In our communities, students are often far behind their peers in more affluent communities. Statistics predict that many will not finish high school and virtually none will have the option of attending a four-year college. In order to create the dramatic change that is necessary for our students to reach their full potential, corps members must be more than just effective teachers. Through years of studying the habits, beliefs, and actions of corps members and other teachers who have been successful at putting their students on a different life path, we have realized that what makes them similar is their choice to employ principles used by great leaders in all circumstances.

This philosophy is the basis for the Teaching As Leadership framework, the foundation for how we train and support corps members. Corps members are introduced to this framework at training, and learn to master these principles throughout their two years in the classroom.

Set Big Goals for Student Achievement

A teacher who makes sure that his or her students earn access to the opportunities and choices that are available for students in higher-income communities must develop a goal that students and their families can rally around. Setting big goals and having high expectations for students’ ability to achieve them provides the motivation and focus needed to overcome obstacles on the path to success.

Jay Henry, who taught fifth grade, spent time before the beginning of the year researching the middle and high schools that her Special Education students would enter. Knowing the graduation and academic performance statistics of those schools, she researched the top performing magnate schools and their entrance requirements, and set a goal with kids to ensure that every one of them would gain admittance – which would require well over two years of growth in their reading levels and their ability to pass a rigorous math entrance exam.  

Invest Students and Families

Successful teachers break the cycle of low expectations faced by many students in low-income communities. They show students that if they work hard enough, they can and will achieve. They help students believe in their own abilities, maintain high expectations for themselves, and develop a desire to pursue goals that are important to them.

Julia King (Chicago Corps ’08) held meetings at the beginning of the year with students and families to determine where her kids wanted to be in two years, five years, and ten years, and then had a frank discussion of what would need to happen in order to realize those aspirations. Ongoing, she called and texted parents throughout the day with updates on their children. As one father said, “She makes me feel like I’m in class with my daughter!” Each week Julia sent home student work with Post-Its for parents to add comments. When they were returned to her, she laminated the comments and put them on the wall to keep her students proud and motivated.

Plan Purposefully to Achieve Students’ Goals

The teachers who are most successful in the challenging environments of high-need schools begin every endeavor by asking: “Where are my students now versus where I want them to be?” and “How can I be most efficient in helping them move forward?” Successful teachers consistently plan backwards with a goal in mind and think about how to efficiently reach goals in all aspects of their teaching.

Before the year began, Julia King (Chicago Corps ’08) organized learning objectives into units and ordered them logically across the year so that the skills built on each other and the school’s calendar was taken into account. For each week’s unit plan, Julia looked at the objectives for that unit, then wrote five assessment questions per objective, and only then planned her lessons.

Execute Effectively and Adjust When Needed

Strong classroom leaders make sure that all of their actions contribute to the goal of student learning. They consistently monitor student progress and adjust course in light of changing realities around them. They offer students consistent and caring leadership, and constantly look for ways to maximize the amount of time students have to work toward their goals.

According to Megan Brousseau’s (New York Corps ’08) development manager: “From the handshake greeting at the door when you first enter the room to the high five you receive on the way out, Megan is consistent and clear with her rules, procedures, and lessons. Her kids know what to expect from her and are excited on a daily basis by what she has in store for them that day. She puts 110% into every lesson she teaches and her students have grown to love science as much as she does.”

Improve to Accelerate Student Learning

Strong leaders are their own toughest critics and search constantly for ways to improve their skills. The most effective teachers use data to diagnose issues and improve their teaching so that students make the most progress.

Meg Stewart (Bay Area Corps ’08) routinely videotaped her morning classes and reviewed the footage that day, critiquing her instruction and tweaking lesson plans for the afternoon. She also spent a day each month analyzing her students’ performance on assessments and writing projects, determining their strengths and areas for growth and then adjusted her plans accordingly.

Work Continuously to Overcome Challenges

In many low-income communities, schools with the fewest resources serve students with the greatest needs. Our most successful teachers go above and beyond the traditional role of “teacher” and do whatever it takes to help their students reach their big goals. They refuse to allow inevitable challenges to become roadblocks and work hard to overcome them so that their students can succeed.

Because he is obsessed with his students’ college trajectory, Maurice Thomas (Metro Atlanta Corps ’08) has made it his personal mission to do everything humanly possible to help them get on this path. He offers tutoring during lunch hour and after school every day except for Tuesday, which is reserved for faculty conferences. Maurice also runs a Saturday school from 8 a.m. until noon.

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