The Circle sees high-performing teachers as industry experts. It's working to keep them in class.

Many educator programs in Memphis focus on training and retaining new teachers and reducing the shortage of teachers through recruitment. The Memphis Teacher Leader Circle focuses on the very best teachers, regardless of tenure.

The program hopes to  keep the city’s best and brightest educators in the classroom by investing in their professional development and honoring their positions as leaders in their schools and among their colleagues.

Cheryl Green is one of The Circle's lead facilitators and founder of The Coplexity Group, a local educational consultancy group. She said The Circle is an opportunity for teachers to be treated as skilled practitioners of their craft.

“It’s time to lift these narratives up. There are pockets of success and those pockets are connected, not only from school to school but across the larger community,” said Green.

The 10-month pilot program brings together a select group of 15 diverse educators from four charter networks across the city.

The Circle is a partnership between The Coplexity Group and The University of Memphis’ River City Partnership, a training track for future urban educators within the College of Education.

“For Memphis, this is an opportunity to highlight that people are actually out here getting the work done,” said Green. “We have [teachers] who are being successful. We have kids that are engaging those teachers and [are] excited about what they are learning."

Green and Dr. Beverly Cross of The University of Memphis designed The Circle to build on the expertise that teachers bring to the table and position them as academic problem solvers.

"If you look at other professions like medicine and law, [practitioners] are given opportunities to do research, experiment and test, and to talk to other colleagues,” said Green.

The educators meet monthly for professional development and to share best practices among the group. They're trained to use research to tackle classroom challenges. They use their failures and successes to contribute to new research that is then translated to strategies they and other educators can implement in classrooms. 

In addition to professional development and training, participants are awarded 'appreciation stipends' and matched with content experts who provide on-going mentorship. They also attended Momentus’ 2019 Changing the Odds Conference in Dallas, TX, where they learned about the factors underlying children’s social emotional health.

“The program has solidified for me that I’m doing the right thing,” said educator Candace Hill. “It’s solidified for me that I’m not alone in teaching—that other teachers think and feel and have the same passion that I have. It’s been really, really cool to be with other teachers that are like-minded.”

Hill is a kindergarten teacher at Power Center Academy Elementary in Hickory Hill.

She balances her work with The Circle with a long list of other responsibilities including her job, parenting two teenage boys with her husband, and earning her master's degree in teaching.

She said 9 a.m. sessions every Saturday is worth the commitment. The Circle has confirmed that her calling is the classroom.

“Our Saturday sessions get deep—like into our hearts and in our thoughts," said Hill. "I’m like ‘Why are we crying on a Saturday?’ But I think it’s just that we trust each other and we’re able to let our guard down."

Kindergarten teacher Candace Hill leads a math lesson at Power Center Academy. Hill is a member of the first cohort of The Teacher Leader Circle. (Ashley Davis)

elevating education professionals

Hill previously taught music at Power Center Academy and is now in her second year as a kindergarten teacher. The switch brought a new set of standards and new curriculum.

Last month, she presented her research to The Circle on implementing a new phonics program and its effects on her students’ mastery of the alphabet. Although the experience was "nerve-wracking," she said the practice pushed her professionally.

“The program has really allowed me to increase my confidence in who I am as a person and as an educator. It really has been a powerful experience for me,” she added.

Hill once had ambitions to be a Broadway star, but now she wants to remain in the classroom.

“I would love to retire as a teacher,” said Hill. “I see myself doing this for a long time, and I am fulfilled making an impact with these little ones.”

Research has also shown that teacher effectiveness increases over time and boosts not only test scores but also impacts student absenteeism and classroom culture. However, schools in Memphis tend to have a high teacher turnover rate, especially those with a high percentage of students living in poverty.

One of the main struggles for retention is the lack of support teachers feel inside and beyond the classroom and constant pressure to deliver top-tier results without that support. 

“[The Circle is] an opportunity for them to be able to get input on their practice without it being evaluative,” said Green. “[Their colleagues] understand the language. They understand the context. They understand the content. And they respect each other’s knowledge and experience that they bring to the table.”

In developing The Circle, the partners' central question was how they could recognize and show respect for practitioners doing great things. Participants were nominated by their school or network leaders and had to show evidence of strong professional performance.

The educators in The Circle attended professional development workshops where they receive continuing education on a variety of topics. The sessions are also an opportunity to brainstorm best practices together. The educators then track their plans' implementation, present findings, and get feedback from their peers.
 

A SOCIAL EMOTIONAL SHIFT

Green and a team of facilitators help teachers cope with the stresses and challenges that come with the classroom. Mim Stokes Brown, an educational consultant with the Momentus Memphis initiative, is one of the facilitators helping equip the cohort with tools they need to support their own social-emotional needs and those of their students.

“We’ve trained teachers in academic content and pedagogy,” says Brown. “But we’ve sort of neglected these other important factors that help students to be open to learning, ready to learn, and able to engage in content.”

“Yet we expect teachers to create these warm and nurturing learning environments. I think we’re starting to realize that this social emotional piece has been missing," she continued.

Green hopes the program’s focus on reflective research practices and social emotional awareness will allow more high-performing teachers like Hill to feel seen and celebrated as The Circle adds its second cohort in 2020.

“We spend a lot of time trying to change teachers and telling them what they’re not doing well,” said Green. “Hopefully, this is an opportunity to spend as much time and resources helping them to know that we see them when they get things right.”

Read more articles by Ashley Davis.

Ashley Foxx Davis is an author, educator, artist and Memphis native. She's been featured in Glamour, Ebony, and Essence magazines; Blackenterprise.com; TheRoot.com; and BET.com. Find her at kifanipress.com.
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