Teaching Teachers to Take Charge
By Robert Schroeder
No Child Left Behind. Race to the Top. Unions. Benefits reductions. Grant-writing. Administrators.
If one were to probe a teacher's brain for a day, those are probably just a few of countless thoughts buzzing around the mind.
Oh yeah, make sure your kids meet the test scores, too.
How exactly is a teacher supposed to meet—and exceed—expectations in an environment like this? That's the question National Louis University's Drs. Harry Ross and Steve Zemelman set out to answer in their book, "13 Steps to Teacher Empowerment." Their findings are changing hearts and minds of teachers, one conference at a time.
"What we found is that often teachers were not doing as good a job as they could do, or they were leaving teaching, becoming burned out early, or becoming curmudgeons," said Ross, an associate professor in the National College of Education. "They weren't leveraging the possibilities of school culture; they weren't using community organizing strategies."
On Jan. 30-31, 2011, Ross and Zemelman presented their findings at the New Teacher Center's National Symposium on Teacher Induction in San Jose, Calif. Their 13 steps ask teachers to invest in themselves, to seek greater understanding of their students, to build connections with peers and superiors, to take on more active roles in their school communities, and to reach out to parents, community organizations and grant funders.
Two recent studies provide evidence supporting Ross' and Zemelman's methods. The Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University Chicago concluded from a 15-year study period that the top indicator of school success is teacher professional development. A report from the Universities of Minnesota and Wisconsin, funded by the Wallace Foundation, which seeks to improve learning and enrichment opportunities for children, found that when principals and teachers share leadership, student achievement increases, and when teachers feel attached to a professional community, they use instructional practices linked to improved student learning.
Anne Watkins, senior director at the New Teacher Center, an organization that works to improve student learning by accelerating the effectiveness of teachers and school leaders, says Ross' and Zemelman's vision enables teachers to better differentiate instruction.
"Empowered teachers are able to pre-assess their students to learn their strengths, interests and needs," Watkins said. "They can then plan learning experiences that engage and challenge all of them, rather than one-size-fits-all instruction."
One of Ross' and Zemelman's 13 steps recommends that teachers shadow a student for a day, a technique schools are requiring with greater frequency. Teachers report to the authors they realize how disruptive the school day can be for students shifting from subject to subject , how students respond to different types of teaching, and how student capabilities shift room-to-room.
Gaining a greater understanding of the students leads not only to teacher empowerment, said Ross, but student empowerment as well. Students directly benefit from teacher empowerment because teacher collaboration creates a sense of belonging and models collaboration among students.
Alumna Juli Ross (M.A.T. '91) (no relation to Harry Ross) employs the 13-step at the Baker Demonstration School in Wilmette, Ill. method by collaborating with teachers on curriculum, sharing resources and building shared thematic studies.
"The best case scenario is when students are exposed to another teacher's style, and [they] witness negotiation and compromise and an idea that grows into something completely different than what it started off being," Juli Ross said.
National Louis' Dr. Ross stresses that teachers must effectively leverage school culture to reach maximum potential. Like a food web, every player in the school setting exerts a level of influence on individual teachers. If teachers do not understand how that playing field works, they are unable to leverage resources at their disposal.
As the use of data judging school effectiveness increases, Ross says administrators face a crossroads on the best way to leverage this information.
"Teachers can use this data to improve practice and schools working with the administration, or the data can just be used by administrators to reward or punish teachers, which is very detrimental to the school culture," Ross said. "When it is used as a stick or a carrot…teachers pretty much learn to shut their doors."
Principals engaged with Ross and Zemelman have largely bought into the 13-step process, although not all have signaled willingness to commit time towards one-on-one collaboration with teachers. Ross says the principals who have embraced the process find greater ease working with teachers and a more open school culture.
That culture can be a safety net for society's most vulnerable. A teacher collaborating with Ross used survey methods to identify a student on the verge of dropping out. The high school student, an illegal immigrant, believed his education was a waste of time since his job prospects post-graduation were slim. The teacher persuaded the student to enroll in vocational classes, leading to an increase in the student's engagement, grades and productivity. The student hopes to become a mechanic following graduation.
"Any student can fall through the cracks," Ross said. "To catch a student like this is a great achievement."