Q&A: How North High School’s Shared Leadership Team Creates a Healthy Culture of Collaboration

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About seven years ago, Denver Public Schools set out to improve the way it provided teachers with opportunities to boost their leadership capacities. The district came up with a shared leadership team model that centers on teacher leaders playing the role of “Senior Team Leads” who spend half of their time in the classroom and the other half working closely with a team of other teachers to help them grow. The idea behind this model is that current teachers have the most relevant, up-to-date expertise as well as the most credibility among their peers. The district also wanted to empower a group of “player coaches” to promote a strong culture of collaboration among its teachers.

To learn more about Denver’s shared leadership model and how it supports teachers and students, we spoke with members of North High School’s shared leadership team: Principal Scott Wolf and Senior Team Leads Carly Buch, Jennifer Engbretson, and Laura Geselbracht.

How would you describe your school instructional leadership team? How do you work together? What are the dynamics?

Scott Wolf (SW): Our school instructional leadership team is made up of individuals deeply committed to North High School and our students. Everyone on the instructional leadership team was a teacher at North before becoming a Senior Team Lead. Our Senior Team Leads lead their team half of the time and teach the other half of the time.

Jennifer Engbretson (JE): We meet twice a week to discuss general business around instruction, including observations, evaluations and other components related to our work. In our other weekly meeting, we develop our skills as instructional coaches. My role is to lead the work in the math department, from business tasks like ordering supplies to discussions around the new curriculum. I also coach the teachers in the math department on their instruction, co-plan with them, and support them in other ways. Finally, using our district framework, I evaluate each of the teachers on both their instruction and their professionalism.

Laura Geselbracht (LG): Senior Team Leads apply their own expertise as classroom teachers, which also gives us an opportunity to develop as leaders. In more traditional models, only principals and assistant principals observe teachers, which usually does not happen as frequently. Instead, our team leads provide timely feedback around instruction and planning to help our teachers grow more quickly. In addition to leading our own teams and implementing school and district priorities around curriculum and data analysis, we also collaborate to problem solve and brainstorm ways to best support our teams. This year in particular, the majority of our ILT shares an office, which allows us informal opportunities to touch base with one another, ask questions, and calibrate; as a result, each of us has grown tremendously in our confidence as team leads.

Scott, how does the instructional leadership team and its structure benefit you as a principal?

SW: Having an instructional leadership team allows me to distribute leadership in my building so there is collective voice when determining what our school-wide professional development should be. It also benefits me as a school leader because I have a better pulse on the instruction presented to the students at North. Prior to having this structure, I was attempting to coach and evaluate 16 staff members, which did not allow anyone in my building to have a true sense of instruction. Finally, this structure allows there to be more accountability in the building for student outcomes since there is more ownership over each team.

How does the instructional leadership team and its structure benefit teachers? What feedback have you heard from them on this model?

Carly Buch (CB): Last year I worked with a Senior Team Lead as a full-time teacher. I experienced the most growth during that year compared to previous years within Denver Public Schools (DPS). Having a senior team lead allows for a closer relationship between teacher and coach, one where the coach knows the teacher’s practice in and out as well as the students on a personal level. All feedback can be aligned to what the teacher wants as well as what works best for their learning style and students. A senior team lead is also able to be in a teacher’s classroom on a much more regular and consistent basis. This allows for a teacher’s professional and instructional practice to flourish and continuously grow. It allows for flexibility and differentiation in terms of professional learning as each teacher and senior team lead relationship is different and ever-changing.

LG: Our leadership team structure has created more consistent growth in our teachers’ instructional practice. Newer teachers who might struggle without regular support can set clear goals with their coach and work on developing strong learning environments and implementing instructional strategies that they may not have thought of independently. Even veteran teachers can evolve from effective to distinguished by having another set of eyes in their classroom as a thought partner.

How has your instructional leadership team structure played a role in the implementation of your school’s curriculum?

SW: Before we had our current structure, each department did not have a truly defined leader who was accountable for the outcomes of their entire department. As a result, each teacher in the department was more inclined to do their own thing. Some teachers used the prescribed curriculums and others did not. Now, there is more cohesiveness with what happens in a department and curriculum is better aligned from one class to the next.

LG: Because each team lead is not only an instructional coach of individual teachers but a leader of content teams, we can have significant impact on the curricular decisions of our teachers. DPS implemented a brand-new curriculum this year for our high school English classes, but this curriculum intentionally is open-ended and flexible. As a team lead, I worked with the teacher of each course (English 1, English 2, etc.) to create clear unit plans that are aligned to assessments and key learning targets. One impact that I have seen is greater alignment of instruction to assessments. Previously, I noticed that lessons were more activity- or task-oriented and did not always directly relate to the goals of the unit. With more intentional planning and frequent check-ins, alignment has improved.

How does your instructional leadership team support your classroom colleagues with using data to support instruction and improvement?

JE: We set aside the first six weeks of our professional development to train teachers on how to look at student work and plan reteaches for students who did not master the content. Then each week in our department we meet to analyze student work and plan supports for students who did not yet master the content.

LG: As the leader of our department, I facilitate the data progress monitoring for the team. Our department focused on measuring writing growth using the DPS informative and argumentative writing rubrics. We have a department-wide spreadsheet that each teacher uses to track student writing over each major assessment. This way, we can see trends and work collaboratively to create a roadmap for writing instruction as a school. A next step for our team is to increase the impact of our work by engaging in this data analysis more frequently with formative and summative assessments. I plan on leading each group of teachers through data protocols every other week in combination with the collaborative planning work that is already happening.

How does your school’s instructional leadership team create a strong, positive culture of high expectations focused on professional learning and good feedback?

SW: The culture of high expectations starts with the team. The team collectively holds each other accountable to high expectations. Each member of the team shares with each other how they approach situations and give each other feedback based on their thinking. Our assistant principal provides the Senior Team Leads with feedback on their coaching conversations and role plays with them. Each Senior Team Lead also takes an active role in planning and facilitating professional development, which puts the focus back on professional learning.

JE: Our Senior Team Leads are held to the same standards as teachers and are coached on classroom instruction and leadership skills. We are evaluated with the same framework and are expected to do the same work. We are held to the same expectations as every other classroom teacher which helps us set the standards and decide what is reasonable to ask of teachers. Because we are so close to the classroom, we know what teachers need and what is not going to be of value. Because of that, I think teachers respect what the leadership team is doing—they know we are asking them to do things because they are good for students and for no other reason.

Can you tell us about a situation or challenge that your instructional leadership team has tackled, and how the distributed leadership structure made a difference in how you approached the challenge? What was the outcome?

CB: In past coaching structures, the feedback that teachers received was disjointed or not completely calibrated across the school, as teachers had coaches that were coming in with different backgrounds and expectations. As a leadership team, we meet multiple times a week and often focus on sharing best practices and calibrating what we’re seeing. We make sure that if we’re seeing similar things in classrooms that teachers are hearing similar feedback. This allows for growth as a collective school community rather than just individual growth of teachers. We will often videotape one of our teachers in the building, watch the video together, and then practice giving feedback to that teacher to ensure that we’re pushing teachers to consider what’s possible for them and their students in a consistent way.

How has the school instructional leadership team structure had an impact on student learning?

SW: We implemented our instructional leadership team structure three years ago. Since that time, North High School has gone from a school that did not meet expectations on the state or district school performance framework to a school that now meets expectations on both. We have seen our state assessment scores increase, pass rates increase, and course pass rates increase.

CB: Students benefit from consistency and instruction that is centered around school-wide goals. As a school, we’ve really focused on having students do the majority of the reading, writing, speaking, and listening in our classrooms, and individual teachers often find strategies to make this happen. Senior Team Leads can be the bridge between teachers by sharing what they’re seeing work well for students in other teacher’s classrooms.

LG: Additionally, the instructional leadership team looks at data regularly to monitor the pass rates in each class and help teachers plan intervention supports and learning goal recovery. We had significant increases in the numbers of students who passed their courses during the first semester as a direct result of the support the instructional leadership provided to teachers and students.