An innovative new program designed to build teams of leaders in struggling school districts across the state launched this weekend at Longwood University.

One hundred K-12 teachers and administrators from Portsmouth to Martinsville gathered in the Hull Auditorium early on Saturday, Feb. 13, for the first session in a day full of tried-and-true lessons on leadership and lesson planning.

Longwood partnered with the Virginia Department of Education on the new Teacher Leadership Program, which trains teams from low-performing school districts in leadership skills—a process in which schools can build a culture of high performance from within their faculty. VDOE awarded Longwood $366,000 to create and implement the program—a natural fit for a university with more than 175 years of experience educating Virginia’s teachers.

"We are happy to bring the expertise we have gained over nearly two centuries of educating teachers to bear in these sessions," said Dr. Nancy Riddell, professor of education and director of the Teacher Leadership Program. "This is strengths-based coaching, which means we’ll be looking at the positive things the schools and teachers are already doing and building off that. We are really training the team to be a team of leaders in their own communities. That’s what citizen leadership is about."

Twenty schools sent teams of teachers to Longwood for the initial group session. In subsequent weeks, Longwood faculty members will visit the teams in their own schools to observe and lead workshops packed with strategies that have been refined over time. After numerous on-site visits and two more group sessions, the teams will return to their schools equipped with the tools to help raise standards across the board.

Teachers from around the state listen during a session of the Teacher Leadership Program
Teachers from around the state listen during a session of the Teacher Leadership Program

Several specific functions drive the sessions and workshops:

Unpacking SOL standards. "One common problem administrators and teachers are faced with is misunderstanding the standards our schools, teachers and students are judged by," said Riddell. "In our sessions and workshops, we’ll pay particular attention to making sure everyone who interacts with the students knows how to read and understand the standards of learning so we can all be on the same page. That’s critical to the success of school systems."

Aligning lesson plans. Teachers are faced with the monumental task of planning daily lessons that not only drive home the state standards but also engage students. "At times, these two forces can seem as if they are competing," said Riddell. "They don’t have to be, and we’re going to make sure that the teachers who go through the leadership program are experts at aligning their lesson plans to the SOLs so they can, in turn, teach their colleagues the same skills."

Bringing expertise home. The program will create teams of teachers who will act as forces for positive change in their home schools, training their peers and setting examples for new teachers. "Leadership is emphasized in these training sessions," said Dr. Gerry Sokol, professor of education and co-director of the program. "What that does is make this program sustainable. Creating a team of people in each school who can drive positive change and function as a resource for other teachers is the way to change a school’s culture and trajectory."

Dr. Nancy Riddell explains a concept at the initial training workshop
Dr. Nancy Riddell explains a concept at the initial training workshop

Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton, who has called for greater innovation and investment in teaching practices and development, spearheaded the initiative.

The school districts that are participating in the first round of the program are

  • Lynchburg
  • Newport News
  • Martinsville
  • Norfolk
  • Petersburg
  • Richmond
  • Portsmouth

"We’re looking to the future," said Riddell. "This entire program is built on the idea of creating sustainable positive change in the culture of low-performing schools, and we are happy to put our expertise and experience to work."

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