Ally Papers: Stepping Up to the Plate and Improving School Culture

One of the questions that I asked Jason Felch and Jason Song in their “chat” today in regards to using value-added assessments to evaluate teacher “effectiveness” was:

What if the teacher has an unsupportive principal (ones that will deny PDs or limit resources), how is a teacher supposed to be more “effective”?

It was sad that I couldn’t get a decent answer to my question. My response to the “chat” will come with the next post. However, my good friend Erin Woodson, a second grade teacher in Chicago, wrote a wonderful piece to help people understand how school culture/leadership affects teacher drive and “effectiveness.”

The line between developing "classroom culture" isn't that different from developing "school culture."

School culture is different in every school. Although schools may try to model their mission after one another, the ultimate deciding factor in how the mission will be tackled depends on the culture within the school. Students notice the positive, negative and neutral attitudes within a school. Therefore, “there is a need to connect everyone’s caring to create a school culture of care” (Doyle & Doyle, 2003). A teacher leader improves the school culture through advocacy. When a teacher leader collaborates with his or her colleagues, the school culture advances and students embrace the unification.

The school culture affects a teacher’s desire to become a leader. Many teachers believe that the “leadership demands seem different” (Bowman, 2004); therefore, they shy away from any opportunity to become a leader. Administrators or even fellow teachers may condemn the teacher for wanting to take a leap of faith for something that is meaningful to him or her (Bowman, 2004). Even though the other teachers criticize the teacher about taking a chance as a leader, they may want to do the exact same thing, but do not have the courage to do so. There could be a fear of being the “black sheep” amongst the faculty or in an extreme case, losing a job.

Aside from the torment that a teacher could face amongst his or her peers, there is always the possibility of the administration not accepting the idea of a teacher taking on leadership responsibilities. Research performed by Allensworth, Mazzeo and Ponisciak (2009) of the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) focused on the mobility rate of teachers in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Many factors, such as gender, race and the socio-economic status of students, were taken into consideration. However, the school culture and organization affected most novice teachers’ decision to transition to another school. Stability was four to five percent higher amongst teachers who viewed their principal as a strong instructional leader and felt a high level of trust (Allensworth, Mazzeo and Ponisciak, 2009, pp 26). “The degree to which new teachers are welcomed and assisted by school faculty has a significant influence” on whether or not teacher plan on continuing teaching at the same school (Coca, Easton and Kapadia, 2007). Teachers who feel they can trust their principal are more likely to stay and work toward more of a leadership role within the school. Their opinion is valuable and they have “influence over school decisions” (Allensworth, Mazzeo and Ponisciak, 2009).

Teachers are leaders. In a classroom full of leaders it is important that the principal cultivates leadership qualities and "buy-in" into the direction of the school. It improves school culture and improves teaching.

Before a teacher can lead, he or she should evaluate the effect of their teaching on the classroom students. According to the REACH model (Merideth, 2007), an excellent teacher leader should have all of the five characteristics: risk-taking, effectiveness, autonomy, collegiality and honor. Along with these five elements, a teacher, as just a teacher, should also (a) have high expectations for students, (b) spend time-on-task and (c) teach for mastery learning (Wells, 1987). A teacher with high expectations can teach at a fast pace encouraging students to work to the best of their ability along the way. The time used for instruction is defined as time-on-task. An effective teacher utilizes all available time for teaching and learning activities. Teachers must create and execute an atmosphere in which students can succeed (Bowman, 2004). Using the theory of mastery learning creates this atmosphere. Mastery learning sets a percent goal and gives feedback to the teacher immediately. The teacher analyzes the percentage of mastery, reflects and if the goal is not met, re-teaches until students master the skill (Wells, 1987). An effective teacher leader combines REACH leadership elements and classroom teacher characteristics to work toward improvement of the school for all students.

To aide in the positive climate of the school culture, the teacher leader has to work to establish trust and collaboration. Most “everyday leadership dilemmas are laced with complex motives and played out on an uneven political terrain” (Bowman, 2004) which makes it hard to venture out to advocate for change. However, when the administration is open to including teachers, parents and community members in the decision making of the school (Doyle and Doyle, 2003), there is more cohesive structure. The principal is the instructional leader of the school (Michigan State Board of Education, 1990), but that instructional leadership is most effective when all participants are included in the decision making process. School-based planning allows for focusing on joint decision making to implement new policies or curriculum in the school. Students sense cohesive leadership amongst the faculty and staff. As a result, they will want to mimic this marriage of trust and collaboration in their interactions with one another (Wells, 1987).

Students are aware of a teacher's feeling about the school community. As the "tone-setter," positivity must flow from the top-down.

When teacher steps up to a leadership role, it positively affects the school culture. Although there may be hesitation and resistance initially, the ultimate result brings more awareness into the school. Faculty and staff are more aware of the contributions their peers can make to the progression of the school. Students are also more aware of how faculty and staff work together to enhance instruction and the social climate. A supportive administration keeps pioneering teachers in their school and coaches them in the leadership process. By asking for the input of teachers, principals make the teaching and learning environment more comfortable for new ideas and strategies.