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Q&A with Iowa Executive Master Teacher Traci Lust: How Can Teacher Leaders Have the Greatest Impact?
Traci Lust is an executive master teacher with more than 10 years of experience in teacher leadership roles. She serves in the Saydel Community School District in Des Moines, Iowa, which implements the TAP System for Teacher and Student Advancement. The district has created a structure of teacher leadership positions including mentor teachers who are released between three and five hours a week, and master teachers who are released full-time, to support other teachers in improving classroom practices. In her role, Lust provides support and guidance to mentor and master teachers throughout the district. The strategy has resulted in significant and sustained increases in student learning. For example, since implementing TAP, Saydel experienced the largest growth in ACT scores in the district's history.
Here, Lust, also a 2017-18 NIET educator advisory board member, offers insights into what makes teacher leadership roles effective. Her reflections draw from her own experience as well as the structures and supports at the school and district levels that empower teacher leaders to have the greatest impact.
Q: You have had experience in teacher leadership roles in multiple locations. What is different about the master teacher role in a TAP school than other teacher leader roles you have held?
A: Prior to coming to a TAP System school as a master teacher, I was in a very similar role as an instructional coach in a different school. It had also been deemed persistently low-achieving, and we worked to improve it under a federal grant. We were trying to do all of the same tasks I do in my current role, but we were not as successful. We had more funding in my prior school than we have now, so it wasn’t about the finances.
If I had to highlight what made the difference I would say three main factors:
A Clear and Common Understanding of Strong Instructional Practice
First, the biggest difference for me was the instructional rubric. It provides a clear and common language and vision of what best practice looks like. The observation and feedback process is very different due to the rigor of the instructional rubric. In addition, working in classrooms on a regular basis and doing observations and formal coaching using the rubric as a guide created more accountability for teachers to improve.
In my prior role we followed more of an Instructional Coach model: If people wanted support, we gave it to them. If they didn't want support, I would encourage them, but they could choose not to accept it. On the contrary, in the TAP master position I build relationships, capacity and trust with people through the observation process. For example, I go in, observe, conduct our observation post-conference, and teachers see that I am helpful. Oftentimes that opens the door for me to be invited back in less formal situations. It’s different when you'll be observed several times a year with high-quality coaching following the observation. That piece alone has been dramatically different.
Structured and Supported Weekly Professional Learning
Second, the way we structure and run weekly professional learning or "cluster groups" is different. I came from a building where we used professional learning communities (PLCs). While the PLCs were relatively well-organized, they were led by a full-time classroom teacher who didn't have the time to be as prepared as she would have liked. Also, she didn’t have the training or capacity to lead in a way that was going to move teacher and student achievement. As you know, sometimes the person asked to lead the data team or PLC does so reluctantly, just to fill the role. It isn't that anyone is unwilling, but the concern is: "Do I have the knowledge, skills and time to lead the PLC in an effective way?"
In our weekly cluster groups in Saydel we have a protocol for professional learning called the Steps for Effective Learning. Using the Effective Steps is a very different process from what I was used to in PLCs—particularly the inclusion of a "learned" component or strategy during the meeting.
In my prior school's PLCs, we would oftentimes have our data and groups of kids, but wouldn't know how to plan next steps. Someone might have offered to identify a strategy, but it was unplanned, unprepared, and people didn't know what to do differently. Sometimes that synergy works: You come up with a great idea and you improve upon what you were doing. But because TAP clusters are thoughtfully planned in advance and there is a learned component, the masters and mentors have worked to figure out what's important to do in the week ahead that will make a difference for kids. And by field-testing the strategy beforehand, we are sure it is something that will work. I am able spend a significant amount of time planning, preparing and trying it out with kids. When I model a strategy for teachers, they see what it looks like and what impact it had.
Cluster Protocol: NIET's Five Steps for Effective Learning
An Expectation That All Teachers Can Grow and Improve
The third difference: We expect all teachers to use the development time during the weekly cluster meeting to plan how they will implement the strategy that week in their own classroom. In traditional professional development we teach methods with the understanding that teachers will decide whether or not to use them. Maybe they try it this week or the week after that. Now, we give them the time to develop the strategy for use in their classroom that week. They understand what we are learning right now is something that they are going to try with kids in the week ahead, and that we're there to help.
Q: How has the inclusion of teacher leaders impacted the school leadership team?
A: The two biggest impacts are the addition of mentor teachers to the leadership team and the focus on developing a system for improving instruction.
A System for Improving Instruction
With other leadership experiences I've had, there wasn't a clear system. Now we have focus: We have the instructional rubric which clearly describes the kinds of instructional improvements we want to make. Before TAP, we didn't know what we were looking for, talking about or thinking about. Now we are looking at data, individual growth plans, weekly cluster meetings and evaluations. We are ensuring that those structures and processes are running smoothly and are having an impact. As a result, the leadership team is more purposeful.
In terms of the mentor teachers, my previous experience with leadership teams involved trying various approaches, such as inviting one person from each grade level or having volunteers join to give a voice to staff. However, we didn't have a defined structure that would allow more members to bring different voices or experiences to the table. Having mentors on the leadership team helps us in a way that I didn't expect. They will stop us and say, "No, that won’t work!" or "How about if when we tell people, we say it in this way?" It is causing us think, as we focus on the big picture or the end goal, what are the best ways to get there?
Executive Master Teacher Traci Lust leads a training at Cornell Elementary School.
Q: How does a district support continuation of these best practices?
A: We focus on both fiscal and programmatic sustainability.
The most important questions are, "Are we seeing an impact from the investments we are making in teacher instruction and improvement? Do we see an impact on student achievement?" When investments are clearly making an impact, it creates the context to sustain and prioritize them.
We are extremely lucky since we have teacher leadership and compensation (TLC) funds from the state. They sustain our practices now that our federal Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grant is over. We have a five-year plan that maintains our personnel moving forward. We have reduced our costs somewhat, but have preserved the structure of mentor and master teachers.
For us the bigger challenge is programmatic sustainability: Are we staying focused and ensuring that the best practices we put in place through TAP guide our leadership system? Do we allow less important tasks to creep in? That is challenging because there are external forces, priorities and assignments that are being asked of us, but I feel like we do a pretty good job of using TAP as our filter.
To drive this programmatic sustainability, we have integrated TAP structures and practices in our district meetings. We have had building teams bring post-conference plans that we scored, looking for strengths and areas for improvement. Each building team made a plan for ensuring consistently high-quality post-conferences across the district, and supporting mentors—especially—in their ability to deliver a high-quality post-conference.
We did the same for lesson planning by examining the elements of a high-quality plan, as illustrated in the rubric, and assessed their inclusion in instructional plans across our buildings. We also took a look at our instructional rounds process in which master, mentor and career teachers and district staff visit buildings three times a year and collect data. We aligned this data collection effort to our work with TAP by reviewing whether the plans we expected teachers to implement in their classrooms were happening. We use that data to plan going forward: Are there specific places where we need follow-up? Are there areas we need to address because those improvements didn’t make it into the classroom and to the kids? The instructional rubric and the observations of classroom practice provide the focus for instructional improvement.
Q: What other thoughts do you have on the role that teacher leaders play and the impact they can have?
A: Focus on Learning: In my previous experience, those in leadership positions focused on improving teaching. Now, we are also focusing on improving learning. We are looking at student work and assessments, bringing all of our conversations around the question, "If we do this, how will it impact students and their learning?"
Process for Improvement: We have a process for taking an action, assessing it and revising it based on results, all the while staying on that theme and not losing focus. It’s also important to improve one area fully before moving to the next challenge. That is a component of TAP that has helped me to really improve my leadership capacity and impact.
District Support: The career ladder was non-existent when we started, and none of us had any experience with the TAP System. But now our district office supports us and believes this is the system that will make a difference for us. That is based on our results with students as well as the feedback the district is receiving from classroom teachers.