Teacher leaders evolving with the times

By Richard Wilson

When the Teacher Leader Endorsement was created by NJEA-backed legislation in 2015, there was the question of what kinds of “jobs” would be connected to this new endorsement. It was a question that the Teacher Leader Advisory Board would struggle with as it worked to make its recommendations for regulations to the New Jersey commissioner of education. The board recommended in its report in June 2017 that there not be a list of teacher leader responsibilities maintained by the New Jersey Department of Education; but rather this be left as a local decision. They opined in their report that teacher leadership is so contextual, and the field is changing so rapidly, that any centrally planned list would be quickly obsolete.

Observing the first class of the NJEA Teacher Leader Academy is evidence that the decision of the advisory board was a wise one. No one could have predicted how much our personal and professional lives would change while living in a pandemic, and the work of teacher leaders has shifted as well.

Teacher leadership in a pandemic

“Help!” was the plea to those teacher leaders on any number of issues. Sometimes the call for help was explicit, other times, teacher leaders have been able to discern the needs of their colleagues, students, and communities through conversations, emails, Zoom meetings, social media posts, and other forms of virtual communication.

An initial need for many teachers was the question of how to reinterpret their in-person teaching techniques into equally effective practices in a virtual environment. Dawn Rivas from River Dell Regional School District created a video for her colleagues with tips on creating a successful online learning environment. The video was also used in orientation sessions for new teachers prior to the start of the school year.

Justin Saxon, of the Northern Valley Regional School District, was working to build leadership capacity among his colleagues. Established teacher leaders and administrators worked together to identify teachers and paraprofessionals with skills to support a virtual learning environment. They provided space for them to develop their leadership skills. This systemic approach ensured support for teachers as they negotiated this new environment.

Nicole Jacinto in Union Township found that identifying students who were struggling was a challenge for her middle school team. The difficulties of communicating in a virtual environment compounded the issue. Jacinto created a grade-wide feedback system in Google Docs where teachers could easily communicate about struggling students and the strategies they were using to help them. This facilitated a coordinated effort to reach the students who needed the most assistance.

Christine Hewitt, who works in the Burlington County Special Services School District, saw a decline in the number of students enrolled in the extended school year (ESY) program. Working with the superintendent, she developed a team of teachers and paraprofessionals to serve on the Summer 2020 Connection and Engagement Initiative. The team created activities for students in and out of the ESY program. They reached out to parents and families to encourage them to participate, providing an opportunity for the staff to support students and their families throughout the summer.

Christine Candarella in Bloomfield shifted her responsibilities as a Master Teacher into the virtual world, ensuring that new teacher roundtables and provisional teacher meetings continued. This enabled provisional teachers to move on to earn their standard teaching certificate. She also worked with the local association’s Pride Committee chair and the township’s Youth and Family Services program to support the local food bank.

NJEA Teacher Leader faculty also provided support in their districts. Dawn Howlen from Trenton and Lizandaa Alburg in Paterson both made regular wellness calls to their colleagues. Lending an empathic ear, they listened to members who were suddenly unsure of the direction they needed to take and reassured them despite the isolation the pandemic created.

Teacher leaders, both formally and informally, have demonstrated the wisdom of the Teacher Leader Advisory Board leaving their roles open-ended. This flexibility has empowered teacher leaders to step forward to support their colleagues, their students, their schools and their districts in a wide variety of ways in the midst of the pandemic. Through the NJEA Teacher Leader Academy, they can reflect deeply on their work in this challenging time and build greater leadership skills to influence public education everywhere—all while leading from the classroom, however that is defined in a remote or in-person environment.

Richard Wilson is an associate director in the NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division. He is the coordinator of the NJEA Teacher Leader Academy. He can be reached at TeacherLeader@njea.org.