06 March 2015

Dreaming of a Teacher Powered School

Back in 1999 a year after I started teaching in Western North Carolina, I began dreaming of teaching in a school with distributed leadership, a school where all stakeholders have a voice. You see, my father-in-law, a fifth grade teacher in Georgia at the time, and I spent time talking about how we could better meet the needs of our students if only we would be allowed to do so--if only we were permitted to allow students choice in how the school operated. Back then I didn't know Teacher Powered schools could be a real thing. Young and enthusiastic, I placed my focus on learning all I could about being an effective teacher, an effective facilitator of learning. All the while, the running of the school continued to pull at me.

Snowy View from Capital Plaza Tower Frankfort, KY

Flash forward ten years to January 2009 when I began working at the state department of education. One wintry and snowy morning from the KDE Capital Plaza Tower in Frankfort, Kentucky, I called my former professor, Hilton Smith, to tell him I had left the classroom. I was taking a break from teaching with hopes that I could learn more about how education policy happens, how decisions that impact students and teachers are made. Hilton was the one who taught me about student choice in learning and about creating more authentic learning experiences like he and his colleagues used with the Foxfire approach. Not sure what he would think of me working for a government agency, I asked for advice, and he provided it. "Pay attention to how decisions are made at the state level. Pay attention to how policies are made--really made--behind the scenes, not the posturing that we all see in the public arena. Pay attention and learn because what you learn will benefit you when you leave."

The following December, Hilton sent me a letter (a real snail mail letter, not an email) about The Forum for Education and Democracy and the Coalition of Essential Schools (we had read Ted Sizer's work in grad school). In the evenings, I spent time researching and learning more about the founders and leaders recognized by these organizations.  Hilton Smith, Theodore Sizer, Dennis Littky, Elliot Washor, George Wood, Debra Meier, Linda Darling-Hammond, etc.

About this same time, teacher-led schools in Minnesota and Colorado opened, so I followed the happenings from afar with secret dreams of helping open a school like this in Kentucky. Released in 2012, the book Trusting Teachers With School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots by Kim Ferris-Berg and Edward Dirkswager provided an analysis of numerous schools around the country operating with some type of teacher autonomy.  My evening research kept me motivated and moving, eager to learn more about the type of school we might be able to open in Kentucky--one focused on providing students choices in their learning.

Ultimately, this is why I'm interested in teacher powered schools. I'm interested in schools where not just teachers have a voice but students also have a voice in their learning. I used to believe the only way to make an impact or be involved required me to teach again. As I reflected in a recent blog post, I no longer believe teaching is the only way I can make an impact. Raising the voice of teachers and students matters and so does thinking differently about how schools operate. It will take people thinking and behaving differently to make these changes. Now I have the great fortune of working for an organization focused on recruiting, coordinating and supporting expertise to inspire and scale innovation and excellence in Kentucky's public schools.

Fortunately, education leaders in Kentucky have also begun investigating alternative school models such as the Big Picture Learning Schools I explored all those years ago when I was working for KDE. Additionally, teachers in Kentucky have begun investigating distributed leadership models and Teacher Powered Schools.

I'm ready. I've been ready. Students deserve it. Let's do it!