Districts must empower teachers to lead the way for whole-child education

Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

Just when life in post-Covid schools looks the bleakest in California, with growing teacher shortages and political wars disrupting classrooms, innovation and change for students, parents and teachers are emerging.

For example, $4.1 billion in funding for community schools, where health care, tutoring and other social supports converge on campus, offers educators an opportunity to break down the figurative walls between teaching and learning in schools and communities. In doing so, Anaheim Union High School District is jettisoning teach-to-test instruction, and creating opportunities for students to have choice and voice in their learning to ensure every graduate is career- and college-ready.

However, as the figurative walls in schooling come down, and teachers must work more closely with industries, agencies, and postsecondary, the lines between those who teach in schools and those who lead them must blur. Our recent research in Anaheim surfaced how the district has created conditions for teachers to lead without leaving the classroom — fueling interdisciplinary learning, student-led, deeper learning and growing innovations that build on the assets and needs of their local communities.

For example, teachers are the driving force for the innovative use of a unique learning management system, eKadence, and student capstone portfolios that transform how student success is measured and understood by assembling visual evidence of mastery of content knowledge and creative ways of communicating what they learned.

Other teachers have created a hybrid, interdisciplinary summer school curriculum that “blew up the bell schedule” and produced “amazing results” of hundreds of the district’s most high-need students “recovering” hundreds of course credits.

The district’s Sabina Giakoumis, working as part-teacher/part-5C coach (hybrid) role expanded what was once a small school garden into a 2.5-acre farm where students learn about science, develop entrepreneurial skills and address the food desert reality of the school’s immediate neighborhoods and serves as a North Star for what a community school can be. (The 5C refers to the four widely accepted 21st century learning skills of collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity plus compassion & kindness, which was added by the district.) Anaheim Union has supported her to lead, innovate, and coach other teachers. This support comes in the form of release time, tailored around Sabina’s needs and granting her the autonomy to determine how she spends time outside of teaching lessons.

The importance of a few formal classroom-based teacher leaders, the “5C Coaches” in Anaheim cannot be underestimated in accelerating innovation and design. However, they do not serve as traditional instructional coaches; instead, they model the work of teachers as learners, innovators and designers through the support of their peers.

The simple question is what will it take to expand a few teachers’ innovations into a system that empowers other teachers to do the same?

Our research has significant implications for the future of teacher development policies needed to realize the power and potential of community schooling, especially in high schools which have been traditionally organized to teach subjects, not develop the whole adolescent who can lead their own learning. Our recommendations:

  1. Reallocate education personnel funds, freeing up staffing dollars, so teachers have more time to both teach and lead, while simultaneously preparing them as change agents.
  2. Create more teacher collaboration time by streamlining teaching schedules, moving to team teaching models and including allied professionals in the community as part of a district’s human capital strategy.
  3. Develop joint appointments for faculty who currently serve in siloed roles in school districts, universities, and community colleges to bring more learning coherence between pre-k-12 and postsecondary education that also creates more time for teachers to innovate and design.
  4. Evolve teaching evaluation processes to identify the strengths, expertise, and passions of every teacher to fuel the spread of innovations.
  5. Capitalize on advancing learning platforms to identify the talents and aspirations of teachers and assemble evidence of their impact (including street data) in advancing student-led learning and redesigned whole child accountability.
  6. Redesign the lockstep salary schedule to recognize and spread innovation, building off “extra service pay” positions found in many collective bargaining agreements.

As researcher Andy Hargreaves noted of late, “High schools are notorious Leviathans of educational change.” Large. Bureaucratic and hierarchical. One teacher, one classroom teaching single subjects. However, ambitious efforts to transform teaching and learning through community schools will not be realized without transformation of the job of teaching itself. Doing so requires many teachers, not just a few, to work together as teaching must encompass the human, social and professional capital of an entire community.


Barnett Berry is research professor at the University of South Carolina and senior research fellow at the Learning Policy Institute.
Marisa Saunders is associate director for research at the UCLA Center for Community Schooling.
Natalie Fensterstock is a student in social welfare and a graduate student researcher at the UCLA Center for Community Schooling.
Peter Moyi is associate professor and chair in the department of leadership, learning design, and inquiry at the University of South Carolina.

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