Raising My Teacher Voice to Save My Job—and My Students' Success

Raising My Teacher Voice to Save My Job—and My Students' Success
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As a math multi-classroom leader, Karen Wolfson and her teaching team achieved extremely high student growth in a high-need, high-poverty school. (Photo courtesy Karen Wolfson)

RCEd Commentary

This piece is the 11th 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.; Syracuse, N.Y.; Big Spring, Texas; and Indianapolis are using 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.

What does “teacher voice” actually mean? Until this year, it sounded like a nice phrase, but it didn’t hold much meaning for me.

But I have a job I love, one that shakes up traditional teaching and holds the promise of making a huge difference in students’ and teachers lives—as it did for my students. I wanted to spread the word about my job—and now, with positions like mine under threat at my school, I needed to find my voice. I needed to empower others to explore the idea of an Opportunity Culture.

As a multi-classroom leader for fifth- and sixth-grade math at Nashville’s Bailey STEM Magnet Middle School, I get to lead a team of teachers while I continue to work with students and participate on the school leadership team. I spend about 65 percent of my time with students in large- and small-group instruction and blended learning, and 35 percent on leadership work, such as disaggregating my team’s data, researching how to reteach a skill, and meeting with the team or administration.

Last year, when we had a fully functioning MCL model, our school and my team’s student achievement results were jaw-dropping.

Our school had the highest level of growth in the entire district in math in grades three through eight. My team’s two teachers overcame the long odds that the previous year’s data predicted they would face. In one grade, we were projected to have just 12 students rank as proficient or advanced. We ended the year with 43. We saw similar results in the other grade. Both teachers ended the year with the highest level of teacher effectiveness and evaluation scores.

These teachers were new to the district, its protocols, and the Tennessee state standards, and one was a first-year teacher. Their results were practically unheard of—but under the MCL model, they felt supported and successful.

But next year, MCL positions at my school may go away because, in a turnaround attempt in the midst of superintendent turnover, Bailey is being merged with a high school to create a STEM school for grades 5 through 12.

The principal who began Bailey’s Opportunity Culture work went to another district in the face of the restructuring. Now, this model lacks district support for being carried out at Bailey after this year.

I can’t let MCL positions disappear. I want to see my district provide many, many more opportunities like mine. And that’s why I took the idea of “teacher voice” very seriously—and what I found was just how powerful my voice can be.

I contacted those who I knew supported the model. Katie Cour, the district’s director of teacher talent and retention, suggested I spread the word to principals. But sending a few emails wasn’t enough. And when would I have time to visit individual schools to share Opportunity Culture details?

So Katie suggested I make a presentation at a principals’ meeting on school design; Nashville principals choose how to spend their annual budgets, so this was my chance to show them the great Opportunity Culture option. The pressure was on.

I knew I needed to motivate principals to buy into my position, my passion, and the Opportunity Culture model, which calls for reaching more students with great teachers and their teams, for more pay, within budget.

It worked. I found the principals hanging on every word I said:

“A school where all of your teachers feel supported”…. “a school where your team of multi-classroom leaders is filtering the issues that are brought to the principal’s attention”… “a school where 100 percent of the faculty feels as though they are getting on-the-job professional development”… and best of all, “a school where 100 percent of the faculty feels that Bailey STEM Magnet is a good place to work and learn, where only 30 percent of teachers agreed with that statement a few years ago, before we started multi-classroom leadership.”  

The principals were hungry for more, with questions on how teachers reacted to the introduction of the Opportunity Culture concept, how MCLs were chosen, what an MCL’s schedule looked like, how much time I spent with students—and how could they make this work given their own schools’ needs?

The questions kept coming even as time ran out. And because I’d come stocked with business cards (something every teacher should have, but almost none do!), I could hand out many to the hands raised for more information. For the first time, I felt like a true professional whose opinion was valued at a level beyond just my school.

Now that I’ve had a taste of the power of true “teacher voice,” I don’t intend to stop. I hope I can continue to spread the word about the MCL model. And I hope that after presenting to the principals, I will have another opportunity to continue this role in a new building. We simply must do this—this position is too important to let go, and every teacher and every student deserves the opportunity to work and learn in an Opportunity Culture.

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