CSTA Classroom Science

Going Slow to Go Fast: Building Systemic Leadership Capacity Pays Off

By Dave Tupper

“Someone is sitting in the shade today, because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”

This quote attributed to investment guru Warren Buffet serves to illustrate the importance of playing the long game through purposeful planning. While not a perfect comparison, the quote can serve as a way to frame how the development of leadership capacity in any district can assist with NGSS implementation efforts. For certain, all CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative districts/charters continue to reap the harvest of deliberate leadership development.

As part of CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative’s theory of change, building teacher leadership capacity was specifically called out as a strategy in the efforts to move the district from awareness to full implementation of NGSS over time.  

Build Teacher Leadership

  • Support teachers to serve as leaders in their own classroom to implement the new standards with a new pedagogy, in their schools to lead professional learning communities and advocate for being  a science-focused school, and in their districts to lead district assessment, instructional materials, and professional development efforts to support science

Like other CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementer districts, the Lakeside Union School District (LUSD) certainly has a story to tell about the power of building teacher leadership capacity, and its impact on wider implementation efforts. 
 
Planting the Seeds of Capacity: The Model  
 

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Start small and have a plan; from tiny acorns grow great Oak trees. With teacher leadership as an integral component of the initiative, the building and expansion of that leadership was purposefully structured and scaffolded in such a way that each “phase” of teacher leaders were responsible for sharing their understanding of NGSS with their colleagues. This proved to be an effective way to leverage the emerging leadership and scale the implementation in a thoughtful, consistent way. More about the leadership model can be found  in the initiative’s Investing in Teacher Leadership Report  

An initial summer institute facilitated by the K-12 Alliance@WestEd and attended by the other 9 Early Implementer Districts/Charters provided targeted leadership training around the “4-hats of leadership” (presenter, facilitator, coach, consultant), and how to create the climate for change helped the Core Leadership Team (CLT) members to not only recognize themselves as leaders, but to also explore the intricacies of the change process in terms of their own perceptions around change and effective and less effective strategies for bringing about long-term, sustainable changes in practice/policy.  Additional work becoming familiar with the NGSS standards themselves and the requisite shifts that true district-wide implementation would require helped to drive the team’s thinking as they began to think about the task ahead. Time was spent examining and considering the perspectives of different district stakeholders (students, teachers, administrators, community, etc.) as the team began to build out some initial thoughts on how to leverage current district culture and how the implementation rollout should take shape. This collaborative work allowed for the team to gel and really set the tone for the rest of the year's work: continue getting smarter about leadership and NGSS while developing a 4 year implementation plan for the district. 

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Still within that first year, the core team experienced multiple Teaching Learning Collaborative (TLC)  Lesson Study cycles as learners, and continued to gather data and develop the implementation plan.  While the lesson study work served to deepen understanding of NGSS 3-D instruction, as well as prepare them for increasing leadership and facilitation responsibilities in the work to come, the district planning assisted in expanding their perspective beyond their role as a classroom teacher to that of a district leader with other parts of the system to consider.  They were now a solid team of leaders with a plan...time to use that leadership and grow the capacity.  Bring on phase 2: Teacher Leaders. 

Leadership Taking Root: Providing The Opportunity for Leadership
With the seeds of leadership taking root in the form of the CLT, the beginning of systemic change had begun, now it was time to implement the plan and expand the capacity by bringing on a cohort of 40 Teacher Leaders representing all school sites and K-8 grade levels.  These Teacher Leaders allowed opportunities for the Core Leadership Team to hone their leadership skills as they shared their NGSS learning by facilitating a multitude of pedagogy sessions for their district peers.  This not only built up their confidence, but also served to cement them as science leaders amongst their colleagues.  For 3 more years, these two cohorts of leaders continued to learn together as a true professional learning community.  
As part of the implementation plan (and only natural with teachers), this leadership began to branch out and was used to scale and spread the NGSS learning to the next group of teachers in the district, our Expansion Teachers. 
  
Strengthening Leadership: Continuing to Grow
As expected and addressed in the formal implementation plan, district leaders (both Core Leadership Team and Teacher Leaders) began to exert influence and spread their learning across the district.  The initiative had plans and expectations in place to build and support formal leadership opportunities. We were however, more than pleasantly surprised at the amount and quality of informal leadership around NGSS that began to take place. Embodying the spirit of the aforementioned learning community, LUSD teacher leaders encouraged and supported each other in these informal leadership endeavors as the initiative matured. The table below illustrates just a tiny sample of teacher leadership activities:

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Modeling The Way: Deepening Roots and Branching Out
As articulated by Julian Weisglas, “Leading for Equity means taking responsibility for what matters to you” .  In that vein, the science leadership capacity developed through the Early Implementer Initiative continues to manifest itself in a multitude of ways as teachers grow in their advocacy for high-quality science instruction for all kids, but also extending that advocacy and expertise to other content areas and topics.

When a cohort of teacher leaders have internalized the spirit and intent of the NGSS and authentic, student-centered teaching and learning that goes along with it, good things for kids continue to happen across the system. Again, a small sample of how building quality teacher leadership permeates through the system to the benefit of all can be found in the table below:

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Clearly, developing and nurturing teacher leadership is a key part of building the systemic foundation that will support the heavy lifting of deep and sustained implementation. Starting small, building community, scaling wisely, and leveraging the expertise of those closest to the students, has led to a successful rollout of NGSS in our Early Implementer districts, but it goes deeper than the initial implementation.  The system is dynamic, so we can’t take our foot off the gas as the work is never done.

Weathering the Storm: Strength in Leadership
When the going gets tough, the tough get going, and the leadership capacity built in Early Implementer districts exudes a tenacity that always puts students first.  In light of our current reality, with schools closed and most of us in education working to figure out what distance learning looks like in our context, it has been our teacher leaders who have stepped up to lead the charge. Whether it is locating resources, writing lessons/sequences, or influencing the reading/writing that students do remotely to focus on science phenomena, they are working to make sure science instruction stays part of every student's experience.  We are thankful for these leaders stepping up to modify and adjust in ways that help us to hold on to as many best practices as possible in these tough times.  

Speaking of tough times, in addition to the current COVID-19 situation, many districts may be facing financial difficulties, and as is often the case, there is a risk of science being marginalized or funding reduced in ways that directly impact our students.  Whether that is delaying or stopping a curricular adoption, initiatives that may result in a “drifting” from what we know to be best practices, less effective site schedules, the next shiny object in education, or other equity issues, it is our Teacher Leaders that will continue to keep advocating and making things happen.  Our roots run deep, our branches are stout, and our resolve is strong. Science education has faced adversity in the past and together we can weather any storm. 

Sitting in the Shade
Playing the long game by thoughtfully developing robust teacher leadership capacity, and providing opportunities for that leadership leads to not only quality NGSS implementation efforts, but also strengthens and increases the effectiveness of the whole system. As science leaders, we must continue to build, nurture, and support our science leaders, so that ALL students in the system can sit in the shade of high quality science instruction.

Additional articles for reference
NGSS Lesson Study: Both Teachers and Students Make Thinking Visible by Kate Gallagher
NGSS and the Teaching Learning Collaborative: It’s About the Process by Dave Tupper
The Teaching and Learning Collaborative, Reflections from an Administrator by Kelly Patchen
K-12 Alliance Teaching Learning Collaborative: Nuts and Bolts of a Lesson Study by Rachael Tarshes


David Tupper a teacher on special assignment for the Lakeside Union School District, a project director in the California NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative, lecturer in the San Diego State University School of Teacher Education, and is co-chair of CSTA’s NGSS Committee.


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