Building teacher career pathways in Big Spring ISD

The traditional model of one teacher to one classroom is being reconsidered in districts trying to leverage the impact of effective teachers and create more career opportunity.
Traditionally, the only way a teacher could advance his or her career was to leave the classroom and move into an administrative role. And those who got tapped to move into administrative roles were typically the most talented teachers. Big Spring ISD is redesigning teacher jobs to extend the reach of talented teachers to more students for more pay.

Creating new roles for Big Spring ISD teachers

Two new instructional job descriptions will be implemented in Big Spring this fall: Multi-Classroom Leaders and Reach Associates. Multi-Classroom Leaders (MCLs) are teachers with a history of excellence in student achievement and the capacity to lead other adults. The MCL will still teach students directly, but is assigned a teaching load that enables him or her to perform team leadership functions as well.
The Reach Associates are highly skilled paraprofessionals that will assist a team of teachers under the guidance of the MCL. A Reach Associate assists the team with digital learning and other forms of supplemental instruction, independently monitoring and supervising students to stay on task, and communicating with the team on student progress and development.
 The West Texas district has more than 4,000 students enrolled on seven campuses. The new job roles will be piloted at three elementary priority schools this fall.
Chris Wigington has been superintendent at Big Spring for two years. He believes that good coaches also make great leaders and this philosophy can help teachers in the classroom. The district has a very young teaching staff and Wigington felt that adding the MCL role would help them develop.
Heidi Wagner is the school improvement director at Big Spring who will be leading the initiative. Wagner feels that this model is also a way for them to deal with the teacher shortage. Big Spring has hired a lot of teachers from alternative certification programs who are still learning. As Wagner explains, “We have to think out of the box about how to use our best teachers.”

Seeking help from Opportunity Culture Texas

The model for these new instructional roles came from an initiative called Opportunity Culture developed by Public Impact, a nonprofit group based in North Carolina. Through a grant from TEA’s Division of School Improvement and Support, Education Service Center 20 has partnered with Public Impact and Education First to guide and support districts in redesigning teaching roles and training staff for those new roles.

Opportunity Culture models

In only its second year, Opportunity Culture has reached more than 30 schools with higher paying career opportunities for over 150 teachers in North Carolina, Tennessee, New York, Indiana, and now in Texas. Opportunity Culture is the trademark name of Public Impact’s initiative to create new career opportunities for excellent teachers that extend their reach to more students. There are more than 20 school models that use job redesign and technology to put excellent teachers in charge of every student’s learning, while catalyzing teamwork and professional development. An important requirement is that the model must be financially sustainable within the school’s regular budget.
There are multiple models to choose from for redesigning teaching jobs but all of the Opportunity Culture models must adhere to these core principles:
1. Reach more students with excellent teachers and their teams
2. Pay teachers more for extending their reach
3. Fund pay within regular budgets
4. Provide protected in-school time for team collaboration and development
5. Match authority and accountability to each person’s responsibilities
Adapted from; ©Public Impact.

The grant-funded collaborative, Opportunity Culture Texas, was started two years ago. Mark Baxter, TEA director of school improvement and support, explained their goal: “We are trying to build statewide capacity for school improvement. We know that what needs to be happening at these campuses is better support and more coaching for teachers. We think Opportunity Culture can expand that capacity within existing resources.” 

Selecting Multi-Classroom Leaders

Big Spring will start out with six MCLs for three campuses. Principals decide what grade level and content areas the MCLs will be assigned. Campus design teams looked at their performance data to determine their areas of need and MCLs were selected to match those needs.
To avoid any perception of bias, district leaders asked staff members from ESC 20 for help with the screening and selection process. There were ten applicants for the six positions, eight from inside the district and two from outside. Names were removed from the applications which were sent to ESC 20. Opportunity Culture provided the competency criteria that MCLs would need and ESC 20 conducted structured interviews for two hours with each candidate that probed for evidence of growth and leadership ability.
The district ended up hiring internal candidates for all six positions. Wagner shared that all of the MCL candidates were strong and all candidates passed the screening interview and provided quantitative data on student growth. Wagner commented, “All six that were chosen are natural born teachers. Their experience ranged from three to 20 years. The strongest teachers are not necessarily those with the most experience.”

Developing a sustainable funding plan 

Each multi-classroom leader will be paid $10,000 more than regular teachers. The higher salaries will be funded through attrition and larger classes with more paraprofessionals to help the teachers. The average classroom size will increase from 22 to 30 students. District leaders recognized this as a challenge, but the decision—as Wagner frames it—came down to, “Would you rather have 30 kids in front of one excellent teacher or 22 in front of a mediocre teacher?”  District leaders see this as a way to invest and develop even more excellent teachers.
The paraprofessionals, or Reach Associates, will be trained for supervising independent work. Each MCL was part of the interview process for the associates who were recruited to apply from among the district’s best instructional aides. Reach Associates will be paid $3,000 more and the district has committed to honoring their time to support the MCLs in the classroom. The MCL will model lessons for other team teachers while the Reach Associates will monitor other student learning activity.
The only additional cost is a first-year implementation budget of $80,000 for recruiting and the staff training to be provided by Public Impact. The start-up cost was funded through a grant from Public Impact.

Making time for teams

The model for teacher leaders must provide time for teaching teams to meet and collaborate during the school week. As Wigington explains, “Teaching is a team sport; we can no longer afford to have closed doors; teachers will have to learn it together.” In Big Spring, each campus figured out their own schedules to provide three hours of meeting time per week for grade-level teams. Team meeting time is precious, so focus and efficiency during that time will be key. Opportunity Culture is providing models and training to help MCLs structure team meeting time for maximum benefit.  

Learning from other models in other places

In Charlotte, North Carolina, part of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, other Opportunity Culture models have been in place for two years. Project LIFT (Project Leadership and Investment for Transformation) is a multifaceted reform effort to turn around nine of Charlotte’s highest poverty schools.
Design teams in four of those schools created 19 positions and four new teacher roles. Each school created their own combination of role models to best fit their needs:
  1. Multi-Classroom Leader, as in Big Spring.
  2. Blended Learning Teacher: Engages students in online work to master basic skills so the teacher can focus more on personalized, higher-order learning.
  3. Expanded Impact Teacher: Plans and delivers personalized, enriched instruction for multiple classes while students rotate with a paraprofessional who covers the basics and supervises skills practice.
  4. Elementary Specialized Teacher: Teaches only one or two subjects in which he or she has demonstrated excellence with support from other team teachers and paraprofessionals.
Each of these new teaching roles pays more: anywhere from $4,600 for an elementary specialized teacher up to $23,000 more for a multi-classroom leader of a large team.

Build it and they will come 

Members of the design teams in Charlotte reported that teachers responded especially well to three facets of an Opportunity Culture:
  • The opportunity for leadership without leaving the classroom
  • Significantly more pay for more responsibility
  • The creation of a culture in schools that elevates the teaching profession
Charlotte started recruiting early and aggressively to find excellent teachers to fill these new positions. They drew a flood of applicants (708) from 24 states for the 19 job openings. Twelve percent of the applicants came from Project LIFT schools, 45 percent from within the district, 55 percent from outside the district, and 23 percent from outside North Carolina. The applicants were very high caliber and chose which of the new roles they were applying for.

Building opportunity for teacher leaders

Not every teacher wants to spend 30 years alone in front of the same classroom. Creating meaningful leadership roles for our most talented teachers can help to address multiple pressures facing our public schools: Shortages of qualified teachers, stress on campus administrators, the need to improve teaching and learning in schools, and the need to retain our best teachers. As Wigington states, “What is best for kids sometimes requires doing unconventional things; we can’t always do things the same way and expect to move forward.”