Instructional Leadership in Action

Keeping One Foot in the Classroom: Developing Teacher Leaders in Pittsburgh

by Joanna Michelson on Sep 16, 2015


As a teacher leader in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, Monica Wehrheim wanted the teachers she worked with to be inspired by her feedback, to mature as instructors and to improve their practice. But initially, some teachers didn’t understand Wehrheim’s newly created role and weren’t as receptive to her suggestions as she’d anticipated.

So at the start of this past school year, Wehrheim turned to her coach from the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) for advice on introducing herself to the handful of teachers she would mentor that year.

The CEL coach "helped me plan the meeting and set the whole thing up — the folder of information I should give them, the PowerPoint, the script word for word," Wehrheim said. "Everything she did got across the message from a positive point of view that I was there to help teachers grow."

The difference was significant, said Wehrheim, who is also a fourth grade literacy teacher. Teachers approached her with excitement and even suggested areas for improvement with her input. It's the way the 25,000-student Pittsburgh district envisioned the program when it launched at the start of the 2012-13 school year through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The initiative created an Instructional Teacher Leader 2, or ITL2, designation that allowed participants to keep one foot in the classroom and place another in the world of coaching and evaluation. The 54 ITL2s, who received an additional $11,300 for their efforts, are all veteran teachers chosen through a competitive process. Grouped into ten cohorts, the ITL2s work at 38 district schools at all levels of the K-12 system.

"In Pittsburgh, we've based this program around the principle that those working most closely with teachers will have really important input that should be factored into their evaluation."

It is a unique position in which ITL2s still teach several periods a day, maintaining interaction with students, but are also assigned a caseload of teachers to work closely with throughout the academic year.

Their list of responsibilities is varied: content experts who provide customized and differentiated professional development; evaluators who conduct formative observations tied to teacher evaluations; and leaders for their peers, positively influencing their own classroom practice and that of others.

In other school districts “the coach is often from outside the school," said Rosy Reed, the district’s coordinator of instructional effectiveness. "In Pittsburgh, we've based this program around the principle that those working most closely with teachers will have really important input that should be factored into their evaluation."

It's a novel approach that couldn't work successfully without outside support to help the IL2s grow into this new role.

New Opportunities for Improving Practice

CEL, known for its emphasis on building leadership capacity and embedded professional development that targets student achievement, is providing that support. CEL worked with Pittsburgh educators to develop a strategic approach to professional development which included showing ITL2s how to work side by side with teachers, providing classroom modeling, site visits, group and one-on-one coaching, and instructional rounds, said Mary Beth Crowder-Meier, a CEL educational consultant who worked closely with the ITL2s. For example, Crowder-Meier would often model content and tools in a class during a site visit.

It was important to create “embedded professional development that is in the company of children,” she said. “That is where the work happens.”

One of the biggest roles for CEL has been to help ITL2s gain confidence in their new role. While some ITL2s had been district instructional coaches and felt comfortable providing feedback, many, including Paul J. Sabella, a third grade math ITL2, came straight from the classroom. Sabella said he needed encouragement from CEL coaches to learn the rubric for evaluations and feel at ease using the rubric to support teacher growth.

"It is important to create embedded professional development that is in the company of children. That is where the work happens.”

"I was more apt to give teachers the benefit of the doubt and try to find positives instead of being analytical," he said. But CEL coaches had the ILT2s “stick to the evidence, understand what we were seeing and focus on how to interpret it. They showed us we were bringing clarity and a more experienced perspective."

In the ITL2s’ first year, CEL emphasized full understanding of Pittsburgh’s Research-based Inclusive System of Evaluation (RISE) rubric used in teacher evaluations. The rubric, with 24 components of teacher practice, is also overlaid with the Pittsburgh district’s core values, which include an emphasis on equity for students.

CEL coaches helped ITL2s ensure consistency in observing and measuring teacher practice. Initially, ITL2s watched teacher evaluation videos to calibrate their observations to the rubric. With CEL coaches, the ITL2s did their own teacher observations, gathered data and evidence, and sat in on and later conducted post-conferences with teachers.

Wehrheim said she initially struggled when there was pushback from teachers. “A couple of people came back aggressively toward me and said that the rubric was expecting the impossible and I couldn’t understand what they were dealing with,” she said. “I had a lot of problems with these conversations. I would take it personally.”

But CEL guidance taught her to leverage her expertise with the rubric and her extensive observational training. In addition, CEL consultants helped ITL2s practice relationship building and non-judgmental feedback. “I’ve seen the ITL2s evolve from seeing their role as evaluators to seeing their role as professional developers and growing teacher practice,” Crowder-Meier said.

Creating Professional Respect and Rapport

In the second year of the program instructional rounds continued and ITL2s received one-on-one coaching sessions with CEL consultants. The CEL training focused on the Common Core State Standards, developing a deep understanding of the standards and becoming an expert resource. An added focus was on providing professional development to the ITL2s’ caseload of teachers for more significant impact.

Instructional Teacher Leader Lea Hutson working with students.

For example Wehrheim worked with a fifth grade teacher on improving the rigorous text discussions called for by the Common Core standards. Initially, the teacher stood at the front of the room doing question and answer with students, resulting in little organic discussion.

But through what she learned from her CEL experience, Wehrheim helped the teacher develop a strategy to have students lead their own small group discussions. Wehrheim had the teacher “fishbowl” the small group discussion process with one group of students and gradually had the whole class participate.

“By May, there were six groups of kids each doing their own group discussion, with a group leader, a questioner and a tallier who kept track, to make sure everyone was contributing,” Wehrheim said.

The discussion was much richer and got at the intent of the standards, Wehrheim said. “The teacher would observe and stop to talk with the groups occasionally. She was really excited about what she heard from the students.”

CEL coaches helped ITL2s plan this type of professional development for the teachers on their caseload: teaching lessons side by side, providing observations with immediate feedback, using real student data to assess growth. And CEL coaches provided a similar kind of professional development to the ITL2s, whose progress has been noticeable, said Reed.

“ITL2s are in this tricky role between administrators and teachers,” she said. “Now they’re really listening before responding, having difficult conversations, but also maintaining a professional respect and rapport with teachers.“

The Pittsburgh district’s emphasis on equity and equitable teaching practice also remained a focus of discussion among cohorts and with CEL, Sabella said. Making sure observations included attention to equity, woven throughout evaluation criteria, and incorporating that core value into professional development contributed to efforts to help close the achievement gap between white and minority students.

“There was a lot of progress around keeping equity an item of focus and there’s been a lot of work to make sure the district is making gains in this area,” Sabella said.

Improving All Classrooms

Feedback has been positive. In a 2014 survey by research firm Westat, 78 percent of teachers working with ITL2s said the support they received was high quality. Teachers working with ITL2s said they would like to be reassigned to an ITL2 the following year for additional coaching. The survey also found that 93 percent of ITL2s said they were satisfied with their role. 

While the ITL2s have had a significant impact on the practice of the teachers they’ve worked with, their own practice has changed as they’ve progressed in the position. Wehrheim said her ITL2 training has altered her own approach with students. “I’m constantly picking up on things I want to improve in my classroom,” she said. “It has made me more introspective about my own teaching.”

 In a 2014 survey by research firm Westat, 78 percent of teachers working with ITL2s said the support they received was high quality. Teachers working with ITL2s said they would like to be reassigned to an ITL2 the following year for additional coaching.

Sabella agreed. “The whole understanding level of where we’re going and what I want my kids to know has had a big impact on the way I plan and implement my lessons,” Sabella said. “The new depth of my foundation has helped me to be a far better teacher.”

As the ITL2 project matured through the third academic year, cohorts continued to make school visits and do instructional rounds. But as the timeframe for funding for outside support counted down, the district began to focus on building its own internal capacity to keep the program going. The district created an additional leadership position to continue support and training of ITL2s and tapped CEL to help the initiative evolve and become self-sustaining.

CEL will work with eight ITL2 “leads” who will act as mentors to the 25 new ITL2s joining the program in the coming academic year, as well as the central-office-based program coordinators. CEL coaches will train the ITL2 leads to facilitate instructional rounds and provide support around evaluations and professional development, Reed said.

CEL consultants will show the ITL2 leads “how to move the new ITL2s along the continuum of growth and how to work with and support veteran ITL2s,” Reed said. “The goal was always to make this sustainable in the district and CEL has always thought that was important.”

That ability to adapt and provide the type of support and training needed, and to have that assistance develop over time as needed is a hallmark of what CEL can provide, Crowder-Meier said. “It’s part of the CEL culture to not go in and put in a program,” she said. “It’s thinking about what’s already there, thinking about the culture of the district and growing with that culture.”

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Topics: Teaching Effectiveness, Classroom Coaching, Partnership Stories, Educational Leadership

About the author: Joanna Michelson

Dr. Joanna Michelson is the director of teacher leadership and learning at the Center for Educational Leadership. She leads CEL's teacher professional learning line of services. She also provides direct support to lead teachers, coaches and school and district leaders in designing and setting conditions for teacher learning that lead to enriched learning experiences for all students. Prior to work at CEL, Dr. Michelson worked as a middle school language arts teacher, secondary literacy coach and as a consultant for CEL. She holds a doctoral degree from the College of Education at the University of Washington with a focus on coach learning from practice. Dr. Michelson is the co-author of "Leading for Professional Learning: What Successful Principals Do To Support Teaching Practice."

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