2015 News

Mort Teacher Leader Academy

Innovative program creates teacher-leaders in low performing urban school

Rebecca West Burns, University of South Florida; Woodland Johnson, Principal of Mort Elementary

Small group photo of Mort leadership academy participants

"When I first started teaching, I would hear the words 'teacher leaders,' and I only thought of administrators," said Amy DiSalvo, Mort ESE Teacher. "Now when I hear the words 'teacher leaders,' I think of all kinds of positions within a school that could fall in that category." Scholars and practitioners alike are calling for teachers to be educated differently (NCATE, 2010), which means that the way we prepare teachers and the way we support teachers' ongoing professional development must change. In lieu of "one size fits all" "sit and get" professional development, teachers' professional development must be ongoing, differentiated, sustained, supported, and rooted in issues that they face on a daily basis.

Such is the experience for the teachers of Mort Elementary School in Hillsborough County Public Schools who participate in the Mort Teacher Leader Academy (MTLA). MTLA a clinically-centered model of teacher leader preparation. Clinically-centered models of teacher education place the school community, including the PreK-12 students and their classrooms as the center for teacher learning. In this model, the PreK-12 classroom actually becomes the university classroom (Dennis, et al, in press), which is exactly what is occurring with the MTLA.

Classroom photo of empowered Mort leadership academy participants

The issues and tensions of teaching and leading in a failing urban school become the fodder for understanding conceptual underpinnings of teacher leadership and a meaningful curriculum for a graduate certificate. The purpose of MTLA is to develop a cadre of teacher leaders who are able to systematically study their own practice, effectively coach in-service and preservice teachers, facilitate meaningful job-embedded professional learning, and become a facilitator of change for the improvement of student learning.

Mort Elementary School is an urban school located within five miles of the University of South Florida. There are almost 925 students at Mort; over 500 of those students are new, which means that Mort has a large transient population. The school is a Title 1, Renaissance School, indicating that 99% of its students receive free and reduced lunch. Many of the students are English Language Learners. Over half of the population is Hispanic, a quarter is African American, and a tenth is Caucasian. There are almost 100 staff members and almost 20 residents from the Urban Teacher Residency Partnership Program (UTRPP), a strong school-university partnership between the University of South Florida (USF) and Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) to prepare the next generation of urban educators.

The Florida Department of Education labels Mort Elementary as an "F" school, which brings with it many challenges. Because of its "failing" status, the school day is extended to add an additional hour of literacy instruction. Much of the curriculum is scripted for the teachers and every minute of every day is accounted for.

Teachers face tremendous stress as they work under the conditions of high stakes accountability. Almost 30 teachers currently participate in MTLA. For their professional development, they enroll in a two-year, four course sequence, of teacher leadership courses that are aligned to the National Teacher Leadership Standards (www.teacherleaderstandards.org). The four courses include: Teacher Leadership for Student Learning, Teacher Research for Student Learning, Coaching for Student Learning, and Professional Development for Student Learning.

At the end of the second year, the teachers receive USF College of Education's Teacher Leadership Certificate. MTLA is not a "typical" graduate program, which means that the courses cannot be taught as they traditionally would be taught on campus. All courses are taught onsite at Mort Elementary School and are tailored to meet aspects of Mort Elementary School's School Improvement Plan. The syllabi are continuously negotiated among the principal, the teachers, and the professor-in-residence in order to ensure that the teachers are not only learning the knowledge they need but also the skills to enact their aspirations of teacher leadership.

The "course" begins with three full day professional development days the first week in August. The teachers are paid to attend through grant funding. In addition, the school also purchases their books, so there is no additional expense to the teachers. Throughout the school year, the course is taught on either Monday or Tuesday afternoons for an hour and a half each time. The date and time are dependent upon the school's academic calendar, thus the principal and the professor-in-residence negotiate the calendar in the summer and revise, if needed, throughout the year. This also means that the course extends beyond the end of the university fall semester through December and beyond the end of the spring semester through May to be more appropriately aligned with Mort's academic year and the issues and challenges facing the teachers.

The professor-in-residence, Mort's Teacher Leader, and the principal co-plan and co-teach the weekly courses, which requires an immense amount of collaboration and communication. These elements provide a rich and robust learning experience to mentor and be mentored regarding the contextual intricacies that exist when teaching in a clinically-centered program at an urban school.

MTLA has benefits for both HCPS and USF. First, HCPS receives the benefit of a professor-in-residence who works closely with the principal to create meaningful, job-embedded professional development for HCPS employees, USF benefits in that the program generates graduate student credit hours, and teachers and students benefit from teachers' learning. The program has been so successful that teacher leadership has become a tenet of the Urban Teacher Residency Partnership Program's goals and mission, and HCPS is interested in considering mechanisms to "scale up" this innovation.

By marrying the desires of a principal's wishes to better meet the needs of his staff with a university professor's expertise in differentiated professional development, MTLA is truly able to exist as an exemplar of meaningful, job-embedded professional development. Together, we are raising the next generation of urban teacher leaders who have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to become catalysts for change. "If I have learned anything the past year and a half, it is that leaders come in all shapes and sizes," said Arielle Brouillard, First Grade Teacher. "There is no one set role a leader takes or a way they should act. We all have our place. Being a leader doesn't mean you talk the most or do the most work. I feel like it is an attitude or a culture you live."