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Vail Daily column: Eagle County’s teacher leaders

Jason E. Glass
Valley Voices

Eagle County Schools is an organization with a longstanding commitment and a lot of experience with teacher leadership. Specifically, over a decade ago Eagle County Schools began implementing a system to create leadership roles for talented teachers. These positions, called mentor and master teachers, came with added work days and responsibilities as well as meaningful pay bumps.

When the system was first implemented, it followed in the footsteps of a growing national program called the Teacher Advancement Program, or TAP. Here, much of the attention (and initial resistance) focused on the system’s performance-based compensation and evaluation approaches.

Today, all these elements have been implemented and are considered fairly routine in all the schools. Eagle County Schools has one of the more sophisticated employee evaluation systems in the country and uses a performance-based compensation model for its employees.

For all the political sparks and interesting conversation these two elements (evaluation and performance-pay) bring, in reality, there isn’t much in the way of evidence to support their effectiveness at improving results, and we rarely see such models employed in high-performing education systems. This is exactly why we aren’t emphasizing them in our work to transform Eagle County Schools into a global high performer.

But the teacher leader system is a different story; this component is a clear driver for quality.

MEANINGFUL CAREER PATHS

One of the systemic problems with the teaching profession is that it, for the most part, lacks a meaningful career path. For talented and aspirational teachers, the common paths for professional growth are “up” or “out.” More specifically, to grow professionally, teachers have to get farther away from the classroom by taking administrative or district roles (i.e. “up”) or they leave teaching altogether (i.e. “out”).

Consider a bright, talented and ambitious first-year math teacher — eager to make a difference with her life. In most schools outside of Eagle County, if she wants to see her available professional pathway as a teacher, she only need look across the hall to the person who is also teaching high school math … who has been doing so for the past 25 years.

To be very clear, this is not intended to devalue veteran teachers — we need them, and I place an incredibly high value on their service and commitment. But education should offer a variety of leadership opportunities for talented and committed teachers besides “up” and “out.” Teaching is sometimes referred to as “the profession that makes all other professions possible,” and we should revere those who spend their lives in service to others.

The Eagle County Schools mentor and master teacher programs have created a model in our schools where those with the talent and desire can take on leadership roles while staying deeply connected to teaching. Our teacher leaders coach and advise others, lead student data review teams, work to build and implement a high-quality curriculum and teach their own classes. Their work is squarely focused on being a force-multiplier for great instruction.

They also form a leadership “team” in every one of our buildings; that team is focused on improving instruction. Along with the building principal and other teachers, each of our schools effectively has a team meeting regularly to shape and improve classroom practice. This is a key professional element we invariably see in high-performing education systems.

A WORK IN PROGRESS

As positive as all of this is for the teaching profession in Eagle County, it’s also very much a work in progress. Even after a decade of having teacher leaders in our schools, we’re wondering if their time and roles can be structured for even greater effect. We’re also wondering how we can tap into, acknowledge and empower even more teacher leaders that we have in our organization.

Toward that end, we’ll be reviewing our teacher leader system and considering ways we can grow it to be an even stronger force for quality in our schools.

A key feature of a healthy organizational culture is that both the willingness and capacity to lead emerges from practically every part of the organization. That is, leadership should not be just something extended to those with a title.

We can all think of people who don’t hold some position of authority, who are tremendous leaders and an inspiration to the people around them. We can probably all also think of many people who have a fancy title but are a long way from being a leader.

To be the world-class educational organization our community deserves, we’re working to build a culture where we have leaders permeating every part and aspect of our work — relentlessly and unyieldingly focused on quality.

Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at jason.glass@eagleschools.net.


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