The Intersection

Teachers Taking Control

May 11, 2015

In Washoe County School District in Reno, NV, teachers pull desks together, grouping themselves in grade-level teams to share student work pertaining to the focus standard of that day’s professional development. Representing all schools throughout the district, the teachers gather on a regular basis to share strengths and challenges associated with implementing the Common Core.

Led by a teacher on special assignment, the professional development is tailored to the teachers’ needs, which have been identified through surveys and informal conversations with teacher leaders. A district administrator stands in the back of the classroom circulating from table to table every so often, but the focus is on the robust discussions happening between the teachers. As we observed this professional development, the intention of the leaders in Washoe County was clear: throw out the old way of doing business by empowering teachers to take control of Common Core implementation.

Our trip to Washoe County was just one of six school districts we visited to inform them about our recently released report on teacher leadership during the implementation of the Common Core. The districts in our report are diverse in almost every way – including size, socio-economic status, and student population – yet they all shared a commitment to systemically involve teachers in the rollout of the Common Core.

These efforts have had a profound impact. By shaking up notoriously adversarial relationships between administrators and practitioners, teacher leaders are provided opportunities to influence many important aspects of Common Core implementation, including the development of instructional materials, the use of collaborative time, and the creation of professional development activities.

Before meeting with teachers, we worried whether they could make time to share their experiences with us. As former teachers, we know all too well what it feels like at the end of a long day of teaching, when the yearning for quiet and the comfort of home far surpasses all other invitations. Would teachers really take the time to have honest conversations with us about policy? Would they find value in our project?

The resounding answer was yes. We were floored by the enthusiasm of the teachers we met. One-hour sessions turned into two-hour dynamic discussions with teachers adding to each other’s experiences and developing recommendations for other districts to follow in their footsteps.

A common theme throughout these visits was teacher involvement in district and school-level governance that allowed their input to be considered and, in many cases, implemented. Teachers served on school, district, and union governing bodies with formal structures to ensure teacher perspectives are a central part in decisions made about the Common Core.

For instance, Angela Orr, a teacher leader in Washoe County, explained her process of working with other teacher leaders to determine how collaborative time would be used each week to fulfill the needs that teachers voiced with the teacher leaders in their school. Involving teacher leaders in the planning of collaborative time is a new process in Washoe County since the implementation of the Common Core, and it seems to be working.

“Teachers are able to talk about ways that they could teach social studies to meet the literacy standards and Common Core, and more importantly, try to help students achieve at a higher level in reading, writing, speaking, and listening through their discipline,” Orr explained.

Because of these districts’ collaborative approach to the rollout and implementation of the Common Core, teachers resoundingly felt like they were being authentically heard and were willing to capitalize on any opportunity to talk about it. We saw that when teachers are being heard, they take more ownership over the policies they’re implementing, which naturally makes the policies stronger. This positive cycle of communication and implementation ultimately creates conditions for student achievement.

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