By Brian Denitzio
It is a truism in education that we're all terrible teachers in our first year in the classroom. But you learn from your mistakes and gradually get better at what is an incredibly demanding and rewarding job. As the years go by, you become a master of your subject and develop a host of strategies for managing a classroom, motivating students, and working with parents and colleagues.
Oddly enough, if you're an effective teacher, the next step in your career usually takes you out of the classroom. Positions in school administration or education consulting become attractive alternatives to the daily grind of grading papers and presiding over detentions. You move out of the classroom in the hopes that your sphere of influence will widen, and that you'll gain some prestige. You move out of the classroom because that is seemingly the only way to move forward.
But there is an alternative, and I've been fortunate enough to experience it firsthand.
In my fourth year teaching at a middle school in Boston's Hyde Park neighborhood, I found myself beginning to grow restless. I felt confident in my ability to manage a class, I was seeing consistent growth among my students, and our state test results reflected this. I was by no means a perfect teacher, but I felt ready to take on new and bigger challenges.
But I wasn't sure I wanted to leave the classroom to do that. I loved teaching, and hated the thought that I'd have to leave the classroom if I wanted to continue to feel challenged by my work.
That spring, I applied and was hired as a teacher leader through Teach Plus' T3 Initiative at Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School, a Level 4 turnaround school in Boston.
T3 stands for Turnaround Teacher Teams, and the program's goal is to recruit and place cohorts of highly effective teachers in underperforming schools. Specifically, my role has been to lead the middle school English Language Arts team, while continuing to teach sixth grade.
So what does this work look like?
On a typical Wednesday, I teach my first period class from 7:30 until 8:30: at the moment, these sixth graders are learning to use non-fiction reading strategies to tackle Nathaniel Philbrick's Revenge of the Whale.
I have a prep period next, and then at 9:25, the ELA team meets in my classroom for two full periods. The longer chunk of time gives us an opportunity to do more in-depth analyses of what's happening in our classrooms. At our last meeting, we dug into data from a recent assessment, then broke into grade-level teams to develop action plans based on the data.
The meeting wraps up, and I eat a quick lunch before another group of students arrives at 11:40 for a double-block of sixth grade ELA. This group usually finds their good work rewarded with snacks left over from our team meeting.
Later, I'll debrief the team meeting with the T3 coach in my building, and get feedback on my facilitation. We'll plan for the next week's meeting, and use ideas I've solicited from team members to develop the agenda.
After working in this teacher leader role for a year and a half, the experience has matched my expectations. The work has reinvigorated me and reaffirmed my commitment to teaching. Not only have I benefited from the chance to hone my skills as a leader, but leading a team has also helped me to grow as a teacher.
The role hasn't taken me away from my students; I still teach a full load of courses. Managing my time has been a challenge, but I believe that continuing to teach has made me a more effective team leader. I frequently use my own questions and concerns from the classroom to spark conversations in team meetings. And last spring when my team took up the work of creating a vertically aligned middle-school ELA curriculum, I acted as both facilitator and participant.
Leading a team has also had a positive impact on my teaching. The training I've received from Teach Plus has made me more effective at collecting and analyzing data that drives my instruction. In addition, I've learned strategies for sharing data with students to increase their buy-in to our work.
To be sure, the days are long and busy. But through my work with T3, I'm able to have a direct impact on the direction of the school, not just on the students in my classroom. In the last year, Orchard Gardens went from being one of the lowest performing schools in the state to being in the 96th percentile statewide for producing student growth in middle school ELA. Many people worked hard to make that change, and I'm proud to be part of it.
Two years ago, I wanted to be challenged and grow as a professional without having to leave a job I enjoyed. I didn't think that was possible. My work with T3 has proven me wrong.
Brian Denitzio teaches sixth grade and leads the middle school English Language Arts team at Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Boston.
Are you a teacher with a minimum of three years' experience and a proven track record of effectiveness? Are you looking for recognition for your work and a new professional challenge? Apply now to become a T3 teacher leader in Greater Boston or Memphis.