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At institute, educators explore what teacher leadership looks like

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

As the School District announced that it wanted teams of educators and others to submit plans for school overhaul, a group of young Philadelphia teachers was holding a summer institute on teacher leadership.

For three days this week, 18 of them met under the auspices of Teachers Lead Philly on the campus of Swarthmore College to discuss their challenges, draw from the wisdom of veterans, tell their stories and work on skills including mentoring, curriculum design, and writing for publication.

"The summer institute is rooted in the idea that we really believe every teacher is a leader," said Kathleen Melville, a teacher at the Workshop School and communications director of the group. "But not all teachers think of themselves as leaders."

Teachers Lead Philly is a network of practicing teachers who seek to influence both classroom practice and public policy while promoting teacher collaboration and the building of school communities.

The group’s members have all taught between four and 10 years and they were drawn from 200 applications, said Lisa Smulyan, chair of Swarthmore’s education department.

Clarification: Applications were open to teachers regardless of years in the classroom and a few attendees had more than 10 years’ experience.

TLP has its roots in a consortium of mostly liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore that also offer teacher certification. The network of colleges got a grant from the Ford Foundation to continue working with and supporting their young alumnae and alumni as they establish themselves as teachers, Smulyan said.

She said that young teachers are increasingly struggling to "sustain themselves when forces outside are working against what you envision teaching should be."

The veteran teachers urged their younger colleagues to take care of themselves, but not to abandon the idea of building community wherever they are. Increasingly, teachers leave before five years in the classroom, which has led to a dearth of teachers in this category — there are longtime veterans and very young teachers.

Conditions are so difficult in Philadelphia schools and classrooms, it is hard to even know what to fight for, said Luke Zeller, who teaches English at Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber.

Already, he has been in three schools — force-transferred from Overbrook and Frankford due to enrollment changes.

"Urban education is so complex," he said. "It is difficult to figure out how to situate yourself within the right context to make a difference."

He concluded that "really being an expert in your classroom is where teacher leadership starts."

In that context, the teachers were both excited about and wary of the District’s invitation to envision new teacher leadership models and redesign schools. TLP as an organization had been talking to District officials, but nevertheless the announcement caught them by surprise.

"One of our concerns is that it’s still sort of this market-driven, competition-based model," said Melville. "We feel that hasn’t done very much good in education. But we’re excited about the possibility of teacher-led schools. And we’re excited about connecting with some of the organizations in the city that have inspired us, like the Philadelphia Writing Project and some of the arts organizations. We see this an an opportunity to put arts back in the center of schools."

The initiative stresses the idea of "personalized learning" for students.

But that language "sets up the expectation of the student as client or customer," she said. "We’re a little more interested in setting things up so that every child feels well-known as part of a community."

Education, Melville said, "is not a personal, individual endeavor, but a community endeavor. Personalized learning is really about building community."

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