I am currently in my 12th year as a high school leader at Greencastle-Antrim, a rural but growing high school in Pennsylvania near the Maryland border. 

The crux of our role as school leaders is to make sure our teachers become instructional experts and education leaders themselves. To quote author Tom Peters, “Leaders don’t create followers; they create more leaders.” Yet, too often in education, teachers don’t experience professional development in ways that impact their practice or leadership skills. Professional development tends to be something that is “given” to educators. It doesn’t support what teachers do each day in their classrooms with students. It’s not connected to feedback on their work, and it doesn’t ask them to reflect on their practice. So, it’s not surprising that recent research by The New Teacher Project (2015) could not establish a link between teacher professional growth and any particular professional development approach at three large public school systems and a charter school network.

At Greencastle-Antrim, we’re changing this. We’re engaging teachers in many different ways so that they are leaders of their own learning and growth. For example, two years ago, with support from Pennsylvania’s federally funded Striving Readers grant, we launched a new, comprehensive literacy plan. In addition to bolstering student programs, literacy materials, and technology, we also committed to professional development through the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC). Coached by the Lancaster-​Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 (IU13), a nationally approved LDC provider, we delved into the LDC design system and tools to learn to create literacy-rich assignments and instructional plans in our subject areas. 

It’s not surprising that our teachers were somewhat hesitant about LDC at first. Some were concerned that it was one more thing to do. Others wanted to be sure the professional learning would meet their needs. Would LDC be relevant to their discipline? How would it fit with their curriculum? In some ways, we could have easily fallen prey to the pitfalls of traditional professional development. Instead, during the past two-and-a-half years, we’ve moved from teacher questions and concerns to teacher engagement and ownership. 

Empowering Teachers

Reflecting on our work, we’ve learned some important lessons about empowering teachers to lead their professional growth: 

Start small with a focus on specific, agreed-upon needs and teacher strengths. From the get-go, it was important to ensure that the LDC tools met our teachers’ needs and wants and in a way that was doable. After working with faculty and looking at student data, we decided to begin by focusing on the critical transition year of ninth grade. Research shows that success in ninth grade is vital to a student’s completion of high school; course failures create odds that are very difficult for some students to overcome. Our first cohort, therefore, consisted of seven teachers who were teaching 50–60 ninth-graders identified as needing explicit instruction in reading and writing. This first group worked directly with LDC coaches to connect teaching content to literacy. They learned to design modules, or rigorous “writing based on reading” assignments, with instructional plans taught over two to four weeks. 

Be present. It is also important for me, as an administrator, to be a co-learner with teachers. I attended the LDC training sessions and webinars with our first cohort of teachers. Our assistant principal, Christine Reiber, attended with the second. For us, the notion of “being present” means joining teachers in the learning process, grappling with new materials, listening to ideas, and problem solving together. We found that seemingly little gestures—putting away phones, staying in training rooms, and trying out the tools—go a long way in helping teachers feel their time and work are valued. During training and planning times, we don’t direct teacher conversations or evaluate, but allow teachers to lead their own collaboration and design of modules. 

Remove barriers. As teachers lead LDC at our school, they identify student needs, design solutions, and establish next steps. As a principal, I’m there to listen and to establish a school context in which they can be successful. It’s my job to remove the barriers that block teaching and learning. This runs the gamut from making sure each teacher has highlighters for students to annotate their reading or folders to collect their writing, to finding time for teachers to finalize their modules, to reallocating grant dollars for technologies that foster student research and writing. 

Facilitate teachers supporting teachers. At Greencastle-Antrim, the phrase “teachers supporting teachers” doesn’t mean collaboration for collaboration’s sake. Instead, it’s about leveraging each other’s expertise and skills to have a direct impact on our practices and student learning. For example, in many high schools, literacy instruction is viewed as the responsibility of the English language arts department. However, through LDC, our other departments are now addressing student reading and writing needs. Teachers are sharing materials and strategies, co-planning modules, and reflecting on their teaching during the school day, via Dropbox, and even late into the evening. Teacher-driven collaboration is occurring within departments and, for the first time, even across departments. 

Set expectations that allow for mistakes and growth. One of the lessons we’ve learned at Greencastle-Antrim is to create space for teachers to try something new, make mistakes, and then reflect in order to improve their teaching. For example, our first cohort of LDC teachers designed a module that took more time to implement with students than expected, which impacted the pacing of their curriculum. The module clearly didn’t go as smoothly as planned. However, the teachers identified the issues, revised the first module for future classes, and changed the pacing of their second module. We are very proud to now have two modules that have received national recognition: Calculating the Costs: Atomic Bombs in 1945 and The Art of Persuasion: How Rhetorical Devices Influence Audiences. 

Edward Rife is the prinipal of Greencastle-Antrim High School in Greencastle, PA. Kelly Galbraith, a curriculum and instructino consultant for literacy at the Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13, was a collaborator on this article.