Real Clear Education, June 15, 2015, by Joe Ashby, Multi-Classroom Leader
In spring 2013, at a crossroads in my career, I faced a golden opportunity — and with it, a wrenching question: Could I guide, monitor, support, and be accountable for a group of teachers and their students every day in the trenches of one of the most challenging elementary schools in my district?
In Nashville, Tenn., within a small cluster of deeply troubled schools called the Innovation Cluster, I had the chance to become a “multi-classroom leader” under its new Opportunity Culture model. After teaching for 11 years in three states in traditional and charter schools, with one year left to complete my doctoral studies in leadership at Vanderbilt University, I could now become a school leader but stay in the classroom — and better yet, in a setting that serves at-risk students. I’d be reaching a student population that has 98 percent of its students on free and reduced-priced lunch and has a 78 percent transiency rate due to the high turnover, low-income housing, and homeless shelters in the area.
I’d had leadership roles before, but nothing like this. As a multi-classroom leader (MCL) at Buena Vista Enhanced Option Elementary School, I would keep teaching while leading a team of teachers (and get paid much more—Nashville MCLs receive supplements of $10,500 to $12,200), and be accountable for the results of all third- and fourth-grade students in language arts and social studies. As exciting as this challenge appeared to be, I knew it would also be daunting.
As the year began, the school’s other MCLs and I realized the power of being an Opportunity Culture school: both giving and receiving professional development every day. Throughout the year, I felt my teachers’ high expectations for me — for expertise and assistance, coupled with trust, honesty, commitment, perseverance and humility.
Consistency became key, in a setting of high transiency and high-stakes expectations. My teachers needed consistent, reliable support during their toughest moments. They needed the consistent line of communication that MCLs create between teachers and administrators. And they needed the norms we could create in how we teach and treat our students, consistently.
But that doesn’t mean it all came together smoothly, everyone marching in unison. Being innovative and optimistic was crucial. For example, it took a year for me to help a teacher implement whole-group mini reading lessons before the small-group, individualized learning time. When things turned around, she expressed how much she developed professionally from my persevering.
The team also felt overwhelmed by the sudden news of overwhelming preparation for a state pilot online writing test. We had two months for our students to trust that they could read complex, nonfiction texts and type organized essays about them. We worked as a team to connect the instruction for the test with our already-planned lessons, and turned it into a satisfying and celebratory experience. What’s more, it amped up the quality of writing instruction for the rest of the year, ending with students publishing individual and class multi-genre magazines.
After one year, we had much to celebrate. We met our district’s objectives for increasing proficiency in literacy and math. We achieved a school value-added score of level 5, which means students made substantially more progress than the standard set by Tennessee. That continued in 2014–15, with strong growth on end-of-year assessments. We had a stronger, smarter, more collaborative, and more creative professional culture, with team teachers facilitating most meetings and structures that the MCLs once modeled and led.
And we saw our changes reflected in our students: They became more engaged, through our use of whole- and small-group instruction and blended (online) learning. As a result, they and their families are more committed to their success. We see our students more because of fewer suspensions, less frustration that led students to walk out of class, and less chronic absenteeism.
Moreover, students show and tell us that they know how much their teachers care. They set academic and behavioral goals, and they trust they can achieve those goals.
I kept learning how to refine my role — and trained future MCLs. Two of my strongest lead teachers are moving up to become MCLs at Buena Vista, while I take my new doctorate to a principalship in California. That internal pipeline offers crucial stability in a high-need school as some of us inevitably move away.
The stability points to another huge benefit of daily professional development: job satisfaction. Most of the Opportunity Culture team teachers stayed at Buena Vista this past year. Five of our “aspiring teachers” — those in new, yearlong, paid student teacher positions — took full-time Buena Vista jobs, showing the usefulness of their job-embedded professional development. The retention and promotion of teachers along this pipeline has continued into the upcoming school year. Our school truly has become a place rich with opportunities — for learning and relationships that can last a lifetime.