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Connecting and Leading

May 20, 2010

Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez is a fifth-grade teacher in the Folsom Cordova Unified School District, and was named the district’s 2010 Teacher of the Year.  Sarah is a National Board Certified Teacher, and also serves as the Transitional English Coordinator at her site, providing the second language students with interventions and programs to meet their needs. In 2008, Sarah earned her master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from California Sate University, Sacramento. Sarah is a Teacher Consultant for the Area 3 Writing Project at University California, Davis. She has been a History Day coach to her students since 2005 and was recently named Sacramento County History Day Teacher of the Year. Sarah was a participant in the Teaching American History Grant and attended the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute. This summer she will attend a seminar on Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Sarah also teaches a summer writing course to fourth and fifth grade students through the Academic Talent Search program at Sacramento State University, Sacramento.  Accomplished California Teachers is proud to have Sarah as one of our newest members, and we are grateful to her for taking the time to respond to some questions for this guest blog post.

How did you become a Teacher of the Year (TOY)?

In Folsom Cordova Unified School District (FCUSD) each school nominates one teacher of the year to represent their site. This is voted on in a secret ballot. Since our high schools represent a larger staff, they are able to nominate two candidates. All of these teachers are invited to interview for the district TOY. Prior to the interview, teachers submit their answers to a short questionnaire along with the reasons for recommendation from the site (usually the principal does this). The interviews are held during the school day, and last roughly twenty minutes. In my case, the interview panel consisted of six individuals – two asst. superintendents, and four teachers representing elementary, middle, and high schools (one of whom was the TOY last year).

FCUSD holds a teacher appreciation event in the multi-purpose room of one of our middle schools. Every school has a table, often decorated with paraphernalia from their site.  We cheer on colleagues who receive years-of-service pins, retires, support staff and teacher of the year. At the end of this event the TOY for the district is announced.

Being named the Teacher of the Year in FCUSD is an incredible privilege. I have been blessed with many opportunities and I am extremely grateful for the relationships I have with influential teachers, in my district and beyond. It has been through hard work and collaboration with these teachers that I have seen growth in my students.

What are your thoughts on teacher leadership?  How can we encourage others to find their capacity for leadership?

Educational Leadership published an article in September of 2007 entitled, “Teachers, Writers, Leaders.” (ASCD membership required to access full article).  This article discussed the risks teachers often feel when taking on leadership roles and offered suggestions to lead. Teachers, elementary in particular, generally have a collaborative style and the concept of taking on leadership often makes us feel uneasy. Stepping into a room of strangers I have no problem doing teacher workshops, but when it comes to taking on the same role with my staff it’s not as comfortable. We don’t want to tell; rather we share and celebrate ideas. It’s a fine balance.

I think the key to teacher leadership comes from seeking out like-minded educators, who may not be at your site. Last year I formed a writing inquiry group, affiliated with the Area3 Writing Project, with teachers across grade-levels and schools. This year, another teacher took on the role of facilitator, and thanks to him, the group has expanded. We meet monthly to discuss writing in our class, books we’re read, and share student samples. Many of us have gone on to lead Family Writing Nights at our sites. We have all taken on leadership roles by joining our group, yet it takes place in a collaborative way. Thanks to the Teaching American History Grant our district received, I continually collaborate with teachers on best practices in teaching American history. All of our conversations focus on the impact on student learning. As a result, our students are excelling and we, as educators, are able to come together and celebrate our successes. As educators, we need to get comfortable with emailing and calling one another up to ask questions and seek advice. High school, middle school, and elementary school teachers should be connecting in vertical teams to ensure we are on a similar page with expectations and vocabulary. Communication is everything.

Well, almost everything, right?  You’re talking about communication that leads to collaborative action.  How has that worked in your case?

I view collaboration as looking analytically at student work and crafting the next best steps to take for the students we teach.  The Area3 Writing Project, our FCUSD inquiry group, the Teaching American History Grant, our National Board network, my grade-level partners, and the Sunday brunch group with friends from my master’s cohort, all foster this style of collaboration – where participants overtime forge growing understanding of each other’s classrooms and act as sounding boards for the new approaches. The relationships I have made with these colleagues have helped me to become the teacher I am today. This TOY award is not mine alone, I share it with all of them.

Within a school or district, there’s probably a certain degree of communication that can be expected or required, and it sounds like you’ve done well in that regard, building a local community or network.  But what about reaching out beyond one’s immediate community?

I have learned so much by connecting with teachers in other states, and gained tremendous insight. If you look, there are teachers who share your passion just waiting to connect and share.  Teachers need to find what they are passionate about, and begin forming their own networks. There are also many grant opportunities where teachers can connect with teachers across the nation. Last year I was fortunate enough to attend the Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Institute, and this summer I am attending an NEH workshop in Philadelphia.

Any final thoughts?

My heart goes out to the dedicated teachers who are not given the opportunities to excel. If I had been hired one year later, I would have been pink slipped. No amount of hard work would give me back the teaching position in my district. So, while I have worked hard to get where I am, I am also extremely lucky.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Davis permalink
    May 20, 2010 3:01 pm

    I certainly recognize Sarah’s point/concern about claiming the label if not the mantle of “leadership.” When our Iowa Writing Project has held special workshops to cultivate teacher leaders, in the project and beyond, most participants have struggled to think of themselves as leaders. In some ways that is unfortunate, but the collaborative ethic behind it is not. Ultimately, our colleagues have been more comfortable with the concept of stewardship, and with seeing themselves as stewards of something valuable, whatever facet of the profession they might be addressing. One of our publications of memoirs of site leaders is titled Stewardship. JSD

  2. Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez permalink
    May 23, 2010 8:30 am

    Jim, it sounds like the Iowa WP has done a good job supporting teachers into new roles. I am currently in Austin, celebrating my mother’s doctoral degree from UT. Since her dissertation focuses on political leaders and gender roles, I asked her take on the teacher leadership. She brought up an interesting point – women tend to have a communal (warm, other-oriented) style while men have an agentic (individualistic, making things happen, as in “agent”) style. Since leadership has traditionally been considered agentic this may be why so many teachers, in a female dominated field, have difficulty seeing themselves as leaders. As the Writing Project and others continue to view leadership differently, I think more and more teachers will step into leadership roles.

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