FAIRFIELD, Conn.—Sacred Heart University’s Isabelle Farrington College of Education (IFCE) has established a Teacher Leader Fellowship Academy (TLFA) for pre-K-12 classroom teachers and administrators. The academy provides professional development, collaboration and support to help educators further expand their skills and be effective leaders.
Under the direction of Michael Alfano, IFCE dean, and Betty J. Sternberg, former state commissioner of education, the academy taps into the expertise of teachers and the administrators who support them. Alfano and Sternberg have partnered with the Connecticut Education Association (CEA), a statewide union and association representing educators in 1,000 schools across the state, to develop the academy’s offerings. The result is empowering and collaborative fellowship opportunities that help educators build leadership skills while remaining powerful forces in their classrooms and schools. Sternberg said the academy simultaneously supports administrators to create a school climate and culture that enables teachers to lead. Without the essential support of administrators, teacher leadership goes nowhere.
“The academy enables participants to develop and expand networks across districts; to share experiences and learn from each other,” said Sternberg. She led a similar initiative in the greater Hartford region for five years and will build off and extend that program’s success by tapping into the extensive physical and human resources available at SHU.
Sternberg said she envisions that, at SHU, the fellowship academy program will strengthen and expand. “Now, even more than before the pandemic, educators understand that they must support and enable students–all students–to be creative, collaborative and innovative. To do this, teachers and administrators themselves must be creative, collaborative and innovative. SHU offers unique resources such as the maker spaces afforded to undergraduates that pre-K-12 educators and students could access.”
According to Alfano, the academy benefits the SHU community by providing opportunities for teacher leaders to work directly with other area leaders and educational experts to advance their knowledge and skill sets in a supportive, practice-focused setting. “The academy will serve as an on-ramp to our formal educational leadership programs for those who are interested,” he said. “And, most certainly, the academy is a perfect example of a program that is enacting SHU’s core values and mission.
“Teacher leaders have very few opportunities to come together as a professional community of practice, to share and learn from one another,” Alfano said. “The academy meets this need at a critical time, as we grapple with the wake the global pandemic has left for our state’s schools, children and communities.”
“The fellowship is an uplifting experience that reignites teacher leaders’ excitement and commitment to their students, their colleagues and education itself,” Sternberg added. “This is a shot in the arm for mid-career teachers and is critical after the extraordinary shifts that took place in teaching and learning this past last year. Teachers were and are main players, not only in delivering education to students, but also in envisioning what schools could be.”
School districts register teams of educators to become fellows in the academy. All fellows meet as a group five times per year. They also plan and attend an institute day with break-out sessions run by the fellows. When coronavirus restrictions ease, Sternberg said, there also will be opportunities to travel internationally to see other successful education systems in action, such as those in Canada and Finland.
“Leadership in education is not just about becoming a principal or administrator; it’s about lifting the profession, lifting the students and lifting communities through the work teachers do every day in our schools,” said Jeff Leake, an educator for four decades who currently serves as CEA president.
“Partnering with SHU provides a unique opportunity for teachers to become leaders from the classroom and to benefit from the expertise of the University’s faculty and the leadership of Michael Alfano and Betty Sternberg,” Leake continued. “The experience will promote greater collaboration among educators and spur innovation in the classroom on issues ranging from peer mentoring to reimagining and changing how we inspire children to become more creative, compassionate and collaborative learners.
“It’s an exciting program for our members. Partnering with TLFA will enable CEA to connect more of our teacher-driven professional learning expertise and resources toward promoting teachers as leaders,” Leake said.
Discussing what schools could be
Fellows discuss their hopes and concerns at length during academy meetings, resulting in identification of topics about which they want to know more than they currently do. “We listen and focus on what the group’s needs are,” Sternberg said. From there, with the help of a subset of the fellows, guest speakers are invited to future meetings to provide guidance and professional development. School teams also spend time reflecting on what they heard and developing plans to pursue what they learned back at their own sites.
“The TLFA offers a rich and diverse set of experiences,” said Jennifer Norman, an English instructor at the H.H. Ellis Technical High School in Danielson. Norman earned her master’s degree in teaching from SHU in 2012 and her sixth-year certification in 2018. “The conversations and workshops are generative and inspiring. However, the best part of joining our amazing group of educators and administrators is the opportunity to break through traditional boundaries that separate different facets of the educational system and truly have a voice with other members in leadership roles. Educators are often the last in the system to feel heard but, in this group, we are celebrated and encouraged to have a strong voice for children, and we are heard.”
National and international experts on topic areas identified by fellows visit TLFA meetings. For example, Marc Brackett, a research psychologist, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and professor in the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center, spoke to the group on social emotional learning (SEL). Sternberg said the group found the discussions helpful, and Brackett returned for several sessions.
Yvette Jackson, an adjunct professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, who serves as the senior scholar for the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, founded at Columbia, recently presented a workshop on how to discuss equity and social justice with students. The session was so useful that the fellows asked for a second session with her.
Anthea Grotton, a kindergarten teacher in Tolland, called the TLFA an amazing experience. “Betty Sternberg has created a space where teachers can grow in their leadership capacity and feel valued, working alongside administrators and superintendents. Not only do I feel valued, but I realized, through my time at the fellowship, that I earned my place at the table and that my expertise matters” she said.
Through the fellowship, Grotton said, she’s moved out of her comfort zone and grown as an educator and leader. “I was always the person doing a lot in my district to help and improve,” she said. “The fellowship helped me see that I was leading all that time; that I am a teacher leader. In the last three years, I have presented on numerous panels with amazing educators across the state.”
“The Teacher Leader Fellowship Academy is a wonderful program that supports teachers as leaders and brings educators together,” said Sarhanna K. Smith, principal at Read School in Bridgeport. “The program’s strength is based on the relationships forged among teachers and school leaders. As a school principal, I have benefitted from building relationships with educators from around the state. I have watched my team of teachers also develop meaningful connections with fellow educators from various districts. During the past few years, my school-based team led SEL presentations for the annual institutes and just presented one virtually on May 26. They found it rewarding to have teachers and leaders from other districts want to learn from them about how to implement SEL in their schools or districts.”
Bridgeport School Superintendent Michael J. Testani said he was excited to learn about the TLFA at Sacred Heart. “For the last five years, I have sent Bridgeport public schools’ teacher leaders and administrators to the academy’s predecessor. Our participants benefited greatly. The academy is needed more than ever, and I know that under Sacred Heart’s leadership, it will flourish and make an impact on teacher leaders and administrators in the region.”
Teachers in a post-pandemic world
One of the many things that became clear during the pandemic was the importance of educators. Parents who were at home teaching their children gained a new level of appreciation for educators; they saw the many hats teachers wear and how they often don’t receive adequate recognition.
“The pandemic placed an enormous set of challenges in front of teachers and leaders, including social and emotional learning, learning loss and issues of educational equity, among numerous others,” Alfano said. “By working with other area teacher leaders and educational experts, the academy will serve as a place for real professional collaboration and development, where best practices, and next-best practices, can be shared and explored in real time and under real-world conditions.”
“Throughout the pandemic, we were supported and given opportunities to connect and reflect on our experiences,” Smith said. “I am excited to continue working with the program. My school has partnered with SHU for many years, and I am especially looking forward to this new partnership with TLFA and SHU.”
Grotton said the program has been her “self-care” this year, enabling her to feel excited and re-energized about education during a very difficult time. “The fellowship gave us [educators] a space to share and nurture ourselves and each other so that we are able to do the very best for our students,” she said.
During the pandemic, teachers had to be their own leaders, Sternberg noted. They had to be their “own drivers of the fundamental reconfiguration of the way education was being delivered,” Teachers started relying on each other even more, and they collaborated with each other more than ever.
“Now is the time to empower and support teachers by offering them the chance to join the academy. All teachers need to see themselves as leaders,” she said.
“I am looking forward to meeting a whole new network of educators with different resources available to the academy,” Grotton said. “With that network will come additional opportunities to expand and grow as teacher leaders. Sacred Heart launched the first educational doctorate program in the country that focuses on social, emotional and academic leadership. Betty Sternberg created the TLFA as a community where teachers can take ownership and effect change in their classrooms and beyond. Her leadership and distinction—with the dedication of the inspiring minds at Sacred Heart—are an innovative combination that will provide amazing potential for leadership for all educators that are part of the TLFA.”
Norman said the group already has achieved so much together, joining diverse and powerful voices in productive and meaningful ways. “For the future and in partnership with Sacred Heart, I believe TLFA can inform the development of future teacher leaders, provide places to grow and learn, and teach us to recognize the capacities within ourselves that we may not have been aware of before to promote stronger education for all.”
For more information about the academy and how to join, visit the TLFA website.
About Sacred Heart University
As the second-largest independent Catholic university in New England, and one of the fastest-growing in the U.S., Sacred Heart University is a national leader in shaping higher education for the 21st century. SHU offers more than 80 undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and certificate programs on its Fairfield, Conn., campus. Sacred Heart also has satellites in Connecticut, Luxembourg and Ireland and offers online programs. More than 9,000 students attend the University’s nine colleges and schools: Arts & Sciences; Communication, Media & the Arts; Social Work; Computer Science & Engineering; Health Professions; the Isabelle Farrington College of Education; the Jack Welch College of Business & Technology; the Dr. Susan L. Davis, R.N., & Richard J. Henley College of Nursing; and St. Vincent’s College. Sacred Heart stands out from other Catholic institutions as it was established and led by laity. The contemporary Catholic university is rooted in the rich Catholic intellectual tradition and the liberal arts, and at the same time cultivates students to be forward thinkers who enact change—in their own lives, professions and in their communities. The Princeton Review includes SHU in its Best 386 Colleges–2021 Edition, “Best in the Northeast” and Best Business Schools–2021 Edition. Sacred Heart is home to the award-winning, NPR-affiliated radio station, WSHU, a Division I athletics program and an impressive performing arts program that includes choir, band, dance and theatre. www.sacredheart.edu
The CEA, which is an affiliate of the National Education Association, is the state’s largest teachers union and association serving educators in more than 150 school districts in Connecticut. In addition to providing support to members to improve the conditions for teaching and learning, CEA also provides professional learning, growth and advocacy. The CEA’s Professional Learning Academy provides professional growth workshops to members and school districts on topics such as social and emotional learning, unconscious bias, instructional techniques and innovation, classroom management, teacher leadership and theory of change (See the CEA’s Professional Learning Academy offerings at www.cea.org/pla).