Give teachers ‘green light’ to become leaders

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Principal Cheryl Watkins, Pershing West Middle School

Principal Cheryl Watkins, Pershing West Middle School

We run a lean operation at John J. Pershing West Middle School. The administration consists of just two people – me and my assistant principal, who also doubles as the high school algebra teacher.

As the principal, I’m the person teachers go to when they have a question. I’m also the person they go to when they have an idea. So when Chris Hennessy, the physical education and health teacher, told me that it was obvious I had too much to do and he was willing to take over some of my workload, I was thrilled to have the help. His leadership has proved invaluable.

We tend to think of our schools as places where roles are well defined, jobs well divided. Administrators administrate, teachers teach, students study.

That division of labor may have been good enough in decades past.

The problem is, these days, too many of our students are not learning, or at least not learning enough. And adults within our schools can no longer be content resting comfortably within their narrowly-defined titles, doing just their jobs.

In recent years, Illinois has joined a growing number of states around the country in passing strong education reforms that are intended to help administrators and teachers do their jobs better. The state is ramping up more meaningful teacher and administrator evaluations. It’s changing the way teachers are hired and fired, and the way that principals are prepared. All of these are positive changes.

But in order for these reforms to bring real-world results, we have to change how teachers work.

I’m part of a group of about 20 award-winning educators that Advance Illinois has brought together from around the state to think about that change. As a member of their Educator Advisory Council, I’ve had the chance to delve more deeply into how best to improve the teaching and learning that goes on in our classrooms.

And in our recently released report, “Transforming Teacher Work,” we talk about how to ensure we attract the best minds to teaching, and give those teachers the opportunities to use all of their talents to help our students.

We have to start by ensuring that teachers have the time and space to collaborate. One of the things I learned in my 11 years as a classroom teacher is that teachers are great hoarders. We never think there’s going to be enough, so we hoard everything – paper, dry erase markers, crayons. We also hoard ideas. We hoard experiences. But the teacher next door might benefit from hearing about, and learning from, our ideas and experiences. So we have to find a way to give teachers more time to talk to each other, and to use each other as resources.

Amanda Bernacki and Kelly Lane, my two 4th-grade teachers, are spearheading our move to the Common Core curriculum. Their lesson plans are phenomenal. We go back and forth about what sounds right and what doesn’t, what we should do and what we shouldn’t do. And because they know that I’m committed to their work as well, they’re not afraid to take that risk.

Another teacher, Monica Sims, is so energetic, committed and decorated that her list of awards could easily fill up this entire page. My job is to find a way to allow her to remain in the classroom, while also ensuring she has opportunities for leadership.

This is what professional development should look like. Not all opportunities have to be formalized; a workshop or training is not the only way. While those opportunities can be invaluable, so is the informal give and take that happens in my school.

By transforming teacher work, we can give all teachers the green light to take initiative, and work toward making their schools better for our kids. Just like Chris Hennessy has done.

Cheryl D. Watkins is principal of Pershing West Middle School and is a member of the Advance Illinois Board of Directors.