Teacher Of The Year: Let Us Lead

This piece comes to us courtesy of the New Haven Independent.

New Haven’s teacher of the year put on a “phosphorescent” shirt and lit up an Omni Hotel ballroom with a challenge to a school reform crowd: Let teachers be leaders without forcing them to leave the classroom.

David Low, the New Haven Federation of Teachers’ vice president of high schools and this year’s teacher of the year, made those remarks Thursday night at the opening session of the 7th annual Yale School of Management’s Education Leadership Conference at the Omni.

Low took part in an opening panel moderated by state education chief Stefan Pryor. Low took a seat on stage in the ballroom beside Michael Sharpe, CEO of FUSE, a Hartford charter school operator; Rae Ann Knopf, director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform; and Steven Adamowski, a former Hartford superintendent.

Everyone on stage wore black suit jackets except Low, who sported a bright blue shirt with no jacket, and a green tie featuring three-leafed clovers. He not only dressed differently—he brought a different perspective on school reform, straight from the classroom.

In a Q&A session, John Jenkins of the School Leadership Network asked how to support “quality leadership” in schools.

Low said the answer is not to continue the status quo.

“We’ve had 100 years of this,” he said. If the current education system was going to work, it would have worked already, he reasoned. He called for “rethinking the role of the leader.”

Low, who teaches science at Sound School, told the crowd that a teacher like him has scant opportunity for leadership. Right now, he said, if he wants to take on more responsibility, he has to study to get an administrator’s certification, “do a little internship,” become an assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent, and then superintendent.

For an “illustrious career,” Low said, he could follow Adamowski’s footsteps and become a “special master” who intervenes on behalf of the state to take over struggling school districts.

“It sounds great,” Low said, but he won’t climb that ladder. “I don’t want to leave the kids.”

Low called for reimagining what a talented teacher should do—perhaps expanding their reach from 135 to 500 students per year, or mentoring five other teachers, instead of leaving the classroom to join management.

His remarks gave a burst of energy to an otherwise low-key discussion, eliciting applause from the crowd of School of Management students, educators, charter operators and business execs gathered for the conference.

“Dave Low: phosphorescent not only in his choice of shirt, but in his thinking,” declared Commissioner Pryor.

Low’s remarks highlighted a challenge New Haven is already starting to tackle, thanks to a $53 million federal grant. The school system plans to use that money in part to create a new “master teacher” role, with extra pay and extra responsibilities. After getting the federal money, a panel of teachers and administrators is determining how to use the money, and exactly what that “master teacher” role will be.

After Thursday’s discussion, a half-dozen audience members, including a national education blogger, walked over to Low to follow up on his comments.

The discussion about master teachers “made me want more,” said Kimberley Peck, human resources manager for FUSE, the Hartford charter school operator. She said Low identified a challenge Low her organization also faces. FUSE taps senior teachers as “instructional leaders” for certain grade levels, but those teachers don’t have a clear structure for mentoring peers, she said. She asked Low how to give teachers leadership without “rewarding” them with a position that is going to burn them out.

Commissioner Pryor said Low raised an important unsolved question facing the state.

“It’s essential that we recognize great teachers” and give them more opportunity for leadership “without requiring them to leave the classroom,” Pryor said.

“Too many school systems operate under a strict dichotomy: Teacher or leader,” Pryor said. “We need to blur those lines and hybridize those roles.”

The state’s big education reform bill of 2012 created a definition for a master teacher role. The phrase du jour was “distinguished educator.” The bill defined what a “distinguished educator” would be—but included no funding or teeth to make it happen.

Pryor called the reference a “prompt” that school districts and unions could use, of their own volition, when negotiating labor contracts. He was asked whether any school systems have succeeded in creating these leadership roles.

“We have a long way to go in most districts,” Pryor said.

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