By Jessica Smith, May 30, 2019
In March, Jessica Smith, a former Opportunity Culture Fellow and a multi-classroom leader at Lew Wallace Elementary in Indianapolis, spoke before the Indiana Senate Committee on Education and Career Development.
The following column is adapted from the remarks she made there; when she finished speaking, the committee chair said, “That was an amazing testimony.” Ultimately, the legislation passed, providing $3.5 million for up to 30 districts to plan career ladders that may include Opportunity Culture.
I was a strong, dedicated, and capable teacher for three years before I was burned out and ready to give up. I craved support and wanted to know how I was doing, but I got only a handful of evaluations—with limited feedback if any—in all that time. So I navigated teaching alone and did my very best with the limited tools and experience I had to rely on.
Teaching is a tough profession. You have colleagues, but no one really understands your kids or can help with your specific struggles because no one has the time.
In 2016, as I faced this burnout, my principal decided to invest in our teachers and implement Opportunity Culture—a national model that extends the reach of excellent teachers and their teams, for more pay, within regular budgets. Multi-classroom leaders form the foundation of an Opportunity Culture—excellent teachers who lead a small teaching team, providing frequent on-the-job development, while continuing to teach part of the time. Opportunity Culture schools redesign schedules to provide additional school-day time for teacher planning, coaching and collaboration, and they hold multi-classroom leaders, or MCLs, accountable for the learning of all the students the team teaches.
This was a great model—and with House Bill 1008 under consideration now, more districts across Indianapolis could get funding to design an Opportunity Culture for themselves.
Having MCLs meant our teachers would no longer be alone. They would have someone to work alongside them and grow their skills, just like I’d wanted so badly. Toward the end of that year, as I was contemplating a career change, my principal saw that my class was producing the highest test scores in our school, so he asked me to become a multi-classroom leader for the following year. I would support and develop six teachers. It also meant that I would make about $18,000 more per year, which was quite a large number since my salary was $24,000 in my first year of teaching. I decided to not quit but to see what I could do in this new role—even though I had already applied for other jobs outside education.
I’ve now been a multi-classroom leader for three years, and because of the Opportunity Culture model, I had the freedom to choose where my time was invested. I could give more time to the teachers who needed me the most. The difference between an academic coach and an MCL is a vast one. A traditional coach often supports a whole school, which means they can help only the neediest teachers—giving the support a bad stigma. As an MCL, I have never supported more than seven teachers, allowing me to truly do my best work, expand my reach to a reasonable amount of children, and make an actual difference in seven classrooms.
The benefits of Opportunity Culture are numerous. More of our teachers have stayed year-to-year, and, when surveyed, one of the main reasons is the teamwork they experience and the support they feel. In 2018, third-party research published by CALDER found that Multi-Classroom Leadership helps teams of teachers and their students make significant growth. In fact, my school is currently transitioning out of a group of schools in our district that have been chronically failing; we are no longer failing thanks to the support our teachers receive through our four MCLs. We need House Bill 1008 to pass in this legislative session, to give more districts and schools support to put Multi-Classroom Leadership in place and to expand it to more schools.
Multi-Classroom Leadership is a game-changer for the teaching profession. MCLs can mentor teachers based on their specific needs and make them that much better for the students they serve. Additionally, it can keep excellent teachers by offering leadership roles. Opportunity Culture breeds hope for teachers in a profession that seems to be more hopeless every day.