Story 5: Teacher Leadership - A Story of Hope
In this "story of hope", an individual teacher leader makes remarkable contributions to her school's improvement efforts. These contributions come outside of, and in addition to, her contracted job description. Should teacher leadership be more fully institutionalized, to avoid taking advantage of "or losing" committed teachers?
This is a story of Hope, a bright young educator whose influence was strongly felt in a school working hard to create a professional learning community. This story is about Hope’s contribution to that school-wide effort. Hope’s story may help others interested in creating professional learning communities or implementing other school improvement efforts become aware of how an individual educator—someone not necessarily occupying a formal leadership position—can play a key role in school change.
This is also a story of hope beyond the individual—the hope that is in every school. That is, this story is also intended to help others see the untapped possibilities for leadership and influence that exist in every school, embodied in the teaching professionals who walk its halls. This story is about the optimism and expectation that teachers have about their work as individuals and their work as members of a team.
Hope Tchrnowski was born and raised in Loston, a community of about 3,000 people. Southern Edge Independent School District (SEISD) includes this rural community and some of the areas extending into the county surrounding it. SEISD has one elementary school, a middle school, and a high school.
Hope graduated from Southern Edge High School about a decade ago. She left Loston after high school to attend a nearby college, where she earned an undergraduate degree in education with majors in journalism and English. After completing her degree, she returned to SEHS to begin her teaching career. She taught English at the high school for five years. During that time she also took graduate courses in library science and instructional technology to become certified as a school librarian.
In her sixth year of work at SESH, Hope became the school librarian. While her official job description did not require it, her knowledge of instructional technology and her placement in the position of librarian allowed her opportunity to work with the staff and students on the acquisition and use of a variety of technology, both hardware and software. Much of the limited equipment that the school owned was housed in the library. Almost by default, the library came to be viewed as the school’s technology center, and Hope came to be viewed by the administration and staff as the technology coordinator for the building.
I first met Hope when she was admitted to the doctoral program at the university where I work. She had decided to pursue a doctoral degree in school administration with the accompanying administrative courses for the principalship and superintendency certifications. I was a member of the university committee that interviewed and recommended her admission to the program. While I am sure I noticed that she worked at SEHS and lived in Loston, at that time I had no idea that we would soon be working together, trying to create a professional learning community in her school.
My work with Southern Edge High School came about because of my acquaintance with the principal at the school, Natalie (Nattie) Stewart. Nattie had also been a student in our principal’s certification program several years earlier, when she was in another district. Nattie had been hired as the principal at SEHS a year prior to my work on the campus. In fact, one of the reasons I approached SEHS as a Professional Learning Communities Project site was because of my established relationship with Nattie. It was after I initiated my work with SEHS that I discovered I would also be working with Hope.
Hope as Teacher Leader
As the PLC Project got underway, I quickly came to respect Hope as a teaching professional and campus leader. Her enthusiasm for and loyalty to the staff and students of SEHS was demonstrated repeatedly in formal meetings regarding the PLC Project and in her daily work activities with her colleagues and the SEHS students. She received requests for assistance with pleasure. In fact, she often went beyond the request to offer additional services and materials. She appeared regularly to be a master at “multi-tasking.” The SEHS library was a hub of activity for both students and faculty. Hope moved smoothly and efficiently from assisting a student with locating a website on one of the computers, to setting her library assistant on the task of getting materials for a faculty member, to being on her way out the door of the library pushing a cart of equipment to set up in a classroom somewhere in the building. Even if she was stopped in the hall with yet another question or request, she always seemed to remember to address the issues at the next available “free moment.”
Hope's enthusiasm for and loyalty to the staff and students of SEHS was demonstrated repeatedly in formal meetings regarding the PLC Project and in her daily work activities with her colleagues and the SEHS students. She received requests for assistance with pleasure. In fact, she often went beyond the request to offer additional services and materials. She appeared regularly to be a master at “multi-tasking.”
Characteristics that I appreciated in our specific work on the PLC Project were her penchant for inclusion of colleagues and her efficient dissemination of information. A particularly stark example of this occurred very early in the PLC Project initiation. Nattie had given me a written list of the people she had asked to serve on the PLC Project Steering Committee. Being unfamiliar with the staff at that time, I accepted the list with no question. Hope didn’t! When she saw the list, she scheduled a meeting with Nattie to discuss the possibility of including some other people—specifically classroom faculty. Hope was genuinely concerned that if the project was to be a school-wide effort, it was essential to include more teachers. Fortunately Nattie listened and responded positively to Hope’s concerns. The committee membership was expanded.
I discovered I could count on Hope to gather and collect information I needed, distribute reminders of meetings, and generally keep the PLC Project on the agenda at the school. Hope also served as a source of information regarding faculty feelings. SEHS faculty had great trust in Hope; they often shared frustrations, concerns, questions and celebrations with her knowing that she had the ears of both Nattie and myself. Hope became a conduit for sharing information between and among the faculty, the school administration and myself as the Co-Developer of the PLC Project. Hope truly became a key influence in the human aspects as well as the technology aspects of the PLC Project.
I saw how much the administrators and staff at SESH relied upon Hope to guide them in their work with technology. Hope’s advocacy for using technology in the school even surpassed the available technology. When I first started working with SEHS, “technology” meant the VCRs, the one or two desktop computers per classroom, and the computer lab, used for business courses. Throw in a little software, the small bank of computers in the library linked to the Internet, and various and sundry office equipment that was regularly on “the blink,” and you have a pretty comprehensive inventory of technology at SEHS. The SEDL Professional Learning Communities Project was a catalyst at the school for focusing more time, attention, energy, and resources on all kinds of technology, especially for classroom instructional use.
Identifying a school-wide issue on which the entire professional staff could focus was an important first step in facilitating the development of the school as a PLC. Academically, SEHS performs well. The school has been identified as acceptable or exemplary on the state rating criteria for at least the past three years. Based on this high stakes state testing, faculty and administration had few academic concerns for student performance—that made identifying a schoolwide goal for PLC a unique challenge.
To help facilitate the identification of that goal, members of the PLC Steering Committee and I agreed that gathering additional input from all faculty might reveal one or more areas of concern that could serve as the rallying point for the initiation of this project. I spent a day at the school, meeting with each of the academic teams to discuss issues they saw as concerns or priorities in the school. I prompted each team’s discussion with some general questions regarding the needs of the school. Then I listened and probed as the conversations got underway.
After visiting with the teams, I scanned my notes for common issues. Student attitudes and motivation, facilities construction, career development and technology use were the four most frequently mentioned areas from the interviews. Given this information, I wrote a memo to Nattie and the faculty recommending that technology be the school-wide focus for SEHS. I asserted that student attitudes and motivation would likely increase with increased use of technology in classroom instruction and that career development issues in the 21st Century were technology dependent. It seemed to me that a school-wide focus on technology use for both students and teachers could help address two of the other issues as well. I also noted that there wasn’t much that could be done about the facilities issue; that was a district and community issue with which we could help when the time came, but it was not in our sphere of influence.
When the PLC Steering Committee, and then the SEHS faculty as a whole, adopted technology as the schoolwide focus for the PLC project, Hope’s knowledge and skills with technology and her credibility and influence with the staff and administration fell directly into the spotlight. Hope was well respected among the staff, which encouraged the staff to look to her for leadership in this new venture. She had done a good job when she was a classroom teacher in the English Department and had taken her turns as yearbook and class sponsor. During her last two years in the department, she was invited by her peers to serve as the team leader. She assumed the library/technology coordinator position in her sixth year on staff and had been in this position two years prior to Nattie coming to SEHS as principal.
Now Hope became the resident expert on all technology issues. On the one hand, this was what Hope had wanted all along—a faculty showing heightened interest in what technology was available and how to use it. On the other hand, she became the depository for complaints about and work requests for equipment and training.
As Southern Edge High School explored shared leadership as a component of PLC, it looked for a while like all the leadership was being shared with Hope. When things didn’t work, the answer was, “Go get Hope.” When equipment needed to be set up, the answer was, “Ask Hope to do it.” And when technology supplies were needed to keep things going, the answer was, “I think Hope buys that out of her budget.” The time and energy demands on Hope increased tremendously.
The Good Times
Hope’s expertise, patience, and persistence were sorely tested when Internet access was installed throughout the school. The project involved writing the bidding specifications for and ordering the equipment and software to be installed, supervising the installation of the necessary wiring throughout the building, making sure that all equipment was compatible with existing systems, and setting up and implementing the staff development for faculty. Because nothing ever goes as planned, this installation project experienced a number of delays and construction difficulties. These resulted in Hope having to spend extended hours after school and on week-ends in order to have everything ready for operations when the second semester of the academic year began. She did what she had to do. By the time students and staff returned from semester break the equipment was in and operational. Additionally, Hope and one of her colleagues worked together in planning and delivering an interactive professional development session on using the Internet.
This professional development session was one of the first real successes of the PLC Project at SEHS. Hope’s knowledge and skills had allowed her to take a leadership position in technology use. In designing the professional development activities she would share with her colleagues, Hope was careful to make the experience a collegial, enjoyable, and successful experience of shared learning. After Nattie and her assistant principal made their announcements, Hope used a Power Point presentation to review the new equipment, procedures for requesting equipment or operations assistance, and basic steps for accessing the Internet. With these basics taught, Hope’s colleague, Sunny Allen, distributed an Internet scavenger hunt assignment to give all an opportunity to apply what had been taught.
A “smart pen” is a hand-held piece of equipment that a student can use when reading. If he or she encounters an unknown word, the student scans the word into the pen. Then, by pressing a button, the pen reads that scanned word aloud so that the student can hear its pronunciation.
SEHS faculty members (myself included) were divided into small groups and sent to various computers throughout the building. At the computers we were to log on to the Internet and then locate websites that would give the answers to the questions on our scavenger hunt sheets. What fun we had! Most everyone on the faculty was new to Internet use. Those of us who knew little or nothing called upon those few who did have some knowledge. As we novices achieved an item here or there, we were delighted to share our new knowledge with someone else. The faculty had the opportunity to discover and utilize the expertise of their colleagues, as they developed new expertise of their own. The training provided a time for the whole faculty to learn together, and help each other in the use of technology.
By the time year two of the PLC Project was underway, some real advances in addressing faculty technology needs had occurred at SEHS. For example, a frequent faculty complaint regarding the use of technology was difficulty in using room computers for anymore than a small group of students at one time. Three or four students could gather around one computer and see what was happening, but an entire classroom could not participate in anything shown on screen.
Hope had a simple solution. For approximately, $150.00 per unit, an adapter could be purchased that would allow the classroom computer to be hooked up to larger screen televisions available through the library/media center. Even though money was tight, Nattie allocated the resources for the purchase of one of these adapters for every television in inventory. Now, staff could offer instruction via technology to the whole class and students could demonstrate their technology projects to all of their classmates at once. The really splendid outcome is—they did!
Another PLC Project idea came about through the Steering Committee. Everyone knew of someone else in the building who was doing “something interesting” with the technology; however, no one know “the whole story.” To address this, the PLC Steering Committee planned a professional development day during which every operational and academic unit in the school would share some use they were making of technology. The scheduled day came in the spring of the second year of implementation of the PLC Project. Students attended classes until noon. Faculty were on their own for lunch and then reconvened at the school in the afternoon to share their technology stories.
The initial gathering of faculty was in the library/technology center where a representative from special education demonstrated the use of a “smart pen.” Except for the presenter, no one even knew such technology existed! A “smart pen” is a hand-held piece of equipment that a student can use when reading. If he or she encounters an unknown word, the student scans the word into the pen. Then, by pressing a button, the pen reads that scanned word aloud so that the student can hear its pronunciation.
Next, all moved to the computer lab, where the social studies department had us log on to the Internet and check sites used with their students in classroom instruction. We examined a political cartoon website used by students to locate a cartoon that appeals to them and then use their knowledge of history, economics, government, etc. to explain the meaning of the cartoon selected. The English department showed a test preparation practice they used with sophomores and several PowerPoint presentations created by students about poets and authors they study in class.
As the day progressed, we moved to the Band room to see the marching band formation software, to a math classroom to see graphing calculators, and to the vocational agriculture area to see the stock trailer that was built based on the work developed with Computer Assisted Design software. There were other places and other presentations—even the administrative staff showed a PowerPoint presentation they developed to help parents understand the new curriculum requirements for high school graduation. What a day of celebration of learning for the professionals in the school!
Sources of Frustration
As a “hometown girl” in Loston, Hope and her family were active in the community. Hope’s father-in-law was a member of the SEISD Board of Education. Legitimately or not, the superintendent believed that his situation caused Hope to know more about district operations than she should, and perhaps even to exert unwanted influence on her father-in-law’s performance as a BOE member. As a result of this suspicion, the superintendent distrusted Hope and questioned her motives when she asked questions or offered input on various issues related to her work.
Rather than offer the position to Hope, the superintendent decided not to fill the position at all. Since he was retiring at the end of the year, he felt the new superintendent should be the one to select the candidate.
Nevertheless, Hope’s technology expertise was often used by the SEISD central administration (including the superintendent) in preparing bid specifications for purchasing equipment and software. These requests were not only for SEHS, but also for the other schools in the district as well. Hope also represented the district in a partnership with a local university in the installing, supervising, and then dismantling of a distance education classroom. These formal activities were in addition to the myriad informal training and trouble-shooting requests made by individual teachers and administrators throughout the district. Hope’s leadership and expertise in technology was recognized district-wide.
Given this recognition and her excellent track-record, both Hope and Nattie were optimistic that Hope’s efforts and talents would be recognized when the SEISD Board approved the creation of a technology coordinator’s position for the district. Both were disappointed when Hope’s appointment was not forthcoming. Nattie was one of several people on the interview committee for the position. According to Nattie, Hope’s interview was excellent and she was, without a doubt, the most qualified for the position. But, rather than offer the position to Hope, the superintendent decided not to fill the position at all. Since he was retiring at the end of the year, he felt the new superintendent should be the one to select the candidate.
The PLC Initiative provided Hope the opportunity to utilize her expertise in service to a community she cared about. Her sharp, quick intellect made itself apparent and was recognized as she led her colleagues, not only through technology, but also deep into the promise of a professional learning community. Hope was both a guide and an example of a professional who valued colleagues’ knowledge and perspectives, was responsible for her own continuing competence and excellence, remained open to change and willing to serve.
Like a starving man who refuses a meal because he doesn’t care for the way it is cooked, we reject the talent, skills, and offers of help embodied in the many teacher leaders whose names are listed on staff rosters throughout the nation...Can we afford to lose the “hope” that teacher leaders offer to our schools?
It seems possible that Hope’s experience within a professional learning community also contributed to her departure from that community. Hope’s frustrations began to build about a year before the PLC Project was initiated. The PLC initiative may have provided an outlet for Hope’s frustrations, and lengthened her time in SEISD. But it seems just as likely that the experience of having her expertise acknowledged, utilized, and expanded made Hope unwilling to labor in obscurity any longer. Soon after she was denied the opportunity to serve as the district’s technology coordinator, Hope Tchrnowski submitted her resignation and left SEISD.
Hope’s story may be unique in details but it is unfortunately all too common in its general tone and themes. Bright, willing, enthusiastic and committed teaching professionals, much like Hope, are in every school. They want to help and have much to offer. Professional learning communities, through shared leadership, shared learning, shared practice and the model’s insistence on supportive conditions, may provide some access to—and outlet for—the skills and talents of these individuals. But we must recognize that if professional learning communities do not extend beyond the borders of a single school, we will likely support professionals in outgrowing the very communities they help build.
Across the country, educational leaders lament the oversized agenda we expect administrators to complete. When communities complain that issues of teaching and learning get short shrift from school administrators, we hear again the familiar chorus: not enough time, not enough help, too many demands. And yet, like a starving man who refuses a meal because he doesn’t care for the way it is cooked, we reject the talent, skills, and offers of help embodied in the many teacher leaders whose names are listed on staff rosters throughout the nation. They are our brightest hope, if we are ever to bring the highest quality schooling to all our children.
SEISD lost Hope. How many other districts, schools, departments, and programs are also losing their “hope?” Leaders will find an outlet for their leadership; teacher leaders will also find some way to lead. If we do not provide those outlets, others may instead. Communities, churches, professional associations, and other entities will claim the talents and energies of some of these teacher leaders. Can we be so bold as to ask for more resources when we make little or no use of these rich resources we already have in our teacher leaders? Can we have such an easy answer in front of us each day and still be unable to address the question? Can we afford to lose the “hope” that teacher leaders offer to our schools?
Hope Tchrnowski brought many skills beyond her job description to Southern Edge High School. These skills "and her willingness to put them at the service of her school" allowed her to develop professionally and personally, and contributed significantly to the effective inclusion of technology in the school's curriculum. Ultimately, however, this "informal" arrangement did not lead to a formal acknowledgement of her abilities, or to her professional advancement on the basis of her skills and gifts. What responsibility do school personnel have to ensure that teacher leaders are recognized? In the absence of any guarantee of recognition, how can teacher leadership be ethically advanced?
Anita Pankake offers a poignant story of leadership lost to an entire school district, primarily as a result of superintendent action. In C.L. Jacoby's story, the superintendent plays another substantial "and disruptive" role in school improvement efforts. Are there ways that these kinds of administrative disruptions can be prevented? How can superintendents become as accountable to schools as they are to school boards?
Jane B. Huffman's story of school leadership includes a profile of another strong teacher leader. What attributes do these teachers seem to share? In what ways are they different? What factors "personal or organizational" contribute to their experience at their separate schools?
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