TLC: Building capacity through innovative approach
MARION – What happens when a teacher-leader returns to the classroom full time? Really good things. After all, they not only coached teachers to become better educators, but they learned a thing or two outside the classroom about the art and science of teaching along the way.
That’s what educators are discovering at Linn-Mar Community School District. Just don’t say that teacher-leaders are going “back” to the classroom.
“We very purposely say that teacher-leaders are moving forward into the classroom,” said Erin Watts, a former teacher-leader who has returned to her eighth-grade classroom. “We are not moving back, but we’re moving forward in teaching.”
Linn-Mar's Director of Innovation Bob Read said when the district started its Teacher Leader and Compensation (TLC) program several years ago, the intent was to get teacher-leaders to return to classrooms.
“As we move teachers forward into the classroom, our system’s capacity grows,” Read said. “As we continue to do this year after year, our capacity for teaching kids in the classroom only increases.”
When the district of over 7,900 students kicked off its TLC program several years ago, administrators started with instructional, technology integration and mentor coaches. They eventually added student support instructors who focus specifically on special education teachers. Today, the district has 24 full-time coaches, along with 150 stipend-paid teachers who still work in the classroom.
“Outside of the classroom, they do extra work by focusing on grade level and content area,” Watts said.
The district invested in a program called Cognitive Coaching, which is aimed at teacher leaders to ensure their coaching is constructive and well received. The district also invested in the program Adaptive Schools, which focuses on making work groups more efficient and effective.
“Adaptive Schools teaches administrators how to make members of a group to be productive,” Watts said. “The fact that we’re never explicitly taught how to be effective members of a team is amazing. For instance, we know that PLCs (professional learning communities) are good work, but if we as teachers can’t work together in a productive manner, then it doesn’t do any good.”
All of that coaching has benefited Watts – and her students – in the classroom.
“One of the things I find today is how I speak to my students is very different than several years ago,” she said. “I ask open-ended questions. Before TLC came along, there would be a lot of ‘yes and no.’”
Watts’s years of coaching also made her more aware that all students are not created equal.
“Kids are living such different scenarios,” she said. “If I see a kid who is falling behind, instead of saying ‘why are you not getting this work done,’ I ask, ‘what are some of the problems you are facing?’ It gives students access to a different part of their brains to see less of an accusatory remark. This enables them to see the teacher as someone who is helping them move forward.”
Read said Linn-Mar’s approach to rotating teachers in and out of leadership positions may seem counterintuitive to some, perhaps even counterproductive. But that’s not the case.
“Our intent was always to have coaches return to the classroom because instructionally they are going to be so much better than when they left,” he said. “We have always said, ‘you’re not retiring from TLC. The intention is that you do this and become very good, and then take it back to the classroom.’”
Now six months back in the classroom, Watts said she has noticed she’s changed.
“I think the No. 1 thing I have noticed is being flexible in my thinking,” she said. “Anyone who knew me several years ago knew I was pretty rigid. You can’t operate like that in this world. Coaching has allowed me to slow down my thinking so I can make those thoughtful decisions for my students. Rather than forging ahead and saying ‘this was in the lesson plan so this is what we’re doing,’ I consider all options.”
Still, initially it was hard for Watts to hang up her leadership hat.
“No one likes to get a phone call with someone saying, ‘thank you and your time has concluded’ – that’s hard to hear,” she said. “It’s not just your ego, but it’s leaving your work that you spent so much time and energy. You’ve seen teachers grow. And then you just step away.”
Today, however, she is very pleased.
“I’m a better educator because I am much more of a collaborator,” Watts said. “I also see the students as part of the collaboration rather than just the recipient. Today I gather information from the students, asking them what worked, what didn’t. I do this several times a week, usually very informally.
“I will tell you this: Eighth graders will tell you want they think very directly.”