One of the most enduring children’s books in American culture is “The Little Engine that Could.” In this tale, a long train full of toys and food breaks down before it reaches its destination: the children on the other side of the mountain. The toys ask many larger engines to pull the train, but are refused. Then, a small engine agrees to take on the task. This little blue engine succeeds in pulling the train up the mountain by chanting the mantra “I think I can, I think I can.”
In the “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania”, one can find a school district with this same determination. Tucked into the hills of Tioga and Lycoming Counties in north central rural Pennsylvania, Southern Tioga School District spans 485 square miles and provides education to approximately 1900 students.
Southern Tioga School District faces many struggles familiar within public education from declining student population to pressures from high stakes testing. The sheer size of the district makes professional development among different buildings a challenge. In order to address the challenges before them, the faculty and administration at Southern Tioga School District stepped outside of their comfort zone and created a new model for leadership within the district.
Their journey began with one person’s idea. Dr. Christina Steinbacher-Reed wondered if a different model for shared leadership between teachers and administrators might make a profound impact. From posting her idea to the Teach to Lead website, to working closely with representatives from the United States Department of Education, Dr. Steinbacher-Reed, Superintendent Sam Rotella, and the team from Southern Tioga have dedicated their time and resources into making this vision a reality. Early in 2015, they presented at the Teach to Lead Summit in Boston. Their vision saw teacher leaders engaging in everything from instructional rounds to peer coaching. Meanwhile, administrators would help to create release time for these teachers by returning to the classroom to teach. It was innovative and daring…and it is working. Although it started as one person’s idea, the “Teachership” model has become a small movement gaining national attention.
The Core Idea: “Teachership”
“Teachership” is defined by the Southern Tioga/ BLaSTIU17 team as “the quality that emerges when exceptional teaching is interwoven with exceptional leading.” This model asks schools to reimagine the leadership hierarchy between principals and teachers. Instead of a top-down approach, a collaborative leadership team would be created.This team works together to design school or district-wide professional learning experiences while simultaneously building leadership capacity among teachers.
Structurally, the model suggests teachers should have release time from their classrooms to work with colleagues in various ways: instructional rounds, peer coaching, curriculum development, etc. Sometimes principals could adopt the role of the substitute, reconnecting with the students they serve often indirectly. The core idea of teachership is not confined to a prescribed structures, but rather was designed as a model or framework to recognize teachers as leaders in schools, and to allow principals to reconnect with the work of the classroom.
The ways Southern Tioga has begun to actualize this model are powerful. Teachers worked with their building principals and district superintendent to create the framework for a district leadership vision. The team has present this vision regionally and nationally together. In schools, principals have shadowed teachers, and publicly shared the valuable learning they gleaned from the experience. Teachers have started a school-wide Twitter chat to promote connectedness and collaboration. They have also led work in curriculum writing and designing professional learning experiences throughout the year. In their roles, administration provided release time and district-level resources to support the leadership of teachers.
Takeaway: Anyone can do this
Currently, the culture and practices of an entire school district are being shifted to empower teacher leaders and energize building principals. What can the rest of us learn from their journey? How can other great ideas gain traction to influence the culture and structures of school?
Here’s are five steps to learn from Southern Tioga’s Leadership Journey:
Step 1: Voice your ideas in a supportive forum.
Dr. Steinbacher-Reed chose the Teach to Lead community to share her idea, and she also found a local team of supporters in the Southern Tioga School District. Many supportive forums exist online like the CTQ Collaboratory, ECET2 community, EdCamp, ASCD Edgeand Teaching Channel (just to name a few!) But supportive communities may also be less centralized, like participating in one of hundreds of educational Twitter chats, or going offline to a local educational meet-up group. Finally, don’t discount the power of voicing your ideas within your department meetings, faculty lunch rooms, or union social events. Remember, the work of this Teachership model is grounded the face-to-face work of educators in Southern Tioga School District.
Step 2: Create a diverse team.
This team contains an educational support coach, a superintendent, classroom teachers, and building principals. From the start, multiple viewpoints, a broad range of knowledge, and diverse experiences were represented as the team crafted a vision and began to implement a new idea. Once you have a supportive forum, look to build a team of individuals who can each offer a unique talents and viewpoints to the vision. Understand that different personalities and perspectives may bring tension or even conflict, but are crucial for the ongoing growth and success of an innovation or change. Seek out those who will expand and strengthen the original idea, and who may offer new networks or supports for the work.
Step 3: Co-create an action plan.
Before leading their own leadership lab in Williamsport, PA, a core team attended the Boston Teach to Lead Summit. Here they worked with critical friends, outside organizations, and each other to craft a logic model (action plan) for their work. Be strategic about your vision–set short and long-term goals, outline needed and available resources, define success, and frame your idea within the problem it sets out to solve. Taking the time to co-create this framework will allow your team to stay unified in its messaging and focused on achieving incremental goals that move toward an actualized vision.
Step 4: Create a lab to invite partners and outside perspectives.
After sharing their idea, creating a diverse team, and receiving critical feedback to craft an action plan, Southern Tioga and IU17 decided to rinse and repeat by hosting a local Teacher Leadership Lab. This day-long summit included teachers and administrators from other k-12 PA school districts as well as higher ed professionals, educational foundation representatives, and Pennsylvania policy-makers. Including this group as part of the continued planning process allowed for the following: (1) The teachership model to spread across the state and region. (2) Potential funders understanding the model and being invited to partner with the team. (3) Potential problems and solutions to be identified by a broader range of educational professionals. (4) The team to learn where they needed to strengthen their communications about their vision and work.
Southern Tioga is little school district with a big vision and a big heart. Their leaders were willing to say “yes” when saying so required courage, commitment, and personal sacrifice. Like the famous Little Engine that could, Southern Tioga still faces a steep mountain climb. They need partners and funders who believe in their vision and are willing to support their goals. They need advocates and allies within every building in their district inviting teachers and principals to collaborate in a professional sandbox of ideas. They need a chorus of educators whispering and shouting: We think you can!