Springboard to Leadership Through “Grow Your Own”
January 11, 2021
How Gadsden Builds a Pipeline of Educators Committed to Shaping the Future for the Community They Serve
A highly effective principal is essential to turning around a low-performing school. Yet too often, low-performing schools see principal turnover year over year. This churn at the top undermines efforts to put in place long-term strategies necessary for sustained improvement and increased staff morale.
One way to address this challenge is to build leadership capacity and develop a leadership pipeline from within. In San Luis, Arizona, Gadsden Elementary School District #32 has had substantial success creating a springboard to leadership through teacher leadership positions. These formal roles have allowed Gadsden to prepare and select strong principals with deep roots in the community and demonstrated experience supporting students to achieve academic goals.
Gadsden's long-standing partnership with the nonprofit National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) has helped the district create a local, sustainable, and successful instructional leadership pipeline. Seventy-five percent of the district's principals have prior experience as master teachers.
Gadsden's focus on building instructional capacity through structured teacher leadership opportunities has provided principals with intentional training and mentoring to build a leadership skillset. School and teacher leaders coach peers and provide professional development centered on instructional practice.
Five schools within the district earned an "A" state letter grade in 2018-2019. These schools had never earned an "A" before starting their NIET partnership and investing in a leadership pipeline.
Spotlight: Omar Duron, Principal, Southwest Junior High School
Building teacher leadership is at the top of Principal Omar Duron's to-do list. Duron immediately embraced the concept of creating a teacher career pathway and expanding his leadership team to include teacher leaders. He knew their value, given his experience as a classroom teacher, mentor, and master teacher. When Duron advanced to become the district's professional development coordinator, he led its team of master teachers while providing ongoing support at the school level.
Now in his third year at Southwest, Duron spends most of the instructional day visiting classrooms and knows every student by name. "I always thought of the principal role as top-down and disconnected from instruction. NIET changed my perspective," he said. "A leadership role is an educational role. When I was working in the district office, I made weekly visits to schools where I did a walk-through with the principal and participated in PLC meetings with teachers. I had access to the school's teacher and student data. I could see who was helping students to make the greatest gains, and I worked with the principal to understand why and how to identify and teach those skills to other teachers. That experience is the foundation of my approach now as a principal."
With his school leadership team, Duron looks at both teacher and student data to understand how changes in teacher practice are leading to student learning. How can teachers improve in presenting instructional content, questioning, or grouping students? How can they structure a lesson to create greater student engagement and ownership of learning? In what ways can coaching and support help teachers move forward with intentional and specific action steps that improve student learning?
A leadership role is an educational role. When I was working in the district office, I made weekly visits to schools, participated in PLC meetings, and had access to data. I could see who was helping students to make the greatest gains, and worked with the principal to understand why and how to identify and teach those skills to other teachers.Omar Duron, Principal, Southwest Junior High School
Duron's ability to connect deeply with fellow educators and respond to their needs extends to the broader school community that has been central to his own upbringing in San Luis. He often conducts his weekly "Coffee with the Principal" in Spanish to better engage with parents. Most of them view Spanish as their first language and have previously faced language barriers to participating in school activities.
Spotlight: Bethany Loucks, Principal, Rio Colorado Elementary School
Principal Bethany Loucks has been an administrator for 22 years, following 5 years as a classroom teacher. She is dedicated to building talent and a believer in multiple career paths as the best strategy for creating strong instructional leaders. Nearly half of the master teachers in the district served as classroom teachers at her school, where she recruited and trained them to take on leadership roles. Principal Loucks has played a key role as the district has put in place higher expectations for classroom instruction. Early on, she saw the importance of developing a “grow-your-own” approach to leadership development. By attracting and supporting teachers from within the school community to take on leadership roles, Loucks has helped the district increase the number of school leaders who reflect the cultural and linguistic diversity of students and their families.
"As a classroom teacher, I had an amazing principal. She inspired me to be a principal," Loucks said. "Her policy was an open door, and I always knew she had my back, even as she pushed me to improve. I bring that perspective now to my role as a leader. My goal is to help each teacher find their strength and empower them to build on it. We create a plan for how they continue to grow that strength – going in to see how other teachers do something, analyzing how that skill advances student learning in the classroom, and presenting on that skill in a collaborative group. I encourage them to be learners. Everyone can teach you something – as well as a teacher who collaborates with peers to help them grow."
The best principals come from our master teacher roles. The leadership skills they learn put them head and shoulders above other candidates for the principalship. This enables us to grow our own leaders who already have strong connections to our community and a track record of success with our students.Bethany Loucks, Principal, Rio Colorado Elementary School
Gadsden has created a structure for coaching and professional learning that gives every teacher a pathway toward improvement. Teachers and leaders have developed a shared language and understanding of strong classroom practice, which provide a foundation for professional learning and individual coaching. Similarly, principals are provided with opportunities for collaborative learning with their peers and individualized coaching based on their needs and the needs of students in their building.
"As we open doors and change our practices to always benefit students," Loucks said, "the district is essential to creating opportunities and making collaborative learning and reflection a part of district culture. In Gadsden, we have learned that the best principals come from our master teacher roles. The leadership skills they learn in that role put them head and shoulders above other candidates for the principalship. This enables us to grow our own leaders who already have strong connections to our community and a track record of success with our students. Creating a pathway for the development of strong instructional leaders is my life's work. It's that important.”
Using teacher leadership roles, Gadsden has established a leadership development program that results in principals with strong instructional leadership skills. This approach ensures that school leaders are skilled observers of classroom teaching and able to provide actionable feedback. The experience of serving as a master teacher themselves, and working with master teachers as part of their school leadership team when they become principal, strengthens their ability to provide each teacher with feedback for improvement grounded in the curriculum and standards for student learning. Their instructional knowledge and skills bring this perspective into district-level decision-making and support a focus on student work and outcomes.
By creating a springboard to leadership for teachers, Gadsden is building on the strengths, experiences, and investment of its own community members, creating confidence and trust in the process of improvement, and – most importantly – changing outcomes for students.