News Partnership Teacher Leadership

When liberated to lead, teachers lean into what they know best: their students

Brittany Stephens was on the lookout for an old-fashioned rotary phone over the summer. 

No stranger to kindergarteners or the classroom, Stephens is confident that having the clunky relic on hand will help kindergarten students in her classroom grasp the concepts of then and now. 

“Being encouraged to think creatively and find the tools I need to bring lessons to life for my students is refreshing,” says Stephens, who is among teachers from two Saint Louis Public Schools (Ashland and Meramec) participating in the Transformational Leadership Initiative (TLI), an ambitious, multi-year effort designed to improve the academic performance and overall learning environment for students in the region. Headed into the third and final cohort year, TLI’s primary focus has been supporting educators in these schools as they establish and refine place-based learning (PBL).

Place-based learning engages students in their communities, drawing on the physical environments, local cultures, history and people to enhance and deepen classroom learning. Science and social studies, especially appropriate for the PBL approach, are what the teaching teams at both schools have honed in on with support from TLI.

Brittany Stephens is among teachers from two SLPS Schools (Ashland and Meramec) participating in the Transformational Leadership Initiative (TLI), an ambitious, multi-year effort designed to improve the academic performance and overall learning environment for students in the region. 

As much as she appreciates the old phone and other assets that she has easier access to thanks to the program, Stephens finds more value in what the phone represents: trust.

“We’ve been given the freedom to actually examine what our students might need and liberty to do what we know is best for them,” says Stephens. 

Thirteen years into her profession, raised by a family of committed educators, and able to fondly recall teachers of her own who went above and beyond for students, Stephens acknowledges full stop how nuanced and finely tuned her skills must be to reach students effectively.

“It’s much more than just teaching the curriculum,” Stephens says. “You have to know your students. You have to look at the whole child. You have to know what they need and fill in those gaps. How do you talk to them? How do you make them feel safe? If they need love, lead with love.”

That level of relationship-building extends beyond each and every child.

“You carry parents and grandparents, too. I’m getting to know their whole families, their pain, their joy. My parents know they can call me,” Stephens adds. “Our children and their families have experienced traumas and things I just haven’t. Parents are doing their best. In the last few years, I’ve found myself telling parents a message we all need to hear: ‘You’re doing a great job.’”

Inviting communities back into the classroom

“Inviting families and the communities they call home into the heart of the educational process for their children removes unnecessary barriers that get in the way of authentic learning,” says Nikki Doughty, associate director of strategic initiatives at the Institute for School Partnership at Washington University in St. Louis (ISP). “That’s why place-based learning has been such an ideal focal point for the educators and schools participating in TLI.”

Doughty’s support of TLI teacher leaders like Stephens and principals takes many forms: administrator,  peer educator, facilitator, convener-in-chief, cheerleader and coach. She works closely with Jay Hartman, executive director of the Community Partnership Network (CPN). He shares her enthusiasm about the inherent message of place-based learning.

Ashland Elementary Principal Paula Boddie and CPN Executive Director Jay Hartman meet with Linda Henke, co-founder and executive director of the Santa Fe Center for Transformational Leadership.

“Families want to see their community as an asset to their kids’ learning and not as a deficit,” Hartman says. “Extending classroom learning by extending the boundaries to include gardens, businesses, libraries, other locations and resources that are familiar territory for students and families supports a positive narrative about neighborhood schools. Long term, it invites a community to actively participate in what happens in the school down the street.”

Hartman’s connection to the families and teaching teams at Ashland and Meramec started in 2018. Identified by SLPS as two of the District’s most challenging schools in terms of historical academic performance, both schools were ideal testing grounds to pilot a bold, innovative solution/intervention aimed at accelerating student learning.

Under CPN stewardship, both schools operate with a unique set of conditions that put critical educational decisions in the hands of teachers and school leaders, redefining traditional public school models of school leadership and accountability. 

The flexibility creates space for CPN schools to draw upon promising practices around the country, including the capacity and leadership development approaches that TLI offers.  

“TLI exists to put educators in the business of transforming their schools,” adds Doughty. “This work naturally aligns with ISP’s mission to advance equitable quality education through meaningful collaboration with schools and districts. What we’ve seen happening for teachers and the schools’ learning culture is absolutely transformative.”

Stephens uses another word for what it feels like to be a teacher in the driver’s seat: empowering.

“We’ve been given permission to be true change agents in our schools,” says Stephens. “We’re invited to make decisions in ways most of us have never experienced professionally. TLI has given me a voice to become the leader that I should be.”

Teacher empowerment captures what CPN’s Hartman hopes to harness as well.

“We’re intentionally developing teacher leaders,” he says. “One of the values of having school leadership teams like the ones in place at the CPN schools is to create additional pathways for teachers to be empowered, but remain in the classroom. In the education world, we’ve not done a really good job of providing these professional pathways for teachers. Our hope is that even those teachers who move from the classroom to administration will do so with a mentality that believes teachers should have a voice.”

Next Steps and Beyond

Jonathan Strong came to the principal role at Meramec Elementary School with solid classroom chops. Having been a literacy coach, Title 1 reading instructor and fourth grade teacher, he’s not forgotten the value that teachers place on simply being heard and honored for the skills and passion they bring to the profession. 

“Having the school-based autonomy and leeway to make decisions that we know will be best for the students and families in our unique community is the best part of being a CPN school,” says Strong. “By inviting teacher voice to decisions we make for our students, we’re much more likely to see a vision for our school through. We own this together.”

Strong and his CPN peers from Meramec and Ashland dedicated the first two years of TLI to  exploration of the Human-Centered School Transformation Model. At its core is a commitment to deeper learning, a relatively new term that challenges traditional classroom practice by involving students in highly engaging problems, projects, experiments and tasks that require them to apply what they are learning. The TLI approach to leadership development was a perfect fit for what the SLPS District had in mind for both schools – a customized approach.

“We are not seeking to develop cookie-cutter schools,” says Linda Henke, co-founder and executive director of the Santa Fe Center for Transformational Leadership. “Instead, we are helping leaders and their schools explore the fundamental question, ‘What do we want to create together?’’

Headed into the third and final TLI year, both schools prepare to take the lead, bringing their transformations past the finish line, with continued coaching and plan development that includes setting their own objectives, benchmarks and activities.

“No two transformations are going to look alike, which is what makes this work so incredible,” says Doughty, who envisions ISP bringing the leadership transformation work to other schools and districts in the region looking for innovation. “Imagine what we can do for students when teachers are elevated to lead?”

Learn more about the Transformational Leadership Initiative.