Developing a TLC program that (really) works
Above: Norwalk leaders and educators talk about the Teacher Leadership and Compensation program that they have put together.
As the third round of school districts in earnest begin their training for implementing their Teacher Leader Compensation (TLC) programs in Des Moines this week, they would do well to drop by Norwalk to see what this district is up to.
Now in its second year of implementation, the district has found that its program is not static. Far from it. Leader titles have changed as needs became more focused. And, indeed, some of the leaders have changed.
“Our TLC is constantly focused on the ongoing needs; it doesn’t stay in one place,” said Dawn Schiro, elementary director of teaching and learning. “We sit down with every group and all grade levels and get all of the feedback on what changes we need to make to ensure all needs are being supported.
“Since we first implemented TLC, we have changed job descriptions. We realized technology is huge so we now have a technology component. Some of the roles we had at the beginning we changed. It is ever adjusting. I don’t know if it will ever be the same from year to year.”
Norwalk was in the first batch of districts joining the statewide TLC program, which is designed to create leadership roles and higher pay for effective teachers, while attracting promising new teachers with competitive starting salaries and more support. Through collaboration, teachers offer better classroom experiences for students, who subsequently receive better educations.
Norwalk Superintendent Denny Wulf likens TLC to that of the medical world.
“The whole idea behind TLC was to make it more like medicine where the decision is made closer to the patient,” he said. “Now decisions have more teacher input.
“This is a break from Iowa’s traditional paradigm. It used to be that the teachers would earn more money the longer they taught. Now, teacher leaders can earn more money by doing more work. Teachers are working with teachers.”
And just two years into TLC, Wulf already sees noticeable change.
“I have seen a seismic jump in our content alignment from kindergarten through 12th grade,” he said. “We have been unpacking the Iowa Core and we have been ensuring all the kids get the same body of information. In the past, it was almost impossible to know what was going on in all of these classrooms. With these extra sets of hands, the teacher leaders have been able to ensure content is aligned from classroom to classroom, grade to grade.”
Teacher leaders also have helped foster better understanding between principals and teachers.
“This is my sixteenth year of teaching, and I noticed the gap between teachers and principals,” said Tricia Kurtt, who is a half time gifted-and-talented teacher, half time high school instructional coach. “I would hear teachers express concern about certain things, then hear the principals express concern about something else. And they both made sense.
“With teacher leaders, the roles have helped close that gap since a teacher leader can see both sides. Teacher leaders have helped create a common vision that can be implemented by helping teachers see the big picture and the principal remembering what it’s like to be in the classroom.”
Andy Mogle agreed.
“I think it is that the principal gets more involved in the way the building is running and the curriculum as a system,” said Mogle, who is the family consumer science teacher in culinary arts and the career and technical education district curriculum leader. “Individual teachers see things through a totally different lens. We see our work is being about individuals, whereas the principal sees it as a system.”
Three years into her career, fourth-grade teacher Jill Martin said teacher leaders have been a great support.
“Principals have a hard job and are concerned about outcomes,” she said. “They will come to you and tell you what they want you to achieve in the classroom. That can be intimidating. It is nice having people understanding both sides. Teacher leaders understand that our classes are different every day.”
Wulf said a study among principals underscored that disconnect.
“They thought they were getting in there to lead, but found out they were mostly managing,” he said. “Of course, those things need to be done because if you don’t have a well-managed building, you don’t have anything. That’s similar to a hospital administrator. You don’t want a hospital administrator making patient decisions; you want the doctor. In school, you want the teachers to make decisions for the students.”
Norwalk educators agree that the teacher leader structure has amped up the district’s professional development (PD) significantly.
“In years past, all teachers sat down and received the same PD,” Mogle said. “Sometimes it appeared that some teachers were not buying in because they were not making the connections to their individual work.”
No more. Norwalk’s professional development now is fine-tuned to each teacher, each class, each subject matter.
“Now teacher leaders align the PD,” Mogle said. “I can focus on what we do in a small group of CTE (Career and Technical Education) teachers. It may be the same professional development as all other teachers and have the same message, but it is targeted to CTE teachers. Now that we have teacher leaders in all curriculum areas, we are able to focus on message.”
“The phrase that comes to mind is ‘job-embedded professional development,’” Kurtt said.
The teacher leaders make sure they are all in agreement with what the message is before arranging professional development.
“Then we have our PDs with our small groups, but lead them through a lens that can be broken down to content-specific areas,” Kurtt said. “We make sure it is implemented properly in science, for instance, because that is different than how it would be implemented in other areas like math and literature.”
TLC fosters a true collaboration building-wide, said Amy Gage, secondary director of teaching and learning.
“I think one of the things that TLC people have done for our school district is totally change the culture of collaboration,” she said. “It used to be that districts didn’t have staff with the time to provide that kind of level of PD. This allows us to build internal capacity for training. The level of implementation we have had is so much more.
“We are doing a better job of meeting individual needs better, but we also are meeting our collective needs better.”
In addition to aligning professional development to the various curricula, Wulf said the small groups get a deeper understanding of how things should be taught.
“The research has been clear: You need theory, demonstration, practice and feedback,” he said. “Up until TLC, there had been very little demonstration, and feedback maybe three times a year.”
Initially, there was a bit of distrust of the teacher leaders, something that requires attention.
“As leaders, many of us have worked on building that trusting relationship,” said Shelly Vroegh, who is half-time fifth-grade teacher, half-time instructional coach. “I sensed that some teachers were thinking, ‘Oh, oh, what is she listening for?’ Once you build trust, they are more willing to work with you.”
Finally, the selection of teachers is a rigorous process. Once potential leaders are screened by the principal, it is up to the teacher selection committee – comprised of teachers – to make the final determination who will be named as leaders. Leaders must reapply every year.
“At first I thought it would be a popularity contest,” Vroegh said. “But the best people really do float to the top.
“The selection process is nerve-racking. You want to make sure you base decisions on the skill rather than the person or personality.”
“The very least we can do is honor teaching these kids with the very best,” Kurtt said.
As for Mogle, he debated whether he wanted to reapply as a teacher leader this past year.
“It took a lot of thought to think through whether I had the drive and desire to teach adults,” he said. “When I step out of that classroom and teach adults, it is a very different kind of commitment.”
Wulf said that TLC has been a game changer for the district.
“This is a real research-based process that we are going through now,” he said. “We are putting teachers at the forefront of change. It is especially significant because we have new assessments possibly coming and we are unpacking the Iowa Core. We have higher expectations. Our teachers will always pick the right people for the teacher leader positions. They know the leaders will be effective and truly help them.”