By Sharon Kebschull Barrett, November 11, 2020
After more than two decades in education, including stints teaching kindergarten and English as a second language, Elizabeth Fernandez had settled into a district role as a data specialist for teaching and learning—until the multi-classroom leader (MCL) role offered her the chance to lead while returning to the classroom.
“When you’re in central office, it’s great, and you do lots of great things,” Fernandez said, “but when you’re at a campus, there’s just an energy and a love—it’s just the kids. I love these kids.”
But the appeal of working directly with kids again would not have been enough on its own, she said.
“Would I have come back if there hadn’t been an MCL role? Probably not, because not only do I like the kids, one of the reasons I went to central office was to continue to help teachers more,” she said. “This is kind of like the perfect blend of helping teachers and then also working with children, and with my teachers, I always tell them, ‘I’m the luckiest one because I get to observe you, and then learn all your tricks and come back and try them in my classroom with all my kids.’ “
As a partial-release MCL—meaning she teaches her own class of first-graders as well as leading the first-grade team at Scharbauer Elementary in Midland, Texas—Fernandez couldn’t do the job without the assistance of her reach associate, Shandy Jeter.
Last year, her fourth as a teacher assistant, Jeter filled in as a long-term pre-K substitute, and when she heard about the reach associate role, she knew it would combine what she loved about both roles.
“I saw it as such an exciting adventure,” Jeter said. “I did not know Liz [Fernandez] prior to our positions, and when I met her it just clicked. I think that kind of communication happened for us because I wanted it to and she wanted it to.”
Like Jeter, Lori Herrera spent last year working as a long-term art substitute after 10 years as a stay-at-home mother. As she considers whether to pursue a teaching career, the reach associate (RA) role allows her to learn on the job while supporting her MCL, Kristi Sartor. Sartor leads the team of math teachers for third, fourth, and sixth grade at Rusk Elementary in Midland and teaches fifth-grade math, after a dozen years at the secondary level.
“I’m the luckiest RA, I promise,” Herrera said. “It was like a match made in heaven.”
For Chris Hightower, Midland ISD’s director of Opportunity Culture, watching the smooth classroom relationships of these and other MCLs and RAs is a highlight of the district’s first months of Opportunity Culture implementation. As the district shifted from all-remote learning at the beginning of the year to in-person learning for students who want it, the MCLs and RAs were able to make the move with ease, having already established strong routines online.
Both Jeter and Herrera say building relationships with their MCLs came easily because they had time before school started to get to know each other and establish routines.
From the start, both MCLs were careful to present themselves and their RAs as a teaching team to their students—and to the RAs themselves, by fully involving them in planning.
“I wanted to make sure that [Herrera] felt like this was our classroom,” Sartor said. “The kids treat her like we’re both the teachers there—they don’t know any different.”
Fernandez made sure Jeter was a full participant from the beginning.
“From day one, I sat completely online—we were there the whole time together, and I would even take over lessons [such as] engaging in a writing activity,” Jeter said. “I would do it so I could build a relationship with the children as well, which I do believe worked out great.”
Now, with classes in person for most students, a typical day finds Jeter arriving first to set up the classroom for the day. Fernandez then splits her time between providing direct instruction and supporting the team, observing each team teacher one day and coaching/providing feedback the next. Depending on where Fernandez is, Jeter may lead or assist whole-class instruction following Fernandez’s guidance, pull small groups, supervise students during independent or online work, and—while Fernandez leads instruction—catch up on grading and preparation for the next day.
Jeter aims to ease the burden on Fernandez as much as possible, through extensive planning for those times when Fernandez is out of the room. After school, she reviews the next day’s lesson plans. “I like to watch any videos that might be related to what we’re going to be doing the next day, maybe two to help me teach if it’s something new to me,” she said.
Similarly, Herrera prepares by reading the science textbook and working through the next day’s math work so she can clarify any questions in the morning with Sartor.
Both RAs actively seek feedback from their MCLs. Fernandez “supports me by just helping me learn the curriculum—she’s coaching me,” Jeter said. “I’ll be doing an activity and afterwards I’ll say, ‘Hey, this is kind of how it went; would you have done something differently?’ and she’ll tell me, and I feel like that’s what I’m needing.”
As they have settled in to their roles, the educators say their focus has been on re-acclimating students to being in the classroom after six months out, and striving for high learning growth—getting students back on track after the spring closure, which led to significant learning loss, Sartor said. They report mixed emotions among their students, with increased levels of stress and anxiety. When students were still fully remote, they often wanted to stay on Zoom after class ended to talk; at school, extra recess and extra group work provide more time to socialize and help students relax.
In such a challenging year, the structure of MCL teams has helped the job feel joyful, the educators say.
Opportunity Culture “would be really good for a lot of campuses…this program is a good thing for our teachers,” Sartor said.
“I love that I get to help teachers, and I just love these kids,” Fernandez said. “You’re getting to learn and improve your craft while helping others improve theirs—I mean, how satisfying is that?”