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Are Your Teachers Empowered?

Here are five great schools where they are.

What distinguishes schools where the faculty and staff are excited to show up to work every day from the ones where the watercooler talk inevitably turns to transfer opportunities and possible career changes?

In schools with a healthy work environment, teachers have a voice in decisions and freedom in the classroom, says Richard Ingersoll, professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. They want to be treated as professionals and they relish time to collaborate.

Teachers require flexibility in juggling the many needs of their students, says Ingersoll. And flexibility is not something you’ll find in a top-down workplace. “Management 101 says you can’t hold employees accountable for things they don’t have control over,” says Ingersoll. “If a principal makes a unilateral decision, and is not informed, he may not get buy-in from the people who have to make it work.”

Administrators who understand this just may find it’s the secret to a stable staff. And as they know, holding on to teachers isn’t easy. According to federal statistics, at the average public school 15 percent of the faculty moves to another school or leaves the profession every year. At private schools, the figure is closer to 20 percent.

Below, we profile five schools where teachers’ opinions are valued and collaboration is encouraged. They’re great places to work, and as a result, teachers stay put. And most important, say the teachers, kids are learning. That should come as no surprise—after all, a happy teacher is a more effective teacher.

Teacher Turnaround
Brockton High School, Brockton, Mass.
Students: 4,300 Grades: 9–12 Faculty: 334

It used to be that when Sue Szachowicz told people she worked at Brockton High School, they would say, “Oh, my dear, I’ll pray for you.” But last year, when a man at a local fish market recognized her school jacket, he said, “What an awesome school!”  

Szachowicz, a Brockton High alum, longtime teacher, and, since 2004, the school’s principal, was at the center of the teacher-led turnaround in which the faculty empowered themselves and transformed a school in the process.

In 1999, Brockton High was featured on the front page of The Boston Globe for having some of the state’s lowest test scores. That was a wake-up call for the teachers, who led a now-famous turnaround of the large school, which is located in a diverse, working-class neighborhood just south of Boston. Its success has been the subject of stories on PBS and 60 Minutes, and in The New York Times.

The school formed a restructuring committee and the teachers came together and asked: “Is this the best we can be?” recalls Szachowicz. The committee decided to focus on literacy. Writing was incorporated into every subject, and teachers worked together to develop common writing prompts. Even in choral music, students read articles related to their pieces.

The literacy initiative “was run and implemented by the faculty,” Szachowicz says. “It was not a principal on high saying, ‘We have adopted this. Go forth.’”

In the first year of the restructuring, Brockton cut its failure rate in half. Every year since, the school has shown improvement. The committee, which meets monthly on Saturday mornings, has grown from 12 members to 30, and there is a waiting list to be on it.

Jodie Nelson, an instructional resource specialist at the school, says teachers at other schools often work in isolation, but at Brockton, “we get an opportunity to love what we do in concert and be part of a team.”

 “You feel like a winner when you walk in every day,” says Nelson. “You know you’re defying the odds and are part of a team that’s successful.”

Faculty meetings are filled with professional development—often produced in-house—and there are in-depth discussions about instruction. And new teachers don’t just “sink or swim”; they are paired with mentors, says Sharon Wolder, associate principal.

Last year, says Szachowicz, less than 2 percent of the faculty left for positions at other schools. Tim Cuprinski, who graduated from Brockton High in 2006 and returned as a teacher this fall, captures the spirit behind those numbers: “I’m here for life,” he says.  “This is where I want to be.”

21st-Century Teamwork
C. W. Davis Middle School, Flowery Branch, Ga.
Students: 1,200 Grades: 6–8 Faculty: 85

Ever since Eddie Millwood became principal of C. W. Davis Middle School, in 2006, he’s turned to the faculty to make a good school even better.

He expanded forums for teacher input and increased the leadership team from 6 to 16. And though the school had a steady record of student achievement, a few years ago Millwood wondered if Davis was doing enough. “We started to talk about 21st-century classrooms and what students are supposed to be able to do in the real world to be successful,” says Millwood. “We asked: Are we teaching in a way that students are learning skills they are expected to know in the real world? The answer was no.”

So Millwood invited a dozen teachers to be part of a brainstorming group he called the “21st-Century Team.” They were freed from some of their duties to give them time to research and introduce new teaching methods and technology. Each teacher developed a model classroom with more individualized lessons, small-group work, and relevant materials to excite the students. For example, in one seventh-grade math class, students built cell phone apps, and in an English class they worked on methods to market the new products.

There was a representative on the team in each subject area, so every teacher had a model classroom to consult with on these new best practices. “The biggest fear of teachers was that there wasn’t anywhere to go for support,” says Millwood. “Now every subject area has a representative, and we developed 12 leaders and trainers.”

Millwood has been part of the school practically since it opened in 1999. He was hired as a language arts and social studies teacher in 2000 and worked as assistant principal. He put in a short stint as principal at another school before returning to Davis as principal.

“I’ve had the advantage of being here as a teacher and knowing the staff,” says Millwood. “I realized quickly that micromanaging doesn’t work for me. Teachers make the magic happen in the classroom. I support the teachers and provide them the freedom to teach.” In return, teachers stick with Millwood and the school, which had a faculty retention rate of 95 percent over the past three years.

Joel Cantrell, an eighth-grade social studies teacher, says Millwood has a knack for building a culture that empowers teachers. “You don’t just get asked for your opinion to pat you on the head. Everybody is involved here,” he says. “When we tried to change the focus, it wasn’t rammed down our throats. A core of people was picked to model it, and they took the ball and ran with it.”

“We have a strong sense of trust in our school,” says Celita Allen, an instructional administrator at Davis. Many on the staff have chosen education as a second career, which influences the dynamic in the school. “They know they have other opportunities, but they want to be here,” she says. “That’s their mission.”

Caring Around the Clock
Soaring Eagles Elementary School,
Colorado Springs, Colo.
Students: 550 Grades: PreK–5 Faculty: 65

At some schools, teachers turn their keys in over the summer. Not at Soaring Eagles Elementary. Drive by the school on a sunny day in July—or at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m. on a Saturday during the school year, for that matter—and you’ll often see cars in the parking lot.

“It’s a place everyone wants to be,” says Opal Bentley, who started at the school as an aide and now, after being inspired to get her degree, is a kindergarten teacher. “Whether it’s a school day, after hours, or the weekend, it’s just what we do for the good of the kids.”

If teachers feel like school is a second home, that’s no accident. Principal Kelli O’Neil believes that’s crucial. She wants the work environment “to be inviting, beautiful, and clean.” And perhaps most important, she takes good care of her staff. “It’s people first. People matter the most,” says O’Neil.

Caring for her teachers means telling them to go home when they are sick, or when they have to care for their own child or an elderly parent. It means providing extra support if they seem to be on the verge of burnout. O’Neil knows the job will get done. “I’m not a time watcher,” she says. “I have to create a learning atmosphere, but if they need a hug, I deliver a hug.”

When Gina Oelig, a first-grade teacher, had to take a day off to care for her sick child, the administration’s response was: “It’s no big deal. Relax. You need to be home,” she recalls. “They understand that your family comes first.”

O’Neil focuses on hiring high achievers, and once they’re hired, they stay put. In her years as principal, she has had only one teacher ask for a transfer; typically, just a few leave each year, either to retire or because of a military move. “They want to stay,” says O’Neil, who opened the school in 2002.

The results? Soaring Eagles Elemen-tary School has more distinguished teachers than any other school in its district, a designation based on classroom performance, student test scores, commitment to lifelong learning, and leadership. In 2010, the school was one of two schools in the state that received a federal Blue Ribbon award for academic achievement. And in 2012, it was one of 50 schools in the country to be designated a National Distinguished Title 1 School.

Fifth-grade teacher Brenda Sebastian says there’s no shortage of camaraderie. “I love the team I’m on,” she says. “We hold one another to a high standard and support [the effort] to get there.”

Sebastian adds, “In the end, it always comes down to the principal. The principal is the person who sets the tone in the building.”

A Thriving Partnership

Avalon School, St. Paul, Minn.
Students: 185 Grades: 7–12 Faculty: 17

At Avalon School, it doesn’t always come down to the principal. Actually, it never does. They don’t have one.

The school is a teacher cooperative. It’s run like a law firm—the employees are partners. They have equal votes in decision-making matters, divide administrative tasks among themselves, and evaluate one another’s performance.

Everyone pitches in with his or her own special talents to form something like a “superorganism” to get things  done, says Gretchen Sage-Martinson, who has taught at the school since it opened in 2001. “The challenge is not fighting the system, but inventing the system,” she adds.  

“We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and who to turn to if there is a problem,” says Sage-Martinson. “We know who is a good scheduler, who is good at carrying things out. We have a high level of trust with each other.”

Teachers make a commitment to work as part of a team and cover the duties—and peer evaluations take that into account. “The workload is different, not longer,” says Carrie Bakken, another of the original faculty members.

Teachers also have total control over their curriculum. “When things aren’t going well, we can quickly change,” says Bakken. “There aren’t lots of layers. We are very empowered.”

That autonomy is complemented by collaboration and mutual support. Classrooms are laid out with shared student work space, and teachers’ desks are in pairs, so they always have a colleague at their side. “If I’m teaching and a student has a meltdown, there is someone there to cover,” says Anna Wesley, who has been teaching at Avalon for eight years. In contrast, at her last job, she was always alone except during lunch.

Avalon uses project-based learning, which allows students to go deeper into learning and to individualize instruction. And with the co-op model, teachers have added flexibility. “It is certainly more rewarding for me and the students when I feel I’m giving them what they need. I don’t get bored with the curriculum,” says Wesley. “Ethically, I feel it’s what I need to do.”

Even though the faculty make 5 to 10 percent less than their peers at traditional schools in Minnesota, turnover is extremely low. In the past two years, the school has not lost any of its faculty members. “We are willing to take autonomy over pay,” says Bakken.

California Collegiality
Eleanor Roosevelt High School,
Eastvale, Calif.
Students: 3,470 Grades: 9–12 Faculty: 128

Mark LeNoir, principal of Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Southern California, is a self-described “data guy.” He’s set up a system of frequent assessments and almost-instant feedback. Teachers get an electronic report of student performance; students receive a printed version and are taught how to interpret the results.

Crunching the numbers has paid off: Test scores have improved substantially at Roosevelt in the past two years. But teachers are quick to point out that LeNoir has also taken the human factor into account. He’s promoted collegiality and teamwork, and added a fair amount of socializing into the equation.

Last year, LeNoir suggested forming a staff social club. “The goal of the Sunshine Group is to make my big high school feel like a small elementary school—where there are always cookies in the staff lounge and there is feeling of family.”

There have been holiday parties, a chili cook-off, and a French toast breakfast for the entire staff, along with birthday cards and plants for teachers on special occasions. Postcards with a sunshine logo are provided for staff members to send to each other to express thanks. “It lightens the campus mood,” says Laura Perez, a school secretary.

Sue Schaeffer, who has been a teacher at the school since it opened in 2006, says there is genuine collegiality among the faculty. She credits regular grade-level meetings to share best practices. Teachers score essays together to identify areas where improvements can be made. “I’m proud of what we have accomplished,” she says. “We’ve been very strategic and very thoughtful.” That pride is reflected in the school’s faculty retention rate of 97 percent over the past two years.

Students get in on the sunshine, too. Each week at staff meetings, they are invited to recognize teachers who have done something special. As kids talk about teachers not giving up on them, sometimes there are tears, says LeNoir, who has been at the school for three years. The honored teachers receive a wristband that reads: i change lives.

Annie Hanson says she has her “dream job” working at Roosevelt, teaching classes that focus on diversity and student-to-student mentoring. Upperclassmen in the school’s Link Crew host safe and welcoming events for freshmen on the weekends, such as tailgates, pool parties, and ice cream socials, complete with a 25-foot banana split. “Once students start failing classes, they stop coming,” says Hanson. “If they have a club or activity, they might have a different reason to stay.”

“LeNoir is a quiet leader, but he conveys his expectations to the campus,” adds Hanson. “He sees strengths in people and is able to identify what seat everyone should be in on the bus.”

—Late Fall 2012—

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