Betty J. Sternberg, Director of the Teacher Leader Fellowship Program at CCSU, joins us this month to discuss leadership at the classroom level, building teacher leaders into systemic-leaders, and the importance of bringing together educators from different schools to push each other’s practice, particularly during the Covid-19 crisis.
About the Teacher Leader Fellowship Program (TLFP) at CCSU
After working as a Pre-K - 12 teacher, math specialist, district superintendent, and professor of educational leadership over a span of four decades, Betty J. Sternberg founded the TLFP to provide teachers with the tools and support needed to excel in the profession and have a profound impact on their students and schools. Based out of CCSU’s School of Education, TLFP is focused on empowering teachers as experts to support one another and build leadership skills in their classrooms and beyond. TeachHouse fellows have learned with TLFP fellows over the years by attending the TLFP Institute together, visiting schools internationally, and continuing to build a strong network of educators across the country committed to providing the best for their students by supporting each other.
How did the idea for the TLFP come about?
This is Sternberg’s 48th year in education, a journey that began as a classroom teacher in San Jose, California. Over the years, she became a school and district leader, eventually serving in the Connecticut State Department of Education for 26 years. She became the Commissioner of Education in 2003, the first woman in this role since 1838, and after serving in a variety of leadership positions across the state, she became a Professor of Educational Leadership at CCSU and taught students in the master's, 6th year, and doctoral programs.
Many of her students in these programs would graduate with concrete, useful skills, but they were reluctant to take on leadership positions. Their eyes were opened to the demands of those positions; they were concerned that they could not balance them with the demands of their own families. Sternberg quickly realized that there was a systemic gap that did not allow leadership opportunities for classroom teachers without forcing them out of the classroom. She observed, “Being a teacher involves educational leadership right there in your classroom and although you might not have the title of ‘principal’ or ‘assistant superintendent,' your colleagues will see you as a leader if, in fact, you operate as one.” Wanting to help teachers better actualize their natural role as leaders, Sternberg created the TLFP to allow teachers to grow and support each other across districts.
How are teachers natural leaders in their classroom and school communities?
“Teachers within their four walls don’t realize it, but they are leaders!” Sternberg says. “They practice leadership with their students in the context of their own classrooms. Reaching out within their buildings to their colleagues, and in the district to administrators is the next step. Teachers can and should do this without necessarily holding a formal leadership titled position."
While many people in a school building hold official leadership positions such as Assistant Principal and Principal, often times certain classroom teachers exercise more influence and serve as de facto leaders of their colleagues. Unfortunately, some school-based leaders often spend precious energy limiting the leadership ability of their own teachers. “That’s why in our program,” Sternberg says, “we don’t have many rules except that the teachers who are invited to our program must be accompanied by a building level administrator. I do believe that if a teacher tries to exert leadership in a climate or culture that does not allow for it, it will go nowhere and be immensely frustrating.”
Sternberg notices that during the Covid-19 pandemic, school administrators and district-level leaders are becoming more aware of the leadership role that teachers hold in their classrooms and communities. In fact, honing teachers’ leadership skills is a new imperative where teachers must constantly adapt to the changing needs of their students, the way they are teaching, and new technologies. In addition, Sternberg believes that “Covid-19 has made everyone a first year teacher” by forcing all educators to teach, connect with their students, and lead in a new way. “Even those with 18-20 years of experience have not experienced having to work in this sort of environment,” she says. The current context underscores the importance of supporting all teachers regardless of their number of years in the profession or experience level, as there are countless ways all teachers can continue to grow and push their practice. Sternberg wrote about her hopes for teachers continuing to teach during the pandemic in a recent article titled "Freedom to Learn in 2021," published in the CT Mirror.
Why does a partnership with TeachHouse allow participating teachers to learn more and grow as professionals?
Sternberg met TeachHouse’s Dr. Jan Riggsbee at Duke when Sternberg’s daughter started as a Professor at Duke’s School of Law. Immediately she felt that she and Dr. Riggsbee were “of the same mind.” When Dr. Riggsbee founded TeachHouse, the two pledged to support each other in their endeavors to build teacher leaders. Sternberg loved that “with TeachHouse, Jan was talking about supporting new teachers and creating a setting where they could support each other.” This was very similar to Sternberg’s mission with the TLFP to “create opportunities where teachers, teacher leaders, the fellows of the program and their formal administrators met and worked across districts to focus on how to enable leadership and make it happen.”
Working with TeachHouse provides a cross-district understanding and capacity for deeper analysis of teachers’ practice and pedagogy. Whenever bringing together teachers from different districts and schools, Sternberg notes “the similarities are felt more than the differences.” The TLFP also allows TeachHouse fellows more opportunities to demonstrate leadership beyond their own schools and gives the TLFP fellows the chance to support TeachHouse’s early career teachers.
TeachHouse fellow Benton Wise was invited to present TeachHouse’s model at the TLFP Institute, which he remembers fondly. “I loved how the CCSU Teacher Leader Institute brought leaders in the profession together to hear from those passionate about innovations in education. Presenting the TeachHouse initiative at the institute helped me give voice to the fact that teachers need as much support as possible in their beginning years if we hope for them to stay in the profession.”
If you were to reimagine our current culture of learning, what would be some of the unshakeable characteristics of your new learning systems?
Sternberg has worked closely with Peter Gamwell, who poses this question often when getting to know educators and their systems of belief. Sternberg says, “First of all, it requires us as teachers and teacher leaders to look at what we’re teaching and say, ‘Is it important? Is it reasonable? Does it move our kids to knowing and being able to do what is important for them?’” She continues, “You must step back and think of what is important in today's world.” For instance, not only is the ability to communicate in multiple formats key, but we must ask, “to communicate what?” Educators must not only teach students to digest information, but now “the ability to evaluate and discern if what you’re reading and seeing is factual" is extremely important.
Again, Sternberg is highly aware of the ways in which the pandemic has reshaped our understanding of the role of education and educators. “We always said that for success in the 21st century, you would have to be able to function in a world we couldn’t yet imagine, in roles we couldn’t yet picture.” Now, with a world reshaped by COVID-19, “we are globally in a place we never could have imagined.” Innovation and creativity in education is no longer a luxury, but an imperative, as the world adjusts to and understands this new normal.