An Opportunity for Change

An Opportunity for Change
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Multi-classroom leader Kristin Cubbage celebrates with her students after they got strong results on a math assessment. (Photo courtesy Kristin Cubbage)

RCEd Commentary

This piece is the first in a series of monthly pieces by teachers participating in the Opportunity Culture initiative, a movement launched in 2011 by education policy and consulting firm Public Impact. Pilot schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Cabarrus County, N.C,; Nashville, Tenn.; and Syracuse, N.Y. use Public Impact’s new job models and career paths. These “Opportunity Culture” models are aimed at improving the quality of education by extending the reach of excellent teachers and their teams, to encourage teacher selectivity, increase opportunities for teachers to advance in their careers without leaving the classroom, promote on-the-job learning, and boost teacher pay -- all within regular budgets.

In 2013, my career trajectory changed in a matter of minutes. As a fourth-year teacher, I’d been feeling the itch to take on more leadership. But in education, if a teacher desires any kind of leadership role and -- gasp -- more pay, the only choice is to leave the classroom completely to become an administrator.

I’d already left my career in marketing specifically to work in a high-poverty school, feeling called to that after working in a shelter for battered women and children from high-poverty areas. The thought of leaving my little people behind for a solitary office left my stomach in knots.

But as I listened to administrators at Ashley Park Pre-K-8 in Charlotte, N.C. describe coming changes, I knew in a flash that this new model would bring me my dream job. Ashley Park would create an “Opportunity Culture” in the 2013-14 academic year, in which high-performing teachers reach more students, for more pay, within current school budgets. One of the new job models in an Opportunity Culture is a “multi-classroom leader” -- a teacher who continues to teach while leading a team of teachers, taking accountability for the results of all students served by the team, with plenty of school-day time for planning and collaboration -- and much higher pay. In my school, MCLs can earn a pay supplement of up to $23,000 -- or 50 percent more than the average teacher salary in North Carolina.

Before becoming part of Opportunity Culture, I had worked with multiple student teachers assigned to my class. As I watched them fumble and panic through their first lessons, I knew I could help. With daily feedback and guidance, they slowly transitioned into confident, purposeful teachers -- helping me realize how many more students I could reach as a teacher-leader. I knew that becoming an MCL, with accountability for multiple teachers and all their students, could be game-changing for teachers and students alike.

After my first year as an MCL, I knew my initial impressions only began to grasp that impact. I worked with 165 students spanning kindergarten to second grade, led five teachers, and taught my own literacy group of about 30 K-2 students -- an ever-changing, multi-grade group that wouldn’t happen without the MCL position. I joined Ashley Park’s instructional leadership team, helped coach two teachers in another MCL’s team, and received ongoing, prestigious professional development such as working with “difficult teachers” to curriculum training.

The teachers I supported ranged from those in their first day of teaching to their 25th year. On an average day, the MCL role allowed me to: observe a kindergarten teacher, co-teach a fractions lesson in first grade, teach a below-grade-level reading group in second grade, co-coach a fifth-grade math teacher, “live-coach” a second-grade teacher (using the Real-Time Teacher Coaching strategy, in which I coached her through a headset while she led a lesson), teach my own group of blossoming readers, plan with grade-level members, and provide one-on-one feedback to specific teachers. Every day differed, but all entailed working with students and their teachers all day. An MCL must ensure that all students in the group receive a high-quality education, no matter who is standing in front of them.

I still get emotional thinking about a final coaching session with one of my veteran teachers, whom I had watched struggle with her class. “You know, you really can teach an old dog new tricks,” she said, bringing tears to my eyes. Over the year, she improved her teaching style week by week, executed suggested feedback, started asking for resources and help -- we didn’t start out that way -- and allowed me to teach alongside her and be co-accountable for her students. She made growth that wouldn’t have been possible without the MCL model.

No school has enough administrators to coach every teacher. In a regular school, the average teacher receives three to five observations yearly. In an Opportunity Culture school, MCLs get to observe their teachers three to five times weekly. 

But that was the first year of Opportunity Culture schools, affecting far too few teachers. How many teachers are out there struggling daily because of lack of support?  How many burn out because they’ve tried all they know?  How many leave our profession early because they can’t do it on their own any longer? How many kids suffer because they have access to only one teacher? How many students are falling more and more behind because they have zero control over their educational trajectory?  We need a change; more important, our students deserve change.

Opportunity is knocking on our traditional educational doors. The question is: Will we answer? Teachers, administrators, policymakers: It’s time. Open the door.

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