How Talladega County’s Teachers Led Our District into the 21st Century
January 30, 2014 08:37 am
This guest blog post comes from Sharon Tankersley Wright, a faculty member at Childersburg High School in Talladega, Alabama. Learn more about Talladega on Digital Learning Day, February 5, 2014!
You’ve seen her on posters, mugs, and t-shirts, rolling up her shirtsleeves and exhorting, “We Can Do It!” Sporting a polka-dotted red bandanna, Rosie the Riveter is a figure of propaganda, but she stands in for real women during WWII who saw a need, stepped up, raised morale on the home front, and became legends in their own time.
In 2007, teachers in Talladega County, Alabama, saw a need: our students’ apathy was growing ever deeper. During lunch, at faculty meetings, through emails, while exercising together after school, we asked why. Why didn’t students find their learning experiences engaging? Why weren’t they inspired to do their best? And—most of all—what could teachers do about it?
Talladega County teachers tackled this question with the fierceness of WWII riveters, and our efforts changed the face of education in our district.
Teachers teaching teachers
An early realization: meaningful technology use in the classroom could make a difference. Teachers secured district administrators’ support to increase student engagement through digital learning.
For a while, equipment was scarce, and many of us relied on resources for one-computer classrooms. “My favorite handout from our first meeting was ‘101 Activities to Do with Just One Computer,’” Mandy Spurling recalled. “We just knew that our students deserved our best. We asked for their best, and we owed it to them to make school great.”
But soon Spurling and teacher leaders Jennifer Barnett, Shannon Hill, and Robbie Stewart launched the “21st Century Learners Project,” a series of professional development sessions designed to inform and empower teachers as facilitators of digital learning. They asked each district principal to identify three teachers from their school to be part of the group. I was one of those teachers.
Barnett, Hill, Spurling, and Stewart led the sessions, identifying technology tools that they had used or were familiar with so they could spread this expertise to others. We chose the tools that most interested us and attended only those sessions. And as we learned together, the four teacher leaders modeled the use of the new tools.
“Getting to choose my own sessions was my favorite part, because PD can be tedious and boring. It was really cool to choose what I wanted to learn and what I knew my students would love to learn, too,” said Cecelia Wales, a fifth grade teacher.
Mentoring was a key aspect of the program. Each of the four teacher leaders communicated regularly with two or three of us project participants as “mentees.” Time was even set aside for us to meet after school between group sessions. “Anytime I had a question, my mentor was there to answer it or at least help me find a way to answer it,” Phillip Cosper recalled. “Having a colleague teach something to me was so much better. This group changed my whole view of teaching and learning, and that has helped me be a better administrator,” said Cosper, former science teacher (now an assistant principal in the district).
Discovering new teacher leaders
As this professional learning community grew stronger, so did the buzz within the district about digital learning and technology integration. Other teachers began asking questions of the participants, and many of us found ourselves behaving like teacher leaders. I spent many afternoons in my classroom showing colleagues a cool new tool that would kick up student engagement while addressing critical content and skills.
The teacher leader in me was always there. But the 21st Century Learners Project gave my leadership a purpose and a pathway.
Lesley Hutto, a P.E. teacher, also discovered her power for leadership through the project—and was moved to create a student leadership program at her school. Hutto reflected, “We as teachers are no different from students. We want to feel important, to feel validated, to feel a sense of belonging. As part of the 21st Century Learners Project, I had the power to be a leader, and I knew I had to give that same power to my students.” How’s that for “paying it forward”?
Throwing open our classroom doors
According to Barnett, “The most exciting part of this project was encouraging teachers to show off what they learned and what their students gained from their learning.” At our first district-wide showcase, teacher participants worked with student volunteers to demonstrate lessons and digital tools that they had used successfully. The showcase was small, attracting district administrators and a few community members to the event, held in a large meeting room at a local business development office.
Good news travels fast. The next year, that same meeting room was packed with teachers, students, and visitors from the community and neighboring school districts. In our third year, we moved the showcase to a high school gymnasium full of teachers, students, administrators from all over the state, local and regional business leaders, and even some curious politicians.
Fast forward to 2014 (just seven years after we began this work). Talladega County teacher leaders have grown exponentially—in our number and in the depth of our commitment to digital learning. What began as action by a few has had an impact on an entire district, state, region, and nation.
Talladega County teachers now show out loud and proud about how we changed our district to dramatically improve student engagement. Talladega County superintendent Dr. Suzanne Lacey said it best: “Our teacher leaders are the backbone of our district. We simply could not have done this without their action. The are truly a testament to the power of teachers.”
Sharon Wright is a faculty member at Childersburg High School, where she teaches English Language Arts, AP Language Composition, and Drama in a one-to-one classroom. She is a member of the CTQ Collaboratory, where she serves as Virtual Community Organizer for the Innovative Leadership Lab. Follow the Center for Teaching Quality on Twitter @teachingquality.