Some of Hawaii’s most dynamic teachers are reaching out to inspire colleagues and enhance their profession as part of a new corps of “teacher leaders.”
Traditionally, the path for teachers with leadership potential led to the principal’s office. But the most passionate teachers often want to stay in the classroom with their students.
Teacher-leaders can share expertise and collaborate with peers and policymakers without giving up their calling and connection to children.
The concept came into vogue nationally a few years ago and is beginning to take hold here, with the creation of a teacher-leader license and new programs to foster the recipients and amplify their voices in their schools and community.
“In Hawaii it’s still very new,” said Kelly Miyamura, director of the Hawaii State Teacher Fellowship Program, launched here in 2014 by the nonprofit Hope Street Group. “Our organization along with a couple of others have really started to invest in it as a way to really empower teachers.”
The Hawaii Teacher Standards Board began offering a teacher-leader license field in 2014, and 83 teachers have earned the credential so far, according to Lynn Hammonds, the board’s executive director. To qualify, applicants must have shown sustained leadership in enhancing teaching at their school and completed a teacher-leadership program or other certification.
“Previously, the only avenue open to them to be a true teacher-leader was to go into school administration as a principal or vice principal, or maybe a state resource teacher,” Hammonds said. “Some teachers wanted to have a leadership role, but they didn’t want to be a full administrator.”
A teacher-leader acts more as a mentor or coach, rather than a boss or a supervisor, according to Sandy Cameli, program coordinator of the Department of Education’s Teacher Leader Academy. The Hawaii State Teachers Association began its own Teacher Leader Initiative in 2014, the same year Hope Street launched its teacher fellows program here.
“There are lots of ways to be a teacher-leader,” said Kristen Brummel, a Hope Street fellow and the 2011 Hawaii State Teacher of the Year. “Whether they are a mentor toward a beginning teacher, or part of the instructional leadership team, or a grade-level chair … a teacher-leader is anyone who is taking their skills from the classroom and using them to elevate our profession.”
The energy and passion that teachers can ignite in one another — not just their students — was clear at a recent conference that brought together 80 teachers from all islands who have shown leadership in their schools. It was staged by public school “teachers of the year” and Hope Street Fellows, with support from the Herbert T. Hayashi Foundation, Hawaiian Electric Co. and other businesses.
Rather than fly in experts from the mainland to offer training, local educators inspired their peers with keynote speeches, shared strategies at breakout sessions and gathered in small “colleague circles” to share problems and come up with solutions.
“They helped me get over some of the disillusionment I have felt in the past couple of years,” said Debra Masden, who coordinates the English Language Learner program at Kaiulani Elementary in Kalihi-Palama. “By the end of the first day, my inner monologue had shifted, my perspective was energized and I had a new sense of purpose.”
Half of the children at Kaiulani are learning to speak English, 91 percent qualify for subsidized lunch and some spend their nights in shelters. Their teachers try to give them an anchor while handling an ever-evolving educational landscape, including a new curriculum and electronic information system.
“Because of so much change, the teachers are almost in survival mode,” Masden said. “You’re barely hanging on, you’re putting out fires one to the next. We need to celebrate each other’s accomplishments. We need to get back to why we’re teachers. It’s not just to fulfill the state’s requirements or understanding Common Core; it’s all about the kids.”
Fourth-grade teacher Karen Pascual also came back with a fresh outlook for her students and colleagues at King Kamehameha III Elementary on Maui, after the conference, dubbed “Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers,” or ECET2.HI.
“I’m a veteran teacher, and I’ve seen so many teachers pulling back into their classrooms due to the recent changes and mandates that are weighing us down,” Pascual said. “It’s hard to explain but ECET2.HI felt like a movement. I’ve attended many professional development training sessions, but this was by far the best. It somehow gave me back my teacher voice.”
The conference, held at ‘Iolani School, included a surprise: dinner at Washington Place with Gov. David Ige and first lady Dawn Amano-Ige, an educator. It was held Feb. 27-28, the same weekend as the Academy Awards, and teachers were given “Oscar” statuettes to symbolize their leading roles.
Tyffiny Keliiaa, a special-education teacher at Kapunahala Elementary, has already put her Oscar to good use.
“We have started a new faculty meeting tradition that calls us to pass our ECET2 Oscars on to teachers we believe are rock stars in very obvious ways or even the most minuscule way,” she said. “I have been told that it brought a sense of acknowledgment to a very demanding profession and that it also brings excitement to often unexciting meetings.”
“Colleague Circles” formed at the conference are also staying in touch via social media. That helps teachers overcome the isolation they sometimes feel in their classrooms or from being scattered on different islands.
At Kaiulani Elementary, Masden was excited to share with her colleagues a new approach she learned in a breakout session, “Teaching Resilience Through Literature.”
“It sparked this personal connection in me because at Kaiulani we have a high-need population,” she said. “Resilience is not something you’re innately born with; it’s something you can develop. Resilience is such a huge foundational skill. I never really thought about it before the conference. I really was never taught resilience, and I had a lot of challenges when I was younger.”
Next on the agenda is the launch of the Hawaii Teacher Leader Network and a joint website to give teachers a central spot to learn about the different leadership programs and choose the one that best suits them, Cameli said.
As an incentive for exceptional teachers to share their wisdom, the Legislature is considering House Bill 1228, which offers a $5,000 one-time bonus to teachers who earn the “leader” designation. Justin Brown, a career and technical education teacher and robotics coordinator at Kealakehe High School, testified in favor of the bill, saying, “It is in the state’s best interest to keep the most qualified, exciting and high-performing teachers in our local schools.”