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District thrives with teacher leadership program

Date: 
Monday, November 24, 2014
Benton Community School District’s Superintendent Gary Zittergruen, left, poses with his teacher leadership team. Zittergruen is impressed with how quickly the district is seeing positive results through the teacher leadership program.

The Benton Community School District’s teacher leadership program is working better than anyone anticipated: Student performance is already improving classroom by classroom just three months into the program.

But don’t think it’s a fluke. The success comes from long hours of planning, making sure all of the i’s were dotted and t’s crossed.

The Benton school district was one of 39 districts approved to participate in the state’s new Teacher Leadership and Compensation system through a $50 million legislative appropriation. Eventually all districts will be able to participate, at an annual cost of $150 million.

The program, known as TLC, gives teachers a new career path opportunity in which they work with their peers to improve instruction. The underpinning concept of the legislation is that when students engage with great teachers, their education improves.

And Benton Community school officials say it works.

“Three out of five of the teachers I work with have data showing that student achievement has already improved,” said Benton Instructional Coach Cynda Mehlert, a former fifth grade teacher. “It has nothing to do with what I say, but with the teachers. They are more reflective of their work. While your gut instinct is good, you have to look at what your data says.”

“We are accomplishing at faster rates than we thought would be possible,” he said. “No one was sure of what to expect initially. But we know now that the resources and energy that teacher leaders can provide is fantastic.”

Benton Community’s journey into the teacher leadership program began with an arduous hiring application process. No favoritism, thank you very much.

“We first had to answer questions online, and do a resume and cover letter,” said Laurie Donald, curriculum and professional development leader for the middle-high school and former school Spanish teacher. “Once you got an interview, you had to answer dozens of questions, and then watch a classroom scenario and role play by responding as a coach. Then we had to do a written reflection on our coaching.”

Jo Prusha, right, who is Benton Community’s curriculum director, said that teacher leaders must be perceived as individuals who can provide help and service to other teachers.

“The job descriptions really framed what the jobs were going to be,” said Jo Prusha, the district’s curriculum director. “We were very transparent during the process.”

“I think that process gave credibility,” added Alex Olson, instructional coach at the elementary level and former fourth grade teacher.

The application process was a hybrid of resources used from the Center for Teaching Quality and the New Teacher Center, Prusha said.

“There was a very well-planned rubric on what these positions needed,” Donald said. “A lot of us bring different things to the table.”

Lois Deerberg, a middle and high school instructional coach and former English teacher, said she jumped at the chance to apply.

“When this opportunity came up, there was nowhere else to go in my career,” she said. “This is so invigorating. It is an opportunity to do more by taking your work from the classroom and do something even more to help others.”

Her coworkers agreed.

“I don’t have a desire to become an administrator at all, but this was a way for me to be a leader for teachers without having to take the step into the administration,” Mehlert said. “I think it keeps me in education longer.”

“I see myself as a lifetime teacher, so it really hasn’t kept me in education longer,” Donald said. “But the new career path gives me a renewed spirit.”

As with any change, transitioning a district to include a teacher leadership program is not without its challenges.

“There have been bumps along the road,” said Andrea Townsley, the curriculum and professional development leader at the elementary level and former fourth grade teacher. “We have to make sure we don’t overwhelm teachers in the classroom. We were worried about how we would be perceived. But more and more, teachers are reaching out more than we thought initially.”

Mehlert had experience in coaching at another school district before joining Benton Community.

“You have to make it very clear that you are an equal with teachers,” she said. “Ultimately, you develop a relationship in which they view you as more approachable than the principal, who could be perceived as evaluative. I have found that just through conversations, teachers start realizing they can make improvements with the constant goal, ‘Is this making a difference on student achievement?’”

At the high school level, in which classrooms are historically more independent, there has been perhaps even more reluctance to embrace an outsider’s help.

“The high school still is very locked into being self sufficient,” Deerberg said. “It has been a challenge to break into that. But it also has been a challenge to us to say ‘I’m going into the classroom and ask those hard questions in a nice way.’”

“It’s always a challenge talking to teachers about entertaining doing something differently,” Donald said. “We first need to build the relationships. Now we have some teachers truly contemplating change.”

Those relationships are built, in part, through trust.

“Confidentiality between a coach and teacher and a coach and administrator is really key,” Mehlert said. “When we talk to administration, we talk in general terms rather than a specific teacher.”

“Teachers are appreciating our voice,” Townsley said. “There is plenty of feedback both ways. Our goal is to make sure we all look through the same lens.”

The increased communication has also had a direct impact on professional development, said Mark Kenny, an instructional coach at the middle and high school level and former middle school science teacher.

“We used to confine professional development opportunities to the individual buildings,” he said. “Now, K through 12, we are all together, and we collaborate together for professional development opportunities.”

Perhaps most important is that teachers in the district are liking the teacher leadership program. In a school survey, one elementary teacher reflected:

"It has been very beneficial for me to reflect on my teaching. Having someone to ask questions of me and help me to think of teaching in a new way has been very helpful. I appreciate when we are talking that there is always a positive atmosphere in which to discuss. I feel free to share areas that I feel are weaknesses because I feel there will be a positive approach to helping those areas to become strengths. My coach has opened my thoughts to new ways of looking at teaching. She is helping me become an out-of-the-rut teacher. She listens to my failures as well as my victories."

Benton Community School District’s Superintendent Gary Zittergruen says the key to ensuring ongoing statewide success is a dedicated funding stream for the teacher leadership program.

Superintendent Zittergruen hopes to see the program continue indefinitely in the state. But continued state funding is critical to its success.

“We hope there is sustainability to the program and it continues to be funded,” he said.
 
In the meantime, the leadership team continues to dig into their newfound work.

“We still have teacher hats, we know what it is like,” Townsley said. “We have come a lot farther than I thought we would have. We are going at a really good pace serving the teachers.”

“When you talk about serving – that was a big part of the teacher leader application process,” Prusha added. “Service is huge part of the job. That’s what we do.”

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on June 24, 2017 at 7:24am.