences in my career.  What made @ECET2Maine so special?  ECET2 Maine’s focus on “Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching” successfully balanced celebrating attendees successes and struggles while simultaneously building skills to move attendees into teacher leadership roles in the future.  Whether it was learning powerful strategies for working with adult learners from a State Teacher of the Year or learning about how things work in the U.S. Department of Education from an insider, ECET2 Maine 2015 provided me with building blocks for becoming an impactful teacher leader and advocate for my students.

When the calendar flipped to 2016, I found myself putting the lessons from ECET2 Maine 2016 to good use.  In addition to presenting the glories of social media-based professional development to Maine’s newest 2016 County Teachers of the Year, I also had the privilege of presenting theories and techniques for game-based and gamified learning at ACTEM 2016 and ECET2 Maine 2016

Moving from attending to presenting professional development might have been extremely stressful and challenging under different circumstances.  With the Maine Teacher of the Year network and ECET2 Maine supporting this transition, the move simply felt natural.  In the coming year, I am thrilled to help ease this transition for others by participating in the planning of ECET2 2017 as a member of the board of the Maine State Teacher of the Year Association.

Domain IV: Facilitating improvements in instruction and student learning.

As they should, many of the activities previously mentioned in this post also fall under this domain.  After all, what good is professional development if it is not focused on improving instruction and student learning?

For the first time in many years, I found myself working with a new community of students and a new technology environment as my family and I made the transition from Shead High School to Monmouth Middle School, from Downeast to Central Maine, from rural to suburban life in October.  During my years at Shead High School, much of my recent work focused on educational technology and how best to employ our 1:1 student devices for effective learning in our classrooms.  We are very fortunate in Maine to have the MLTI program to help guide our implementation of educational technology in our schools and classroom.

As the technology coordinator at Shead High School, I spent a good portion of my time working to get the best possible leverage out of our 1:1 MLTI devices, iPads for students and MacBook Airs and iPad Minis for teachers.  I spent a good portion of the spring collecting data through both the BrightBytes Clarity platform and informal staff and student surveys, and I was excited to lead the change to new devices, 9.7 iPad Pros for students with the Apple Classroom App.  This amazing app had the potential to address many of the issues that teachers and students reported with their use of educational technology for learning.  Seriously, iPads just rock for learning, especially in a managed classroom environment.

Unfortunately, life had different plans for me, and I never got to implement my vision for leveraging these devices as learning tools.  Instead, I found myself working in a learning environment with 1:1 Laptops at Monmouth Middle School.  While I found the switch to laptops somewhat limiting and frustrating, I also found myself in an amazing district with an explicit mission of inspiring hope in all learners through personalized, standards-based, student-centered applied learning.  While I may find RSU 2’s educational technology limiting, I also find their focus on applied learning thrilling.  In my two months at RSU 2, I have experienced tremendous professional growth, teaming with amazing educators from around the district in a Design Thinking Cohort aimed at bringing the power of the Stanford D.School’s design thinking process to our students and our classrooms and designing applied learning tasks with an amazing team of teachers in our building.

Whether at Shead High School or Monmouth Middle School, working in a classroom or a wider community, I have been blessed to have the opportunity to not only share my expertise in instruction and educational technology with others, but also to learn from amazing educators from a variety of learning communities.  As I transition to 2017, I hope that I continue to remember that the greatest part of leadership is often listening.

Domain V: Promoting the use of assessments and data for school and district improvement.

I would like to say that I have many great things to say about my use of assessments and data over the past year, but I would like to tell the truth, mainly, even if there may be a few things that I stretch.

State-level standardized test data at the secondary level has been relatively useless for educators over the past decade.  I would love to report otherwise, but Maine has yet to find a way to provide its secondary educators with data that is actionable.  The problems with Maine’s statewide assessments at the secondary level are three-fold.  To begin with, Maine has primarily used the SAT, a test that the College Board will tell you is intended test a student’s aptitude for college-level study rather than a student’s mastery of a state’s educational standards, as its secondary level assessment over the past decade. Compounding this error of using an aptitude test to assess mastery of standards, Maine has chosen a test that requires educators to compare different cohorts of students to assess student and school system growth.  There is simply no means of measuring an individual secondary student’s growth from year to year using Maine’s current chosen statewide assessment.  Finally, the reporting of the SAT, providing general Reading, Writing, and Mathematics scores does not allow educators to target specific skills within these areas with which students may have struggled.  Clearly, the statewide assessment in Maine is not making it easy for educators to make effective use of assessment data in the classroom.

However, Maine’s educators, like the majority of its citizenry, are full of ingenuity.  Schools, as a result, have augmented the lack of useful statewide assessment data with other sources of data.  Most schools in Maine use either the nationally-normed NWEA or STAR assessments to identify student areas of strength and weakness and track student growth over time.  I am familiar with both of these assessments and use them to inform classroom instruction, but honestly, I have found IXL to be my best source of actionable student data outside of regular classroom assignments this year.  With a schoolwide subscription, I am able to easily track all of my students’ understanding of key language arts concepts, address any of their misconceptions quickly, and provide them with extra targeted practice as needed. 

Of course, teacher leadership requires more than using student data within my classroom.  I am fortunate to work with a great team of educators at Monmouth Middle School, the kind of educators who are capable of overcoming the lack of actionable statewide assessment data by leveraging other resources to improve instruction and student learning.

Domain VI: Improving outreach and collaboration with families and community.

A lot of teacher leadership can feel distantly removed from working directly with students as the complex human beings that they are.  Sitting at luxuriously decorated tables eating catered meals at professional development gatherings over the years, I have often wondered how often my students have had the opportunity to eat meals like these, or what they could learn in these settings. Perhaps because of its explicit focus on students as human beings rather than data, Domain VI of the Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium’s Teacher Leader Model Standards holds the greatest significance for me.

I have not always been good at incorporating students’ families and communities into my classroom practice.  I often times feel as if, at least at the secondary level, my students have and deserve enough agency to make their own educational decisions.  Nevertheless, the longer that I have worked in schools, the more connections I have witnessed between family and community support and student success.

The importance of these connections leads me to explore ways that I could become more involved in the lives of students, their families, and their communities outside of regular school hours.  From sponsoring after-school academic gatherings, to attending student sporting events and holding community events and fundraisers, no single activity has brought me closer to my students and their communities than coaching Shead High School’s Boys Varsity Soccer team.  Not every parent enjoyed school, and, particularly in disadvantaged communities, many parents find the classroom and school building an intimidating and unwelcoming.  For many of these parents and their children, athletic fields are an entirely different venue, and a place where they can connect with others without the discomfort they may otherwise associate with school.

My foray into coaching gave me new insight into my students, their families, and their communities and eventually led me to see them differently.  On the athletic field, I saw my some of my students display characteristics that I would never have imagined possible if I only knew them inside the classroom, and I got to know their parents much more deeply than I ever could by simply meeting with them in a parent-teacher conference twice a year.

Eventually, the new perspective that I gained through coaching led me to understand that student success is much more complicated than simply using the best instructional techniques in the classroom.  This perspective, often neglected in educational circles, eventually led to me writing a celebration of the success of some of my most disadvantaged students for the Bangor Daily News Teacher Voice Column this year.  You can read this piece, “How 2 of my Students Overcame Great Adversity, and What We Can Learn from Them” in full online, but you already know the essential truth of it: student success depends on much more than simply what happens inside the classroom.

The connections that I build with students and families through coaching lead to another outstanding opportunity this year, one that continues to humble me with the generosity of spirit and kindness that it embodies.  One of my scholar-athletes, an outstanding young man named CJ Francis, applied and was selected to participate in the 2016 White House Tribal Nations Conference and Tribal Youth Gathering as part of the White House’s Generation Indigenous program.  CJ’s participation would require a trip to Washington D.C. and would include invitations to the Eisenhower Office Building on the White House grounds, to meet with national policymakers and inspirational individuals, and to hear President Barack Obama speak in person.  When CJ invited me to serve as his chaperone for this trip, I was overwhelmed by his kindness, and I told him that, of course, I would do everything that I could to support him in this endeavor.

CJ & Mr. Brigham outside the West Wing on the grounds of the White House Just outside the White House’s West Wing with student-athlete and Generation Indigenous participant CJ Francis.

 This trip to Washington D.C. with CJ with will forever be one of the highlights of my teaching career.  As if nearly a week exploring the history of Washington D.C. alone were not enough of a reward, I was able to support and witness an amazing young man as he grew into his own role as a leader.  Watching CJ grow in Washington D.C., I also grew my knowledge and understanding of the issues facing the many indigenous students in Maine and around our nation.  Every time that I step into a classroom, the essential learning of the importance of outreach and collaboration with families and communities, learning that I gained from places as far afield as the athletic fields in Washington County, Maine to Washington D.C., enters with me.

With such outstanding human beings as teachers, how could this not be my favorite domain of teacher leadership?

Domain VII: Advocating for student learning and the profession.

No reflection on 2016 would be complete without some mention of the role that politics played in our lives this year, and this reflection is no different.  As we trudged through an amazingly divisive presidential campaign this year, many other issues confronted those of us who work in classrooms on the local and state level.  While many of us attempt to avoid sharing our political positions inside the classroom, we, as teachers and experts on what works in education, have a responsibility to share our perspective and expertise with policymakers and the public when it comes to time to create educational policies.

In my state of Maine this year, we confronted our own divisions as we worked to build effective statewide policies to support student learning and the teaching profession.  Educational funding was the centerpiece of this division, as Maine narrowly passed Question 2, an income tax surcharge of 3% on income earned over $200,000, to provide more funding state-level funding for our schools.  Although seeing Question 2 as only part of the solution to our education funding issues in Maine, I worked to support this initiative this year, primarily by sharing my perspectives on this measure with lawmakers and on social media.  I am grateful that Question 2 has passed, and I also understand that we have a lot of work ahead of us to further improve our school funding mechanisms in Maine if we hope to truly increase student learning and close the achievement gap in our state.

Virtual contact with others is a great first step to advocacy, but it is not enough if we are truly serious about advocating for our students and our profession.  My family and I switched schools and moved this past year partially to be closer to our state capital for advocacy purposes, but it is not necessary or practical for every educator to take a drastic step to effectively advocate for the needs of her or his students and profession. Most legislators are happy to connect and hear the perspective of classroom teachers about policy issues over the phone or via email, and you can find your legislators by clicking here: https://openstates.org/find_your_legislator/.

If you would like to further build a connection with your legislators, you also have the option of inviting your legislators to visit your classroom or your school.  Many legislators find their visits to schools a highlight of an often challenging calling, and as an additional benefit, these visits provide our students with a special insight into our democratic process.  During the past year, Shead High School hosted State Representatives Joyce Maker and William Tuell, and I am looking forward to hosting Representative Tuell and now Senator Maker at Monmouth Middle School this coming year.

Finally, if bringing your legislators to your school does not work, you can always bring yourself or your students to the legislature.  An excellent choice for a field trip for students because of both their historical and modern importance, state legislatures can also offer a tremendous learning opportunity for educators.  During this past legislative session, I was honored to receive an invitation to attend a meeting of her caucus and be a guest of the Senate with my amazing colleague and the 2016 Maine Teacher of the Year, Talya Edlund.  During this visit, I developed a new appreciation for the difficulty of a legislator’s job, especially as the caucus deftly moved through the status and discussion of enough bills to make my head spin. 

When the time came, Tayla and I had the opportunity to address legislators and answer their questions to provide a classroom teachers’ perspective on Senator Millet’s bill LD 1370: An Act to Improve the Quality of Teachers.  Despite the unfortunate name of the bill, Talya and I shared our support of this bill as an important measure to address the looming teacher shortage in Maine and attract talented individuals to our profession in the future.  While LD 1370 eventually died between houses, Talya and I had the opportunity to inform legislators about one of the pressing issues facing our profession and lay the groundwork for future passage of legislation to address the looming teacher shortage in our state.

Time will always pass, and I as I used to remind my students with a simple poster by my classroom clock, it is up to us to make the most of it.  While it is certain that my adventures in teacher leadership will differ over the years, it is also certain that with the passage of time, if I and teachers like me continue to focus our teacher leadership efforts on the needs of our students and the domains of teacher leadership listed above, our students will not only pass, but will surely prosper.

TL;DR

My adventures in teacher leadership led to some amazing experiences this year.

Domain I: Fostering a collaborative culture to support educator development and student learning.

Teaching Maine’s 2016 County Teachers of the Year about the benefits of using social media for professional development in “Why Me?  Why Social Media?”  https://youtu.be/uawiuNpGzEI

Domain II: Accessing and using research to improve practice and student learning.

Being a member of a team named of finalists for a $10 million dollar award to fundamentally change high school in the XQ Super School Project.  Media coverage:  XQ Super School Project FinalistsMaine High School Dreams Big

Domain III: Promoting professional learning for continuous improvement.

Moving from conference attendee to conference presenter at ACTEM 2016 and ECET2 Maine 2016

Domain IV: Facilitating improvements in instruction and student learning.

Moving from leading educational technology best practices at Shead High School to implementing Stanford D.School’s design thinking process at Monmouth Middle School.

Domain V: Promoting the use of assessments and data for school and district improvement.

Making the most of the available standardized testing data: I would like to tell the truth, mainly, even if there may be a few things that I stretch.

Domain VI: Improving outreach and collaboration with families and community.

Celebrating the success of my students in the Bangor Daily News through “How 2 of my Students Overcame Great Adversity, and What We Can Learn from Them” and on a trip to Washington D.C. and the White House with CJ Francis for the 2016 White House Tribal Nations Conference.

Domain VII: Advocating for student learning and the profession.

Engaging with legislators and the public is support of Maine’s Question 2 to increase school funding and LD 1370: An Act to Improve the Quality of Teachers to address the looming teacher shortage in Maine.