How We Use Teacher Leaders to Individualize Instruction and Meet Student Needs

February 1, 2022

How We Use Teacher Leaders to Individualize Instruction and Meet Student Needs

By: Angela Hanson, Curriculum Director, Oskaloosa Community School District

Oskaloosa is a small community in central Iowa with a student population of 2,200 across three campuses – elementary, middle, and high school. Our district has struggled to respond to growing levels of poverty in our student population and with providing greater levels of support for individual students. Our goal is to meet each student where they are and to tailor our support to help them excel. Investing in teacher leaders has given our classroom teachers the support needed to accomplish this goal.

Clear roles, authority, and release time for teacher leaders

Using state Teacher Leadership and Compensation (TLC) funds, Oskaloosa is building a system where every student experiences great classroom instruction. We are doing this by investing in a number of teacher leadership positions, with the goal of building instructional leadership skills and capacity in each of our buildings. We now have seven full time Instructional Coaches in the district – with at least one coach in each building having expertise in math or science – who are trained to support classroom teachers in continually improving their instruction and their ability to help each student to succeed. Coaching is student-centered, using student work and student data to guide cycles of feedback and support for each teacher.

Another TLC-supported position is the professional learning community (PLC) facilitator, a teacher leadership role that uses protocols to lead a small team, analyze data, and support teacher inquiry-based learning. Working together, PLC facilitators and instructional coaches enable the district to provide the two types of support we know are most effective: facilitated professional collaborative learning on a weekly basis, and individualized classroom-based coaching.

With each of our teacher leadership roles, we provide ongoing capacity building and coaching. District and school leaders work together with teacher leaders to analyze instruction, the impact on students, and how each teacher can grow in specific skill areas.

Teacher leaders play a key role in building school culture

School leadership teams, led by administrators, include instructional coaches and PLC facilitators, as well as several classroom teachers. Leadership teams meet twice a month – tackling priorities such as school improvement plans, data analysis, and goal setting – and use smaller committees to advance priorities including school culture and climate, social and emotional learning, assessment, and learning acceleration.

For example, our middle school leadership team focused on making a shift to a more positive school culture by reducing the emphasis on disciplinary action as a first response. The team identified and trained teachers as "success coaches," and as an alternative to detention, created calming corners where students received support in managing their emotions and learning how to talk to someone they have a conflict with. With leadership by teacher leaders, the middle school team moved to a strengths-based approach and are now more explicit about the need to teach students how to meet behavioral expectations – making their approach more preventative than reactive. Other initiatives sparked by the inclusion of teacher leaders on leadership teams at the middle and high school include "passion hour," where students interact with teachers on topics of mutual interest such as how to smoke meat, fishing, yoga, crafts, and cribbage.

Teacher leaders with clear roles, authority, and release time form the foundation of our improvement strategy. With the right training, tools, and resources, these teacher leaders are a game changer.
Angela Hanson, Oskaloosa CSD

Continuously improving

Our PLC model is not without challenges. Recruiting facilitators for this role is difficult because they need to know how to lead others and adapt learning processes for adults. A stipend is not enough – they need training and support. As a district leader, I spend considerable time building the capacity of our teacher leaders to facilitate PLC through the use of protocols, data analysis, and an inquiry-based approach. The role of PLC facilitator is to build the capacity of the rest of the team.

Some of the other challenges we face are related to the time commitment involved with instructional coaching. Working with an instructional coach is optional, and sometimes those who need the most help decline to participate because of the additional time they have to invest. It is also difficult to protect instructional coaches’ time as they often get pulled for administrative duties because they are currently still covering classes due to the lack of substitute teachers. But in time, we will get back to where these roles are clearly defined and targeted on instructional coaching and improvement.

The right training, tools, and resources

One tool that has been very helpful for teacher leaders is the use of an instructional framework. We use the research-based National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) Instructional Framework and Aligned Supports for Iowa, which describes strong classroom practices across a range of indicators such as teacher content knowledge, grouping, and thinking and problem solving. This year, our instructional coaches asked teachers to tie one of their improvement goals to an indicator in the framework to make clear connections between changes in classroom practices and student learning. Coaching and feedback is grounded in the framework, and this helps to keep everyone objectively focused on how the lesson could be improved, and how we use student work to analyze impact. Now conversations are not about what you taught, but whether or not students understood and what evidence you have that they are learning.

The use of a framework has made a huge difference in helping administrators align our feedback, as well. It also helps ensure feedback from administrators is consistent with the feedback from coaches – avoiding confusion or mixed messages – and allows coaches, administrators, and teachers to have conversations about whether practices are expected to produce a year’s worth of learning for students, which we couldn’t do before.

Now we help teachers create an action plan to make progress on an instructional practice, adjust instruction, and measure whether that had an impact on student learning. If a teacher is working on improving questioning, for example, they use the descriptors of strong questioning practices in the framework to ground the conversation. Together, teachers and coaches look for evidence that changes in questioning are having an impact on student learning.

Overall, our teachers report that the individualized coaching they receive now with the support of teacher leaders is the most critical resource they have for improving instruction. This structure of teacher leadership is enabling our classroom teachers to better meet the unique needs of each of our students. We are strengthening our team by empowering our teachers to be leaders within our building, and our school cultures reflect that team spirit.