Teacher Leadership Helps Schools Start Students on the Right Foot

By Michelle Macchia

As a former third grade teacher in a suburban school district, and a K-5 literacy coach in a high-needs, urban district, I understand the complexities inherent to teaching reading. In my first and second years, I would spend countless hours planning lessons, only to be left with a half-empty feeling at the close of class. I would ask myself, “Why do I always think my students can do better, even if I’m teaching as hard as I can?” I was sure that I had missed something. Even though I had attended every professional development workshop offered and read numerous books, I still felt that I could do more.

In retrospect, I realize that while I was looking in some of the most logical places, I had neglected to use an abundant (and often overlooked) resource that was right before my very eyes: my teaching colleagues. Sadly, that approach wasn't promoted in my school. It just wasn't a part of the school culture.

Today, after nearly 15 years of classroom teaching and five years of providing professional development to elementary teachers, I subscribe to the knowledge-of-practice conception of professional learning. This means I believe that what happens inside teachers’ classrooms is a form of learning that is equally as powerful as the learning they absorb in workshops outside of the classroom. Research shows that teachers are most effective when they use their classrooms as “sites of intentional investigation” to reflect on and improve their practice.

In fact, this approach to engaging teachers in professional learning is the foundation of my work as one of the developers of Teaching Matters’ Early Reading Matters program, which emphasizes teacher collaboration as the driver of improved reading achievement among K-3 students.

So, what has invited this change? For starters, reforms to the profession, like new teacher evaluation requirements, have prompted teachers and school leaders to find creative ways to optimize their resources. These same reforms have also necessitated targeted professional development for teachers. We have seen more and more professional learning communities popping up in schools in response to these realities.

In addition, research on teaching and learning has helped us figure out that effective instruction relies on formative assessment because it can with precision influence a teacher’s next instructional steps. And given the complexity of teaching children to read, formative assessment, which involves monitoring student progress toward reaching the established learning targets, is essential. This task, however, can be overwhelming for teachers reviewing formative assessment data in isolation. For this reason, teacher collaborative inquiry that centers on student achievement - guided by skilled teacher leaders - makes sense.

Finally, student achievement data give us some insight. Only one-third of tested third graders demonstrated proficiency in reading on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress. The achievement data in an overwhelming majority of the schools in which this program is being introduced this spring are even more sobering. The need is clearly great - and there is a road map for improvement.

Teacher leadership promotes a sustainable culture of professional learning and growth that uses collaborative inquiry to examine data, addresses context-specific issues, and takes place right at the learning site.This process is protocol-driven. It includes job-embedded professional learning experiences for teachers--an approach supported by research on the ways adults acquire knowledge.

Teacher leadership can facilitate learning for teachers of all grades and subjects, but it delivers a special punch in the early literacy years. That’s because of the particular importance and challenge of teaching young children to read and write - and the lasting benefit to children. At a recent conference, the University of Michigan’s Nell Duke said about the complexity of the task, “some of us treat it like it’s rocket science because it is like rocket science!” Research on literacy instruction in the early grades shows that children must have a steady diet of activities in five key areas: phonemic awareness, phonics and concepts about print, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Teachers can plan for this instruction in all of these areas on their own. However, their gains accelerate when they work with colleagues on a task of this size and importance.

I am thrilled to play a key role in implementing our new Teaching Matters professional learning program for K-3 teachers, Early Reading Matters. It is steeped in a collaborative inquiry approach during a time when our teachers and our children need this help the most.