Making sure schools support every child in reaching their full potential is a complex task. The challenge is even greater at places like Meridian School District in northwest Washington that must run on lean staffs.
David Forsythe, assistant superintendent of Meridian School District, said the district recognized strong teacher leadership could significantly impact student achievement. Yet not every school had teacher leaders, and expectations for those leaders varied widely.
"They didn’t have background or training in leadership, and what it looks like to come alongside to support fellow teachers," Forsythe said. Moreover, a lack of support for principals in providing professional development and little time for teachers to collaborate in improving their practice contributed to holding the district back.
Amidst implementation of Common Core Standards, a state-wide teacher-principal evaluation system and sheltered instruction for the growing number of English Language Learners, waiting to address the problem wasn't an option.
The solution: an innovative partnership between Meridian, neighboring Lynden School District and the University of Washington's Teacher Leadership Program that is preparing a cohort of highly skilled teacher leaders for the two districts.
The partnership provides on-site coursework and seminars held in Meridian along with online classes, allowing participants to form a professional support community across schools and districts. At the end of the 18-month program, each of the 22 participants will earn a teacher leadership certificate.
Amy Miller, a fifth grade teacher at Bernice Vossbeck Elementary School in Lynden, said she's learning how to foster a community of educators who work together to boost student achievement.
"I became a teacher because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of children," Miller said. "This program is beginning to help me see that in order to make a lasting impact, I need to [also] make a difference in the lives of my colleagues. And that takes an entirely new set of skills."
Sylvia Bagley, director of UW's Teacher Leadership Program, says the collaboration enables educators to gain expertise leading professional development, facilitating professional learning communities, coaching colleagues, engaging in data-based instructional problem solving, and staying informed about policy and reform initiatives.
“Our focus is preparing teachers leaders to initiate and sustain system-wide structural changes in how educators learn and grow together," Bagley said. "We've seen tremendous growth in the participating teacher leaders as they become empowered and informed members of their district communities. Ultimately, we want to help both districts continue to support meaningful teacher leadership initiatives across the region.”
Bagley noted that UW also has partnered with the Nooksack Valley, Anacortes, Mercer Island, Northshore and Kent school districts to prepare cohorts of teacher leaders. More than 90 local educators have participated in teacher leadership training, run through UW's Professional and Continuing Education Program, during the current year.
The initiative is already paying dividends in Meridian, where Forsythe said teacher leaders used strategies from their first classes in leading a professional development day before the start of classes.
The district wants to see its teacher leaders partner with principals in site-based leadership around professional development and school culture, Forsythe said, in addition to working hand-in-hand with the district leadership team to move the district forward in the quality of its instruction.
That partnership is exciting to teacher leaders like Sarah Kurashige, who teaches math at MP3 Elementary in Meridian.
"Establishing a welcoming, congenial environment is key to laying a foundation of deeper collegial work," she said. "Having a clear vision of what you would like to accomplish can help to guide your steps and the help you seek out."
Sylvia Bagley, Director of Teacher Leadership Programs
Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications