I had the great fortune of meeting and working with our guest blogger, Keryn Dowling of the Zurich International School, earlier this year. Keryn and her colleagues in Zurich introduced Writer’s Workshop to the teaching staff this year. The way they decided to do it was through a Distributive Leadership Model. Keryn so passionately explains it all below. Great model—one you might want to try.
Whilst I am not new to instructional coaching, I recently added the area of literacy to my list of responsibilities when our school decided to implement Writers Workshop this year. Given that this was not my ‘real job’, and I had other content areas I was still responsible for, I quickly realized I could not do this alone and would need to establish a distributive leadership model within our building. This team of literacy leaders quickly proved to not only be my lifeline in ensuring our new approaches to literacy, using the TC writers workshop model, could be well implemented, but also my favorite time in the week.
Teacher literacy leaders’ are smart. These teachers are at the front line. They haven’t become diluted in their understanding of the demands placed on teachers today, and so they get it. They know what needs to be done in the building, and more importantly know how it needs to get done. Following the advice of these teachers, I know when to push, know when to pull, know when to advocate to the building administration, and know when to back right off! Relying on their advice and really listening to what is happening in their teams has given me a deeper understanding of both practice and needs within the classrooms.
However, this role is not their ‘real job’ and so their time, their input, their support and their leadership needs to be carefully monitored and appreciated to avoid burn out and frustration. Any school thinking of implementing this model should be very clear on the criteria for selection of these literacy leaders, as well as expectations and support for the role they will play.
I think we got super lucky with our fabulous group this first time around, but for schools heading this way its important to consider not only their professional abilities, but also their personal relationships and connections. These leaders need to have the respect and trust of their colleagues and so that may mean that the best literacy teachers in your buildings are not always the best choice. Trust and relationship building takes time, and this has to be the foundation for any coaching, literacy or otherwise.
Balance, particularly gender in the make up of this group could help. We are all women, although that hasn’t actually held us back! A final key factor in selecting this group is to be clear and transparent with groups’ purpose. Other teachers may experience hurt feelings as they observe literacy leaders meeting, and by default, receiving more professional development around the area of workshop. If you are intentional with communication and expectation, everyone in the building can come to understand that this is intentional, so these teacher leaders could in turn, support others.
So at our school it has become a cycle of support where I support the literacy leaders, the literacy leaders support the teachers and the teachers support the change.
We put in a plan where one literacy leader from each grade level (K – 5) is released from teaching for a 2-hour block per week. In that time we come together to meet, to plan, to develop our own coaching and leadership skills, and most importantly to talk, share and celebrate. Then these literacy leaders go back to their own teams and lead their literacy planning meetings and professional development. At times we also have planned for team teaching as well as conducted our own lab-sites where we are observing one another’s teaching and conferring practices and providing feedback on these. This practical professional development has helped make the most gains in transferring excellent workshop teaching strategies into more classrooms, pulling apart the architecture of a mini-lesson as well as trying out coaching moves such as freeze-framing and voicing over.
The conversation at these literacy leader meetings is intense. It is high level, fast paced and can even get heated; teacher leaders are typically type ‘A’ individuals. Whilst that is not a bad thing, it can mean for incredibly fast and furious paced work. This is mostly because these teachers care and want to make a difference. And this all works for us, because we have established a community of trust; the more these teachers talk, and share, the greater the opportunities they have to support one another, and me, as we try to implement change in our building.
Distributed leadership works, because it is teachers who care leading their colleagues. Accountability is becoming high. Threat and insecurity is slowly becoming minimized and this is helping bring everyone on board. Sure we have some bottom lines in our building, but for now, these are less important in this crucial initial year of implementation as everyone giving Writers Workshop a go. Yes, we are approximating; our whole building is approximating – but we are moving forward and changing – and with the literacy leaders leading the way from within, this is working.