By Jen Oliver, NIET Indiana Director—
Editor’s note: This article was first published by The National Institute For Excellence in Teaching and is republished here with permission.
Muncie, IN—While Muncie Community Schools could not have known at the time, the district launched one of the most important initiatives for supporting student success right as the pandemic was moving in: establishing and strengthening a teacher leadership pipeline. The district received a Career Ladders grant from the state in February 2020, right before COVID-19 forced schools to close. Hiring and training expert master teachers in every school, as well as training mentor teachers, immediately created a network of support that proved vital in supporting student learning over the next several months.
“The Career Ladders grant has been a huge asset in all of our schools! We’ve been able to place at least one master teacher in each building who observes and assists all our teachers in numerous ways,” said Director of Public Education and Chief Executive Officer Dr. Lee Ann Kwiatkowski. “Our new teachers tell us how supported they feel and our more veteran teachers love the immediate feedback on lessons and student engagement. It’s been a true blessing that gives our students a better learning experience.”
Research on teacher leadership confirms that building systems of support for continuous improvement can close achievement gaps and enable students to master challenging content. The Career Ladders Grant program, approved by the state legislature in 2019, builds on this research base and supports Indiana districts in creating opportunities for teachers to strengthen their practice and advance in their careers − ensuring that more students have exposure to highly effective teachers. The initiative received strong support in the state legislature and from educators across the state.
“The Career Ladders grant has been a huge asset in all of our schools! Our new teachers tell us how supported they feel and our more veteran teachers love the immediate feedback on lessons and student engagement.”— Dr. Lee Ann Kwiatkowski, Director of Public Education and CEO, Muncie Community Schools, Indiana
In early 2020, the Indiana Department of Education awarded three-year grants to 18 school districts and charter schools, using $3.5 million in appropriations. Three additional districts were awarded planning grants. The districts included urban, suburban, and rural districts, school corporations, and charter schools. As one of 18 districts in the first cohort of grantees, Muncie provides a vivid proof point that creating teacher leadership roles and investing in the skills of teacher and school leaders to work together creates a powerful driver for improvement.
With support from the Career Ladders initiative, teacher leaders have stepped in to help plan virtual, hybrid, and in-person lessons; identify learning gaps; bolster student engagement; and provide individual coaching and support. In the process, they demonstrated the power of tapping into the expertise of teachers to help principals lead improvements in teaching and learning. They are a key part of the district’s plan for academic recovery.
“It is very powerful to have support from another teacher who is not an administrator. Teachers are really looking for that individual support that helps them take their teaching to the next level.”—Kim Kowalski, Master Teacher, Southside Middle School, Muncie Community Schools, Indiana
Anna Spencer is a master teacher at Southside Middle School. She supports new teachers and veteran teachers in weekly professional learning and through individual classroom coaching. A number of new teachers in her school had no student teaching experience and were looking for support in lesson planning, creating engaging activities that were clearly aligned to learning goals, and managing the classroom environment – across virtual, hybrid or in-person learning environments.
“A new teacher in my school was really struggling with classroom management and keeping students engaged in learning,” Spencer explained. “She knew we were here to help and trusted us to come in and help her get the class back on track. This is quite a shift from what happened in the past, when new teachers struggled and their students just missed out on that strong instruction and learning.”
Teachers with many years of experience were looking for support with the new block schedule – adjusting their lesson planning to take full advantage of longer, but less frequent class periods, and ensuring that all students were engaged in learning. Kim Kowalski, a master teacher with 26 years of classroom experience, is also coaching teachers at Southside Middle School. “It is very powerful to have support from another teacher who is not an administrator,” she said. “I was able to help experienced teachers think through new activities and ways to differentiate learning during the longer class period. Teachers are really looking for that individual support that helps them take their teaching to the next level. What an experienced teacher needs is different than what a new teacher needs.”
“Where professional development used to be a large group training for everyone together, now teacher leaders are facilitating smaller groups of teachers to work together each week. They are more targeted and differentiated to the individual needs of teachers and their students.”— Tanjela Sims, Senior Specialist, NIET
Another way that teacher leaders are improving classroom teaching and learning is by leading weekly collaborative learning teams for teachers. “Where professional development used to be a large group training for everyone together, now teacher leaders are facilitating smaller groups of teachers to work together each week,” said Tanjela Sims, an NIET senior specialist supporting the work in Muncie. “These smaller teams are more targeted and differentiated to the individual needs of teachers and their students.” As a result, teachers know that professional learning will be highly relevant and actionable, and participation rates have significantly increased. Teacher leaders follow up with direct classroom support such as co-teaching a lesson, or working with teachers to plan ways a lesson could be strengthened.
Support for classroom teachers is more important this year than ever. Principals in Muncie have help from teacher leaders to provide targeted coaching for classroom teachers, and to ensure that professional learning is collaborative and responsive to teacher and student needs. Teacher leaders are a key part of the district’s plan for academic recovery and acceleration of student learning as teachers support students. The innovative practices that the Career Ladder grants program makes possible in Muncie provide a blueprint for other districts to create teacher leadership roles and responsibilities focused on strengthening teaching and learning.
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