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NEA News

When Teachers Take Charge

At this school, teachers decide what’s best for students.
Published: 12/01/2015

Don’t be misled by the innocuous uniform of cardigans, clogs, and school ID tags. The teachers of the Reiche Community School in Portland, Maine, are revolutionaries. More than five years ago, when a well-liked principal moved along to another assignment, Reiche teachers and their union, the Portland Education Association, worked with district officials to put in place an alternative governance model.

Simply put, the teachers took over.

Today, Reiche is one of 70-plus teacher-led schools in the U.S., including Denver’s Math and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA), which the Denver Classroom Teachers Association helped set up. (Both Reiche and MSLA also are part of NEA’s Priority Schools, an initiative that helps low-performing schools to innovate.) At Reiche, Christine Keegan, Lori Bobinsky, and Ted Hummel are the three
teacher-leaders who split their time between administrative duties and instructional work.

Although the governance structure may vary among the nation’s teacher-led schools, they all have teachers with a renewed sense of purpose and professional autonomy. “Every teacher has a voice here,” says kindergarten teacher, Kevin Brewster, one of the original teacher-leaders at Reiche.
 
“Good morning!” As students make their way off the playground to their classrooms, the school climate plan—written by Reiche’s teachers, of course—guarantees each will be greeted by no fewer
than three adults. “Part of the Reiche culture is the understanding that they’re all our kids. Not your kids, your class,” says Brewster. Additionally, research shows that students benefit from meaningful relationships with adults. With that in mind, each spring the Reiche staff creates a big chart with every student’s name on it. If a teacher believes she has a relationship with a child, she puts a sticker by their name. Children with too-few stickers are noted, and will get the attention they need to thrive.

“I see you.” Reiche’s 1970s-style open-classroom layout is a physical symbol of its collegial culture. “Here, the inclination is to share best practices. We get into each other’s classrooms, and observe master teachers at work,” says Brewster. “As an observer, you can always pick up something to use, and as a lead, you have to be reflective, ‘Why did I do it that way?’” Also, Brewster and others say, teachers feel safe asking each other for help. “It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of desire to improve,” says Brewster. To aid collaboration, grade-level teams meet twice a week.

“I like what [Reiche] doesbecause it [empowers teachers]!” Reiche’s school success plan allows its teachers to choose an instructional focus, and this year it’s “accountable talk.” So what you might hear from students, in classroom discussion or over lunch, are phrases like, “I agree with you, but would like to add…” At Reiche, where about 40 percent of students are English language learners and 50 percent of them have no English, accountable talk helps students dialogue for deeper understanding, says teacher-leader Lori Bobinsky.

Let’s make like a tree, grow your branches! “Over the years, we’ve seen the arts constricting, and we just said no. These kids need enrichment,” says Brewster. Thanks to money raised by the Parent Teacher Organization, and allocated by the teacher-led enrichment committee, Reiche’s students have daily enrichment activities. While second- and third-graders dive into swimming lessons, fourth- and fifth-graders enjoy hip-hop dance. For kindergartners and first-graders, it’s yoga. “For a high-poverty school, we have really happy, engaged kids, and I think it’s because we understand that kids are more than test scores. We want them to be engaged in art, in music, in more,” says Brewster.

Ted Hummel’s phone is beeping. It’s time to check in with a second-grader who sometimes struggles to stay happy and focused. At Reiche, the collective approach to discipline problems is to prevent them. That is why teacher-leader Hummel meets regularly with kids who need to feel the community around them. When issues do arise, Hummel asks questions like these: What did you do? What problems were you trying to solve? Did your response work? What can you do next time?

Democracy is time-consuming—but rewarding. Reiche’s three teacher-leaders attend daily to typical “principal duties” such as checking in substitute teachers or chatting with the boy who snuck away to play Minecraft in the bathroom. But important decisions are made by consensus of Reiche teachers. This can be time-consuming, but it means everybody has a stake in the school’s success. “Before the teacher-led model, I had less control over making my efforts make a difference. Now, I feel an obligation to make a difference,” says second-grade teacher Laura Graves. The way it works is Reiche teachers meet every Wednesday afternoon, first as a school-wide group and then as members of four committees: instructional leadership, professional development, climate, and enrichment. iPhones are stashed in tote bags, the goals of the meetings are made clear, and chocolate bars are dumped on a table. Recently, the agenda ranged from planning for a fund-raising 5K to professional development around the new math curriculum. Interestingly, when teachers plan their own professional development, around work that they actually do, the calendar fills up very quickly.

Soup’s on. Seven years ago, these gardens consisted of waist-high weeds, seeded with beer cans. Then the PTO allocated $7,000 to their revitalization, and teachers invited the school’s neighbors to planning charrettes. These days, parents spend many hours outside, maintaining raised beds with drip irrigation and granite-curbs-turned-reading-benches, but they also enjoy an open-door policy inside Reiche. “We feel like we have a direct line to the teacher leaders,” says parent Judy Watson—and they do. “There is no ‘my’ in a teacher-led school—it’s all ‘ours,’” says Brewster. “It means giving up some control, but the more parents we have in our school the more support we get.” Meanwhile, the outside spaces support Reiche’s garden-based science curriculum, developed by Graves and others to fill the gaps in state science standards. “I really feel that science is a shared experience that builds community,” says Graves. Each fall, the potatoes, leeks, and other student-raised veggies are harvested and turned into soup by a local kitchen.

Who’s in charge? “When you see a kid hanging around after school without a parent, you don’t turn and find an administrator. You are on the hook,” says Graves. “You have the power to solve these problems.” Sometimes this sense of ownership or shared responsibility means more work—or at least different work than teachers may be used to, say Reiche teachers. But they gladly provide that effort because it’s so motivating to see the results: a cohesive community of teachers, parents, and students with common goals around student success. After five years, this isn’t just an experiment in governance. It’s become an enviable way of life. “We are driving the boat—and it’s powerful,” says Graves.

LIKE WHAT YOU SEE? Reiche teachers have some advice for those who would follow their lead. First, spend at least a year researching your options, and try to visit a teacher-led school near you. Reach out to other constituent groups, like your union. As teacher-led schools become more common, more resources exist, such as the Center for Teaching Quality’s Teacher Powered Schools (teacherpowered.org).

Photographs by Jeff Stevenson

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.