Shift Happens: Finding What Matters As a New Leader
By Rachael Tarshes
For those of us who have found ourselves in a position where we recently left the classroom and are now leading the NGSS charge for our districts, it can be challenging finding one’s place. In my situation, I am the third Project Director for San Diego Unified’s CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative grant. The initiative is just now wrapping up its third of four years. With our large team of over 70 teachers representing about 65 schools, I found myself in a position where I had to quickly get to know all the names, faces, context needs and wants of 70 teachers. I had been on the initiative’s smaller *Core Teacher Leader group and my 8th-grade lesson study team, where I had been happily working the last two and a half years without a perspective on the greater needs of the team as a whole. I really needed to learn about all the people on the team, and to do so very quickly, because it’s about the people first, not the change.
*The Core Teacher Leader group is made up of 10 teachers and administrators who had one year in advance of everyone else to prepare them to lead the remaining teachers. They are the driving force of the initiative in the district.
I felt I had to quickly build some rapport so I could help the teachers on the grant complete the remainder of the current school year and start the final year of grant with a clear and cohesive plan to help our district focus on the sustainability of NGSS implementation. I needed my teachers to know that I was their support and gain their trust. I knew that to be an effective leader for my team, I would need to establish and build relationships with the dynamic group of teachers we were working with – many of whom had been a part of the team for all three regime changes. This meant I hit the ground running, attending every 2-day lesson study our teachers had (a total of 27 which equated to 53 calendar work days between February and May).
One of the things I have learned as a new leader is to value the expertise of the teachers I support as a way to build capacity both for the district, but more importantly, for the teachers themselves. These meetings were an incredible opportunity (and my only one) to try to get to know each of our teachers on a deeper level. I found I needed to be actively present and connect with them. I needed them to know they were a priority. This also helped me understand how far they were in their leadership development and therefore how our district was doing in reaching the goals that had been set by the grant.
In the classroom, I had learned that fostering a positive relationship with my students was a top priority. Turns out, that’s no different than when working with adults. One of the biggest learnings I have developed over the last six months as a new leader is that relationship-building with my teachers is two-fold: professional and personal. I made an intentional effort both for our planning day and our teaching day of lesson study to set aside at least an hour for lunch that was not intended for lesson debriefing or venting about site issues. This time was an invaluable opportunity to develop relationships on a more personal level, including letting my team get to know me better too. We talked about families, kids, accomplishments, travel plans, and hopes for the future. People shared struggles with illness in the family, uncertainty with their jobs, and yes, some classroom struggles. We talked like…real people.
And what came of this? A greater appreciation for the dynamic team that San Diego has put together to tackle the challenging goal of making science core in our large district. We have done this through making meaningful shifts in content and pedagogy that are called for in the NGSS. The teachers on our team are change agents for the incredibly diverse student body that we serve in San Diego.
So, what advice can I give to other teachers who also find themselves in such a leadership position? Do not forget the personal side of leadership. Being a Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA), coach or similar position does not necessarily mean that you have done administrative training BUT I will tell you what all potential administrators learn – building relationships with the people you work with is ESSENTIAL to the success of your program. Teachers have experience with many kinds of school, site, and district leaders. The leaders who were good at establishing and building relationships are probably the ones that are remembered because they made an environment where teachers felt like a valued member of a team. As a TOSA or coach, your job is not that much different than it was as a classroom teacher, it is just that your “students” have changed. And, while your goals then were to get to know every student’s individual needs and how best they learned while trying to get to know them as a person were lofty, they do not change when your students are adults. Taking the time to get to know your learners, now teachers pays off in the long run because they see that they are part of the collective work and that you are a team working towards a goal of improving the learning experiences of all students.
Here are some of the things I realized were most impactful for my leadership transition:
• All people need time to connect before they work together. Take time at the start of a professional learning session to have teachers share with their neighbors and walk around to the groups and participate in some part of the conversation by adding to what someone has shared (not necessarily sharing about yourself). Q: You just got back from Hawaii? I love that place! What island did you go to? Did you try the coconut shrimp?
• People appreciate being remembered. Reach out when you recognize them out of context. I feel like you were at the training we did about modeling. What was your name again? How did you like that session? Did you try on anything in your classroom?
• Make it personal – when you remember something about someone, find a way to mention or ask them about it. Didn’t you say your mom was going in for surgery the last time I saw you? How did it go?
• Stories of similar struggles can help break the ice and build confidence. Sharing stories from other teachers can be powerful. Then, listen more than you speak. Sarah was just telling me how she did this great activity with her students involving the rock cycle where they did XYZ. Sarah, can you tell us more?
• Do share information about yourself. You are a person outside of leading a group of teachers. Don’t forget that. I grew up loving airplanes and that passion really came from… Has anyone else had that experience?
My last thoughts are this: Helping to lead change is not easy. Change is not easy. Working to intentionally develop relationships with those you are working with to make the change happen makes the change more enjoyable for everyone.
Rachael Tarshes is a Resource Teacher and Project Director for the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation for San Diego Unified School District and a member of CSTA.