When a teacher-leader returns to the classroom
GILBERT – As Jenni Pudenz was approaching a decade-and-a-half of teaching, she started questioning what she wanted to do for the next 20 years.
It is a sentiment that many teachers face in their careers. For some, they leave the profession.
“I knew I was looking for a change,” Pudenz said. “I was asking, ‘am I really a classroom teacher or do I want something else?’”
Carrie Clark, Gilbert Elementary School’s curriculum director, had seen the signs in other teachers before. But this time Clark had a tool up her sleeve: the Teacher Leadership and Compensation (TLC) program, which is designed to get high-performing teachers out of the classroom to mentor other teachers. TLC is a win-win in schools: It gives a professional path for teachers, and it improves performance in classrooms.
For Pudenz, when Clark offered her the instructional coach position, it was just the shot in the arm that she needed.
“I had worked with instructional coaches previously at another district, so I knew the value of instructional coaches,” Pudenz said. “So when the opportunity came up here, I was really excited about the prospect of making our district better.”
Pudenz was seeking a different outlook, a new perspective. She got it.
“When I first started, I could see teachers tense up when I walked into the room,” she said. “They knew I was in a new role. But as time went on, they saw that, no, I wasn’t administrator, and that our focus is on the students. They realize that you’re just a teammate.”
Pudenz soon realized just how different her new job was.
“I was working with various people throughout the district on things that had to be implemented or initiatives that had to be put in place,” she said. “Mentoring was one of my favorite things – working with the Iowa teaching standards and let them decide which area to focus on with each standard. We would watch short videos – whatever they needed to focus on the growth.”
Nicole Klaver, a kindergarten teacher and grade-level leader, admitted having Pudenz enter her classroom was a little nerve racking.
“It was a little scary at first because you’re not used to your colleague coming in and helping you in the classroom,” she said. “Jenni did such a good job in helping you and making you feel at ease. I learned about myself and my teaching style. She would do a variety of things, such as listen to the questions I was asking my students. Am I asking the right kinds of questions? I also wanted to know if I was calling more on boys or girls.
“One year, I had a little guy who was very argumentative. He would say things like, ‘you hate me,’ and I would say ‘no, I don’t.’ Jenni said, ‘when he argues with you, have you thought about saying instead ‘I’m sorry you feel that way.’ And it worked.”
Klaver said she’s grown to be a more effective teacher thanks to TLC.
“I definitely am better at looking at my data,” she said. “I realize today that I wasn’t diving into it like I should have. Jenni helped me look at the data in a more meaningful way. As a grade-level teacher, I, in turn, am able to help my colleagues.”
Clark said Pudenz’s unassuming ways gave her credence among her colleagues.
“One thing Jenni did was share strategies she saw in the classroom,” she said. “She would say, ‘hey, I saw this strategy.’ It got people talking. Jenni never said ‘do this.’”
Clark said the TLC program is supporting great work in the classrooms every day.
“TLC has been a real game changer,” she said. “Prior to having that full-time mentoring piece, the only mentoring going on was with a grade-level teammate, and any mentoring going on was squeezed in after class or after the school day.”
TLC, which has been incrementally implemented over the last three years and is now in all districts in the state, requires a level of trust.
“I really think that you have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone and really talk to the instructional coaches,” Pudenz said. “There is no judgment, they totally know where you are coming from, they have been in your shoes, they are there to support you.”
In her third year of coaching, Pudenz realized that something had changed in her.
“I started realizing I was missing that kid connection,” she said. “In the process of seeing the teachers growing and seeing the kids’ growth, I decided my job back in the classroom working with kids is where I belonged. It’s what I really like doing.
“I’m a better teacher from all my colleagues that I got to observe. They know so much, and it happens in their classrooms, and not everyone gets to see the expertise that’s out there.”
So Clark made a switch: Pudenz would get her second-grade classroom, and second-grade teacher Ashley Soma would move into an instructional coach position.
“It wasn’t something I naturally ran to, and I was thinking, ‘I don’t want to do that,’” she said. “Then I thought, ‘maybe I should try it and apply.’”
It was a great trade.
“I worked over the summer, and got into cognitive coaching classes,” Soma said. “I was still teaching last spring, but worked my way into the other conversations. I admit that I swallowed hard that first week as an instructional coach.”
Now in its fourth year in the Gilbert Community School District, TLC has become a way of life.
“Now it’s just how we do business,” Clark said. “At the beginning, some were saying, ‘why do we need TLC?’ Now people are saying, ‘what would we do without TLC.’”
Now back in her second grade class, Pudenz reflects on her TLC role.
“I would say that my favorite part of being an instructional coach was being invited into classrooms to see what was going on,” she said. “There was never a time I would visit a classroom that I didn’t learn something.”
And she’s thrilled to be a full-time teacher again.
“I totally feel like I am in my element,” Pudenz said. “Before taking the instructional coach position, I had a little lull in my career, but today I am totally rejuvenated. I’ve learned so much. Today, when I think about my students, I don’t do it from the point of view of concern. Instead, I view it from within a comfort zone. Instead of worrying about a deficiency, I now contemplate on how to fix it. That’s truly what it should be about, isn’t it?