By Suzanne Smith

When I began the Teacher Leadership Institute (TLI), I was a veteran teacher with plenty of leadership experience in my community but little leadership experience within my school. I was hopeful that TLI would not only provide me with the skills necessary to be a good leader but also with a means of using those skills to make a difference in my classroom, school, district, and state.

I was also interested in participating in TLI because I wanted to lead without leaving the classroom. I strongly believe that teachers play the most important role in schools, so it was of utmost importance to me to remain teaching.

For my capstone project, I chose an area of great concern to me. As a sixth-grade math teacher, I knew my students were expected to take state-mandated tests in the spring. My state had adopted the PARCC assessment, and we were planning to take the test online.

At our middle school, which houses grades 6, 7, and 8, the seventh- and eighth-grade students attend Information Communication Technology classes and have the opportunity to work daily on a computer. However, the sixth-grade grade students have no exposure to computers at school – and yet they are expected to take a computer-based assessment to measure their progress at the end of the school year.

So for my TLI capstone, I decided to focus on obtaining computers for sixth-grade students to help them better prepare for the upcoming PARCC assessment. Because 50 percent of my teacher evaluation is based on student test scores, it seemed especially necessary to devise a plan for them to have greater access to computers at school. But I also want my students to be successful — not only in school but in life. Their success on the assessment depends upon their ability to use the computer effectively, and these are basic skills they will need in both college and career.

First, I researched national companies and foundations that provide iPads for schools. But the more I considered the iPad, the more I realized that this tool wouldn’t have the greatest benefit for my students. It has a touch screen, and the computers on which my students would be taking the assessment use a mouse. In response, I began to research laptop computers.

My plan was to acquire a classroom set of laptop computers that could be shared by 12 sixth-grade classes. Looking into organizations that would provide laptops to students at no cost proved to be quite an undertaking, as I was doing the work alone. I compiled a list of possible donors and then applied for several grants. While waiting to hear back, I surveyed other teachers in my building to see if they also saw this as a need for students. After much discussion, several teachers agreed that we needed computers for our sixth-grade students, and they joined my cause.

With the help of my new team, we were able to tackle this problem at the local level by searching for community benefactors who could donate money or new or slightly used computers. Some teachers also applied for grants. Unfortunately, we discovered that the application cut-off dates for many of the grants had already passed, were too close, or included a prohibitive processing fee.

So, we decided to keep working on our plan over the summer. Before school ended for summer break, I sat down with my building principal and discussed my concerns about our sixth-grade students taking end-of-year assessments on the computer with no opportunity to practice beforehand. He listened, told me that I had a valid point, and said that he would work with me to resolve the issue. I explained that I and many other sixth-grade grade teachers were searching for avenues to provide computers for our students. So after our conversation, my principal took my concerns to the superintendent – and by the start of summer, preparations were being made to create a sixth-grade computer lab!

Today, my team and I are continuing to apply for grants and search for other avenues to provide the resources and skills necessary for our students to be successful. I would still like to get at least one more classroom set of laptop computers to be shared by our sixth-grade teachers in order to maximize students’ exposure and give them the opportunity to work on some basic keyboarding skills that will be necessary for typing open-ended responses.

Overall, TLI has encouraged and supported my growth as a teacher leader in three areas: I am now the Professional Learning Community (PLC) Leader for sixth-grade math; I have led math PLC meetings for grades 6, 7, and 8; and I am a mentor for Year Two TLI participants in my state. One of the webinar sessions that I attended during my TLI experience focused on Professional Learning Communities and how teacher leaders can get the most out of their PLC meetings. One suggestion that I took back to my school was creating an agenda for our meetings that is given to participating teachers beforehand so they can prepare or collect necessary materials.

TLI has also helped me understand how to individualize instruction based on student needs. Although I continue to teach to the rigor of the standards, I have learned how to better support students who might struggle with certain aspects. I work to stay aware of their weaknesses and help move them forward with additional support (which includes helping my colleagues in doing the same).

Finally, now that I’m a mentor for TLI, I’m excited to share my experiences and expertise with those who are going through the process. It’s nice to be able to answer questions and provide feedback and support to participants. I’m looking forward to what lies ahead for this group of future teacher leaders (and myself) in the years to come.

About the Author

Suzanne Smith is a National Board Certified teacher at Grenada Middle School in Grenada, Mississippi. She has taught for 25 years, the last 17 of them in Grenada. Suzanne currently co-teaches two sixth-grade math classes as well as a sixth-grade remedial math class and a seventh-grade remedial math class. She is President of the Grenada Association of Educators and holds the following positions in the Mississippi Association of Educators: Alternate NEA Director, Vice-Chair of the Budget Committee, Membership Committee, and MAE Trainer. Suzanne was a participant in the Teacher Leadership Institute during its inaugural year (2013-2014).