(OSCEOLA, IA – Tuesday, JAN. 19, 2021) What can be said about the state’s Teacher Leadership and Compensation (TLC) program? That it teams up mentors with new teachers to make them better educators quicker? Or that students’ academic deficiencies disappear faster? Or that it enables teachers to better problem solve anything from academics to behavior?
Officials at Clarke Community School District would say all of the above. But they would add one more thing: the pandemic.
“In the past year, when COVID-19 became a reality, they have been lifesavers not only to teachers but administrators,” said Clarke’s Curriculum Director Jean Bahls. “They have gone above and beyond this year in trying to look to ways to support online teaching. For instance, they would solve questions like ‘How do we turn this science experience online and make kids at home feel like they are a part of it?’
“Throughout it all, our coaches have been playing a major role in drilling down to the grade-level instruction. Though this has been going on for several years, it has been particularly noticed during the pandemic. Just knowing those teachers are there to bounce around ideas, just having the coaches in the building are a comfort to staff.”
But pandemics, mercifully, don’t come on a regular basis. And it’s during the non-COVID times the district’s teacher leaders truly shine.
The state’s program was created to reward effective teachers with leadership opportunities and higher pay, attract promising new teachers with competitive starting salaries and more support, and foster greater collaboration for all teachers to learn from each other.
The overriding philosophy of the system is multi-pronged, but boils down to this: Improving student learning requires improving the instruction they receive each day. There is no better way to do this than to empower teachers to lead the effort.
When Clarke first waded into the TLC pool, they were sure of nothing – other than ensuring their teacher leaders were not seen as administrators.
“We went to great lengths to make sure our coaches were not being used as administrators so they could spend more time with the teachers,” Bahls said.
They broke their coaches into two groups: instructional coaches, who work with teachers on improving practices, aligning work to the standards and interpreting assessment data; and success coaches, who work with teachers on recognizing problems within the classroom and how to effectively work with the students.
“Instructional coaches observe teachers and give feedback,” said Clarke Superintendent Steve Seid. “That was uncomfortable at first, but they have done a wonderful job working with their colleagues in ensuring success. With success coaches, I have seen these folks go up and beyond with our neediest of the families. They become part of the fabric to support kids and families, not just in school but outside.”
The district also runs its mentorship program through TLC.
“New teachers are assigned mentors,” Bahls said. “They offer a lot of support in implementing the curriculum. They also work closely with the coaches, with mentors saying things like, ‘my teacher is really struggling with classroom management or assessment data.’
“Though new teachers come in as green as before, we seem them growing faster as teachers than years passed.”
The district also used one of the coaches exclusively for special education.
“This is something we implemented last year,” Seid said. “She’s an instructional coach and provides K-12 teachers help with anything from analyzing progress monitoring to helping with IEP (Individualized Education Program) and compliance questions. That specialized knowledge is a huge benefit to our team.”
The district’s coaches are also responsible for a lot of the professional development for teachers.
“They give professional development showcasing different tools the teachers might need to work with kids who may be having difficulty,” Bahls said. “They also work on improving the environment of the building. They are an integral part of our district.”
The district isn’t one to rest on its laurels, though. Each year they send out a survey to the teachers asking what they feel about the district’s TLC practices.
“Overwhelmingly across the board we get positive reinforcement,” Bahls said. “We have questions like ‘did the coach improve your skills?’ Our coaches are very adept at not only giving feedback but giving tangential support.”
With 53 percent of the district’s 1,350 students living in poverty, there’s plenty of need. And outside of school hours, the success coaches have created a food-and-clothing pantry.
“They also bring in members of the community, some who may give them haircuts or give them free supplies,” Bahls said. “We know if kids don’t have their basic needs met they are not going to learn. The coaches make sure that students have basic needs met, feel safe and secure, and if something’s going on at home, the students know they have a safe adult at school.”
That work has paid off – in the classroom.
“Behavior problems have gone way down, particularly in the elementary school, and the students are being more successful inside and outside of the classroom,” Bahls said.
Since starting their TLC program, administrators see continuous growth.
“Every year, the coaches grow more and are becoming more adept in going into classrooms and having those tough conversations,” Bahls said. “As a district, we are getting comfortable teaching the standards the way they are supposed to be taught.
“I cannot imagine not having these people in our district.”