Similar to most school districts around the state and country, last year our district had to make some tough decisions regarding the budget. It is a difficult time for everyone in education, and I do not envy the position our school board has been put in by misguided special interest groups and our own state leaders. However, I do question the judiciousness of one particular decision made last year-- the elimination of team leaders. While I do not know the exact rationale behind this decision, my guess is that this position may have been viewed by the school board and central office as a position that either did not directly affect student performance, or one that seemed to be a non-essential level of “management”. After reading numerous emails and written correspondences from our members regarding the duties and responsibilities of team leaders, it is clear to me that a critical mistake was made.
When I was hired in this district in 1990, there were many things that I did not know about my school and this district. In fact, there was so much that I did not know; that sometimes I didn’t know what questions I should even be asking! (Keep in mind, this was a time when the life of an educator was much more simple and straight-forward—computing grades with a calculator, no email, no WITS, and yes, a state education department that actually fully explained the changes they wanted made before they required you to implement them. Hmm…Imagine the wisdom of that.)
Thinking back to that time, it wasn’t my principal or assistant principal that taught how to be an effective teacher in the Williamsville Central School District—it was my team leader. My team leader (Jan Reilly) was invaluable to me as a new teacher. She taught me most everything that was expected of me as a professional in the district. What I learned ranged from how to conduct a parent-conference, evaluate students, and handle behavioral issues to how to make copies, get coffee, and understand the special traditions of the school. If I had gone to my principal or assistant principal with these questions at that time, they would have thought I was incompetent, clueless, or inept. Jan, and all my team leaders that followed, played a crucial role in my development as a professional educator.
Today, I can’t imagine what it must be like for teachers just starting out in our district without team leaders. Who is sharing this essential veteran knowledge with them? With the excessive state driven demands now placed upon teachers and administrators, I find it hard to believe that any one has the time to sit down and explain the essentials of being a truly effective teacher to our new colleagues. Let me take a page from Clint Eastwood’s book right now. As I write this, there is an empty chair next to me. Guess who is in it? Yes, the Commissioner of Education himself! Excuse me for a moment everyone, I want to hear what he has to say. Really Commissioner? We don’t have to worry? We don’t need colleagues like team leaders to help teachers in your district become effective teachers? Why is that Commissioner? Because we have all these new student assessments and the APPR system to make us effective now? Well, I stand corrected Commissioner. Who needs experienced team leaders like Charlie Bell, Karen Reichert, or Andrea Lavere? I’ve got the STAR assessments, SLO’s, and Data! (As an aside, I think the Commissioner’s answer is just another way of telling us to do something to ourselves that we can’t physically do. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
Let’s put the impact of no team leaders on our new colleagues aside for a moment, and talk about the impact on veteran teachers. To all you veteran teachers out there, please write to me and tell me if you feel the same. I have been teaching for 22 years now and will someone please tell me what the heck is going on this year? Despite the fact that our responsibilities have already increased exponentially over the last 10 years, there is just so much more being added to our plates this year. We have national, state, district, and building initiatives coming at us at warp speed. This year more than ever is a year where we need to have open, constructive, and two-way communication. This type of communication used to occur regularly at team leader meetings and team/department/grade level meetings led by team leaders. If these meetings and conversations are no longer occurring, how is this critical information being disseminated and discussed? My guess would be that your number one answer would be email. No disrespect to you Mr. Microsoft Outlook, but you are very impersonal and ineffective compared to my first team leader Jan Reilly. Yes, I know you can disseminate a heck of a lot of information at one time, but you are never going to be a role model, you are a terrible listener, and you certainly can’t buy me a beverage at Happy Hour!
I would guess that your second answer to this question would be your administrator. Clearly, with the elimination of team leaders, a tremendous amount of responsibility has fallen upon our administrators to disseminate and discuss these initiatives with you. I have come across a lot of administrators in my career and I have to say, district-wide, we have some of the best administrators we have ever had in this district right now and they work hard. I am sure administrators have plenty of extra time in their day to have productive two-way conversations with their entire staff on all these initiatives. Right? Wrong! Administrators have two big strikes against them this year. First, every building has a multitude of administrative responsibilities that have to be performed to function effectively in the best interest of children. Who used to perform many of these important responsibilities? You guess it— team leaders. Second, look at the impact of APPR on administrators. Think of all the hours administrators will be spending this year doing all these additional observations and “rubric box checking”. As effective as many of our administrators are, they simply can’t perform all their usual duties, the duties of one-time team leaders, and the additional duties associated with new mandates like APPR. So, either they simply won’t be done, or they will be done at a lower level of effectiveness. As WTA members, we know all so well what it is like to be asked to do more and more every year, to be spread razor thin, and to feel unappreciated. I think teachers and administrators understand each other more than ever these days.
As I wind this article down, the photo from Dr. Martzloff’s presentation two years ago comes to mind. You know, the one with the huge wave looming over the tiny ship? Well, the perfect storm in education has hit, and we need everyone bailing to stay afloat to protect our precious cargo. The problem this year is that we have 85 team leaders sitting below deck with no buckets in hand. I know that money is tight these days, but I hope the Board of Education sees that the cost of team leaders is money well spent. It’s time to get all hands back on deck again. (In the next edition of the WTA Newsletter, I will explore the impact of the elimination of team leaders and tech facilitator’s on our “precious cargo”.)