More Powerful Than a Department Chair

By Erin Burns, First Published by Real Clear Education, January 19, 2016

When out with friends or at dinner parties, I frequently get asked, “So what do you do?” My ”I’m a biology multi-classroom leader” response receives perplexed looks, so my boyfriend usually pipes in, “It’s kind of like the science department chair”—and then I have to kindly say, “Well, sort of, except that I do all this other stuff…”

As the leader of a five-person teaching team at a high-need Charlotte, N.C., high school, I teach a senior International Baccalaureate biology class every other day for one period—leaving 88 percent of my time to coach my team teachers, teach with them, pull out students to work one-on-one, lead data meetings, or anything else necessary to help my teachers and students succeed. Now, instead of teaching just my own 80 or 100 students, I reach all 500 biology students.

I previously led a four-teacher team at another school as the “professional learning community” lead, while still teaching a full load of classes. I set up weekly meetings in which we discussed lesson plans and assessments. We’d share stories about students and lessons. But I could never meet these students or see the lessons in action. Now, as a multi-classroom leader, or MCL, I partake in every step of my team’s lesson plans, execution, and analysis.

Our PLC meetings were just an hour a week. Then we split up and taught in isolation until the next meeting.

As MCL, I have two hourlong meetings with my team each week plus a 30-minute coaching meeting with each teacher. Throughout the week, I pull lesson plans and materials into an online team folder.  We refine these during team meetings, thinking through the flow of our 90-minute blocks. Then, my schedule flexibility lets me offer much more—from quick advice in the hall during class changes to more formal co-teaching or coaching, so I provide continual feedback, from classroom procedures and management to biology specifics (“when doing the DNA replication activity, make sure to explicitly tell them that the DNA remains in the nucleus”).

That’s a huge change: As PLC lead, I was in the dark. Teachers may have articulated brilliant lessons during meetings, but I had no idea—and definitely no authority to see—what they actually looked like behind closed doors. As their MCL, I pop in daily to see my teachers in action.

And another big difference: Along with having authority to coach the team, I’m held accountable for it, based on the results of all the team’s students. My PLC role involved no instructional coaching. As the MCL, my deep involvement lets me quickly gauge what’s needed to refine our teaching. I’m able to point out what the teachers need and help them get there—with authority, but also collegiality, because they know I’m as invested as they are in our students’ education.

That makes for busy days, but I have one other big responsibility: leading the team in using data well. Effective data analysis of high school students’ progress takes time. Building meaningful assessments, and creating a uniform template for analysis and actions that will in fact be put in place, is difficult without a dedicated point person. As PLC lead, all I could do was create an assessment calendar and formal assessments that aligned to our standards. I would try to ensure that all team members stuck to the calendar, and we would discuss overall class averages on each assessment and ways to reteach the content if needed.

But because as MCL I’m held accountable for the team’s results, I now “own” the daily data alongside my teachers. I have time to analyze them before the team sees them, so I can guide our conversations and react quickly to the data. And because I see individual student data—which I could not as PLC lead—I can create lists of students by teacher, so that we can choose which students need more help.  I may then pull out small groups, personalize student review assignments, or create an entirely new lesson with a teacher for a previously taught concept.  I never had the time or support to target students so specifically when I was just a PLC lead.

One thing that’s become clear this year is the need to protect that schedule flexibility so I have time to truly lead. My department has struggled with teachers out for various reasons for long stretches, and I’ve been asked to fill in as a long-term substitute. That’s been frustrating for me and the team, which needs the full support I gave before.

Ultimately, when the MCL model is done right, how much does all this matter? Here’s what it meant for me: I reach all biology students in the school. That plus my schedule flexibility has not only made our teaching better, it’s made it more interesting. Better, because for the first time in three years, the teachers met “expected growth” measurements last year, moving us from negative to positive. And more interesting because, for example, we were able to revitalize a once-deserted greenhouse on campus. Students grew—and tasted—strawberries and cucumbers; they saw their biology lessons in action.  Watching a seed sprout roots and produce sustenance is magical for a student at any age. Being an MCL gives me the leadership and flexibility to not only increase student achievement but also increase the number of lifelong lovers of science.

Erin A. Burns is in her seventh year as an educator. She was a North Carolina Teaching Fellow, earning her B.A. in biology with minors in education and entrepreneurship from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a master’s in education leadership from the Teachers College at Columbia University.

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