Program Highlights

Teacher Leadership Through Collaborative Inquiry and Influence

Program Highlights

Aija Simmons, Associate Director of Teacher Leadership

In my 1st year of teaching, I was placed in a 5th grade sheltered English immersion classroom. Knowing the importance of oral language production for English Learners, I made sure my students got ample opportunities to turn and talk. My students were turning and talking all day long, engaging in mini-conversations that would last anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes, depending on the content and purpose. In this first year, I used this “best practice” strategy to anchor lessons across disciplines without really examining if students were benefiting from it.

At a certain point during my 2nd year in the classroom, I happened to overhear a conversation between two students during turn and talk that sounded completely off task and irrelevant. I, of course, intervened and got the students to go back to the topic and exchange a sentence apiece, but somewhere in the back of my mind a question began nudging at me. I found myself wondering why in the world we were turning and talking all day long when the truth was I had no idea what most of my students were even talking about and I had not developed explicit goals for this talk. This broad question, “What happens when my students turn and talk to one another?” would impact my practice in ways far deeper than just teaching students to engage in academic discourse.

Using the Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry group to find the answer to this question helped me to develop my professional voice and to begin to clarify my stance as a teacher. I began to understand that the relationship between what I think I’m teaching and what my students are actually learning is quite nuanced. Closely monitoring student responses to specific lessons through collecting multiple forms of student learning data, including audio of the turn and talk conversations, helped me to clarify the reasons for my instructional decisions and to see my students in new ways. The increase in instructional confidence I gained through engaging in monthly collaborative inquiry sessions with my colleagues began to carry over into other professional spaces. In search of the answers to questions of practice, I became a teacher leader.

Professional Development Is Not All the Same: Professional Learning that Fosters Teacher Leadership

Let me be the first to admit that I was somewhat addicted to professional development. I participated in numerous district initiatives in literacy, science, math and social studies. In those sessions, I began to deepen my understanding of the content that I was teaching. In retrospect, however, I can see how it was the conditions created by the Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry process that facilitated the development of my professional voice and my leadership. This data-driven, collaborative, inquiry space was unique to all of my other professional experiences. Inherent in the Mills Teacher Scholars approach to collaborative inquiry are some key elements that foster developing leaders.

  1. The collaborative conversations that are the heart of the Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry sessions allow for the development of teacher voice, effective communication of ideas, and deeper listening to other perspectives. 

During the monthly inquiry sessions, I was invited into a conversation about my inquiry with two other teachers using a basic protocol. The process involved a few minutes for me to talk about my current thinking and to set up the student learning data that I would be presenting. Routinely practicing this inquiry set-up facilitated efficient and effective communication. I had to get to the heart of the inquiry issue and share my dilemma and my data in a way that engaged listeners and helped me think things through. I had to clarify my ideas and weed out the unnecessary information for this conversation to be productive for me. After unapologetically offering data from my classroom, the process called for my silence. I went from speaker to listener. I learned to discipline the voice that wanted to defend everything in my practice and prove that I knew what I was doing. I learned to take in what my listeners were seeing, questioning, suggesting. In my active listening, I benefited from the perspectives of my colleagues. Finally, we engaged in a conversation together where we collectively clarified ideas, named processes, made connections, and surfaced the issues of practice that needed to be addressed. The purpose of this conversation was to deepen my understanding of student learning, but the added benefit was that the structure created a space for me to practice multiple facets of professional discourse.

2. The structure of the conversation protocols asks teachers to turn new understandings from these conversations into concrete action steps.

Towards the end of the conversation, the protocol asked me to synthesize my thinking and name some next steps that emerged from the conversation. Sometimes I would know exactly what lesson I needed to do next. Other times I knew that there was additional student learning information I needed to collect and I walked away with an understanding of how to get that information. I internalized this idea of generating a next step from the conversation. Knowing this shifted my listening—I learned to listen for the next steps embedded in my colleagues’ questions emerging from the data, and to choose what felt the most pressing or relevant. My ear became honed to finding the action steps that would move my practice forward. This was a key element in developing my instructional leadership. Leaders are able to identify action steps and name the result anticipated by taking a particular action.

  1. The Mills Teacher Scholars process encourages short-term planning to reach meaningful, long-term goals.

Early on in the inquiry process, teacher scholars determine a long-term learning goal for their students. Because this is a year-long process and because learning happens over time, teachers name a learning goal that is broad enough to look at over time. Through the inquiry process teachers refine this goal and unpack the skills and phases of developing the skill embedded in this large goal. With the end in view, we meet monthly to analyze data and plan a next step, the student learning data helping us to deepen our understanding of the layers of learning necessary to meet the learning goal, to monitor progress and to take steps in moving students toward the goal. Through this process, I was introduced to a usable model of strategic planning and progress monitoring that good leaders use. It showed me how to take real time data and make the steps necessary to help students meet a learning target. In the process of talking through my own inquiry and helping other teachers think through their inquiry, I learned to make the conversational moves necessary to facilitate others to do this kind of strategic instructional planning, a hallmark of a strong leader.

  1. Mills Teacher Scholars’ facilitators model an inquiry stance that values the questions as much as the answers.

I recently read in an article on leadership that suggested that a question unasked is a potential disaster waiting to happen. The article highlighted a common attribute of strong leadership: the value of asking the right questions. Over the course of my first year of inquiry, my stance towards my practice changed. I spent less and less time explaining what I already knew and more and more time discussing what I was wondering. This has been the stance I have continued to have towards my practice. The inquiry process helped me to learn to surface the questions important to my own practice and to help other teachers name their own questions. Even though I didn’t set out to be a leader, willingness to open my practice and to partner with my colleagues generated a level of influence that is often associated with leadership.

In my mind the challenge of leadership is not just one of vision and collaboration. Leadership involves developing a path to move from a starting place to an improved place. Teacher-led collaborative inquiry gives teachers the opportunity to practice envisioning success and tailor small steps to make that vision into reality. Through my inquiry into turn and talk I was able to envision a classroom where my students used these instructional moments to present their writing to a classmate and engage in a conversation about the craft of writing that would lead to high quality revisions. One small instructional tweak after another, I began to see that vision materialize in my 5th graders and in my own development as a teacher leader.