Published on Real Clear Education, August 17, 2015, by Multi-Classroom Leader Karen von Klahr.
This piece is the fourth in a series of monthly pieces by teachers participating in the Opportunity Culture initiative, a movement launched in 2011 by education policy and consulting firm Public Impact. Pilot schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Cabarrus County, N.C,; Nashville, Tenn.; Syracuse, N.Y.; Big Spring, Texas; and Indianapolis are using Public Impact’s new job models and career paths. These “Opportunity Culture” models are aimed at improving the quality of education by extending the reach of excellent teachers and their teams, to encourage teacher selectivity, increase opportunities for teachers to advance in their careers without leaving the classroom, promote on-the-job learning, and boost teacher pay — all within regular budgets.
Coffee-sipping, pajama-wearing “summer planning sessions” just seem to happen. A teacher’s mind and heart are never far from the classroom or students, so in those rejuvenating months, plans for the next year are often nearby.
My “summer planning sessions” were much different last year than in years past. I was about to become the first multi-classroom leader (MCL) at my school, leading a team of teachers. Now, teachers—especially new teachers—would no longer be stuck alone in the classroom with a “good luck!” And as I discovered, new teachers working with an MCL would still experience some trial and error, but they and their students could be well ahead of the usual learning curve.
This role, I knew, would be vastly different than that of a fourth-grade classroom teacher, which had become very comfortable to me.
But comfort doesn’t mean ease. Teaching is not easy! After enough years and quite a bit of trial and error, it had become comfortable. So I decided to leave my comfort zone and try this new position, in which I would work closely with administration, lead a team of third-grade teachers, and still be able to work with students. I could share my skills on the aspects of the classroom that had become comfortable, as well as further my leadership abilities.
Although there were six third-grade teachers, I focused on our three reading teachers—one of whom was brand new. All the teachers had needs, but I chose to spend a great deal of time with our new teacher, Emily Angles. She was spunky and ready to go, but certainly on a roller coaster of emotions: Anticipation, excitement and uncertainty all wrapped up into one crazy ride.
Given her eagerness about her two, two-hour-plus blocks of students, Emily and I couldn’t wait to dive into the school year and make it something special. In her first block, I modeled how to teach the day’s mini-lesson. In those lessons, I try to make connections to something in my life—such as tying what motivates the actions of my children to the same motivations in a story’s characters, or sharing how I get overwhelmed with nonfiction and have to find ways to organize my thoughts.
Emily was able to witness and be a part of my enthusiasm and the students’ excitement as they got to know me better. She watched as students shared their own thoughts, learning from how I shared with them—and seeing how students learned more about each other, the text, and the lesson of the day. I modeled classroom management as I moved students around the classroom, and showed quick ways to assess students’ understanding. During these lessons, Emily would add in her own thoughts, so the students were able to hear connections from both of us.
During the second block, the roles would reverse. Emily was able to take the lead while I supported her. At first it was easier for her to use some of my examples—sometimes nearly word for word—but in no time she was clearly comfortable sharing more of herself. Behavior management and procedures were smooth, and a community was forming in both blocks.
That was exciting: I started to see the possibilities for education if every new teacher could work like this.
And I saw the results fast: Within a few months, Emily no longer needed me as much. I still provided some coaching, but we now mainly worked together to plan, create small groups, and collaborate to meet the needs of all students.
In an interview about her Opportunity Culture role, Emily said, “I came into the year as a first-year teacher and left as a third-year teacher.”
I love that quote, and it’s proof to me that having an MCL benefits teachers, students, their parents, and the school—and me. When one teacher grows and learns with guidance like this, a much larger community will reap the benefits.
Over the past year, I have grown a great deal as a teacher-leader. I was given a new opportunity that was both challenging and rewarding. This experience has been wonderful for me, and I hope many others have similar opportunities in the future.
I had to analyze the things I did naturally, and be able to present them in a way that made sense and was easy for a new teacher to mold into her own identity. I don’t want any teacher to be exactly like me, but if I can sit in the seat next to that new teacher and give support on the August roller coaster, I will feel accomplished.
This year, my coffee-sipping, pajama-wearing, “summer planning sessions” were changed into sideline-sitting, country-traveling, soccer-mom “summer planning sessions,” but the thoughts remained similar. When school starts next week, I will be working with three new teachers. I think endlessly about my school, teachers, and students, and what I learned from working with Emily, as I plan to support and grow these new teachers, as well as myself.
Karen von Klahr is in her 14th year of teaching, and going into her second year as an MCL. She works for Cabarrus County Schools in North Carolina, where she feels very fortunate to be part of a group of educators focused on empowering teachers and students.