Teacher Leaders Are Key to Accelerating Student Learning

August 24, 2021

Teacher Leaders Are Key to Accelerating Student Learning

By: Dr. Susan Pecinovsky, Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction (2016-2021), Mason City Community School District, Iowa 

Under the Teacher Leadership and Compensation (TLC) System, Iowa has made a big investment in teacher leadership as an improvement strategy for student learning. The flexibility of TLC has enabled districts to create teacher leadership roles to fit their unique needs. Mason City Community School District is using TLC to support instructional coaches in each building, and two technology integration coaches, along with providing stipends for the data team leaders and new teacher mentors. These investments enable the district to provide the support that research shows improves classroom teaching: collaborative professional learning and individual classroom coaching. The system of teacher leader training and support that has been created in Mason City using TLC funds has helped to build shared leadership, develop the skills of all teachers, provide more intensive support for new teachers, and the ultimate outcome, accelerate learning for each and every student.

Two hours north of Des Moines, Mason City is the largest school district in north Iowa with about 3,800 students and an increasingly diverse student population. In addition to students in alternative placement who come and go from the district, the English language learner population has more than tripled in the past five years. When I joined the district in 2016 as Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction, the district was in its first year of implementing a plan under the TLC System. Over time, we have been able to adjust our plan to meet the changing needs of our students.

Expanding Instructional Leadership in the Building

Shared leadership at the building level and the ability to increase capacity of teachers has been one of the biggest impacts of TLC in the district. An instructional coach in each building facilitates collaborative learning opportunities and helps individual teachers to apply that learning in their own classrooms. Using a coaching cycle, they are able to support much faster growth for teachers than a district leader or a principal could do alone. There is no other way that I, as a district administrator, could move professional learning at the rate we have without this network of instructional coaches. Not only have we built capacity and competency in teachers, but they are now better equipped to build capacity and competency in students.

Looking back just ten years, we had professional learning events. We might have looked for ways to build on those one- or two-day events. The missing piece was that we hadn’t developed people in the school building who could increase teacher capacity during the year. Principals cannot be everywhere and they are not always close to the instructional work happening in classrooms. This is where the instructional coach comes in because, in my experience, there is no way to grow professionals in a school district without having someone with the capacity, skills, time, and passion to support teachers in their classrooms on a daily basis. The role of instructional coach is foundational to the work. These coaches accelerate professional learning for teachers much faster than a district leader or principal can, or even teachers can do on their own. 

There is no other way that I could move professional learning at the rate we have without this network of instructional coaches. Not only have we built capacity and competency in teachers, but they are now better equipped to build capacity and competency in students.
Dr. Susan Pecinovsky, Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction (2016-2021), Mason City Community School District, Iowa

Supporting Principals to Use Coaches Strategically

Principals and instructional coaches have a shared leadership approach, supporting each other just as they support teachers. To facilitate this, Mason City has gotten very clear on roles and responsibilities and has documented expectations for everyone. We have revisited these documents annually with principals and instructional coaches. We talk about whether anything has changed and if there are any new challenges or issues that we need to think about in the coming year. We have been very clear about what these teacher leader roles are and what they are not. In addition to having clearly defined roles, principals and instructional coaches meet weekly. This ensures that everyone is having the same conversation about instruction and that everyone is on the same page about what is going on in classrooms. We have learned the importance of these weekly meetings. They have been essential in establishing shared leadership that benefits everyone, including students and their teachers.

An Instructional Framework Supports the Work of Coaching

A vital resource used by our school level leaders and their leadership teams has been the NIET Instructional Framework and aligned supports for Iowa. The framework describes strong teaching in four domains (i.e., instruction, planning, environment, professionalism) and across a range of effectiveness in key practices from ineffective to highly effective. The simultaneous simplicity and complexity of the framework has been a game changer. The concept of shared leadership has been in the education literature and conversation for a long time, but there was never a common understanding of what it meant. The framework has provided our educators a language for the conversation about concepts and strategies. For example, there is now a clear definition for student engagement. True system change occurred when educators sharing responsibilities and leadership used a common language focused on the framework. An alignment on the focus of their work with the framework became obvious and consistent. Reflective questions focused on the framework moved conversations to concrete next steps that strengthened a given aspect of teaching, using clear, evidence-based descriptions of strong teaching practice. 

The framework has also allowed the educators to better connect curriculum conversations to the coaching cycles. If a teacher struggles with a concept like “creating clear expectations for students,” then curriculum materials and the teaching practices that connect “what” to teach with “how” to teach it are explored. These conversations result in the identification of initial steps and strategies the teacher will use throughout the coaching cycle.  This empowers the teacher leaders to have conversations that result in clear and measurable changes in student learning.

Accelerating Learning and Addressing Individual Needs

The work supported by the TLC System has made a difference for kids. When the teachers are at their very best, then the students get the very best that they have to offer. Moving into the next few years, given the challenges and disruptions to learning caused by the pandemic, access to effective teaching will be more important than ever. When we talk about the educators involved in academic recovery, we must have people who have the skillset to support teachers in the work. You cannot accelerate learning without building capacity in educators. Mason City is fortunate to have built a strong network of teacher leaders to work with building principals to improve classroom teaching across the building and the district. This is essential for students to achieve high expectations.

Cover photo is courtesy of Mason City Community School District, Iowa.