Betsy Drinan for BTU Secretary-Treasurer

Betsy Drinan is the one of the founding lead teachers of the Boston Teachers Union School, a teacher powered, shared leadership school.  Betsy began her career working with the young people of Boston in the nonprofit sector in alternative education and youth services as a teacher, counselor and program director. She co-founded and directed Brookside High, an alternative school for at risk youth in Jamaica Plain, directed the Youth Center at the West Broadway Housing Development in South Boston during the desegregation of the Boston Housing Authority’s developments, and was a reading specialist for the City Roots network of alternative schools. Her Boston Public Schools career started at the Cleveland Middle School where she was a middle school ELA teacher. She also taught at the Mattahunt, the Lewis, and the Irving.  Betsy was a participant on the design team that planned the Lilla Frederick Pilot School and served as a teacher and a board member there for 5 years. She has worked to train and mentor new teachers through the Boston Teachers Residency Program. For the past 8 years she has been at the BTU School where, in addition to part time teaching responsibilities, she works collaboratively with the faculty, leading and developing the school. Betsy has been a delegate to many AFT and AFT MA conventions. She is the proud mother of a Boston Public School graduate. She lives in Dorchester and is active in many community endeavors including a past leadership role with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization Education Taskforce and as a long time board member of the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation. 

Article for BTU News by Betsy Drinan

What’s a teacher-powered school? An inspiring group of teachers, administrators and union leaders from across the country gathered recently in Los Angeles at the 2017 Teacher-Powered Schools National Conference to find answers to that very question.  The conference, held January 27-29, was an opportunity for attendees to share their vision and experience creating, developing and maintaining schools that honor and utilize teacher expertise while creating engaging learning environments that maximize and support student growth and achievement. I was lucky enough to be able to attend and present at the conference as one of the founding Lead Teachers of the Boston Teachers Union School. I was joined by Taryn Snyder, Grade 3 teacher at the BTU School. Our session, based on our 8-year experience at the BTU School, was entitled Evolving Governance Practices.  Boston was also well represented by Mission Hill School’s Jenerra Williams, Grade 1-2 teacher, and Ayla Gavins, principal. Mission Hill presented on Designing Peer Evaluation to Develop Teaching and Teams.

The Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative was created in 2014 through the joint efforts of the Center for Teaching Quality and Education Evolving and largely based on findings published in Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call The Shots by Kim Farris-Berg, Edward Dirkswager and Amy Junge; as well as work by Lori Nazareno, Ted Kolderie and Barnett Berry. Much of this work is described in an article in the Summer 2016 AFT America Educator entitled Leadership for Teaching and Learning, How Teacher-Powered Schools Work and Why They Matter.  Briefly, teacher-powered schools are schools that are collaboratively designed and run by teachers. Some maintain traditional leadership structures in terms of still having principals and other administrative staff while others, like the BTU School, have created structures that support consensus decision-making and shared leadership. The Initiative has established criteria around the 15 autonomies that Teacher Powered Schools often secure and utilize.  Currently there are 110 schools across the country that the Initiative has designated ‘Teacher-Powered”. Some are well established and some are just forming. The conference was an opportunity for participants to meet, network, and share our experiences and best practices.

One of the highlights for me was meeting people from the Reiche Community School in Portland, Maine. In 2010, the BTU School hosted a visit from the President of the Portland Education Association, the superintendent of Portland schools as well as a team of teachers from the Reiche School. Reiche had recently been designated a struggling school and rather than turn it over to an external group or otherwise restructure the school with the typical top down approach, leaders in Portland decided to grant a group of Reiche teachers and stakeholders a year to explore becoming a teacher led school as a means of improving the school and better supporting students. Seven years later, this strategy has proven to be a huge success and Reiche is now a sought after and well-regarded school. Learning about their journey and about the ways they organize and structure their school today was fascinating.

Another highlight was visiting the 24 acre Robert Kennedy Community Schools educational complex which houses 6 separate pilot schools with over 4000 students in grade configurations ranging from K-12. The Los Angeles School Department modeled their pilot schools on Boston’s experience. The Robert F. Kennedy complex is situated on the grounds of the former Ambassador Hotel, the site of RFK’s assassination. Apparently, there was a dedicated group of Kennedy supporters including his family, who worked tirelessly, amidst much debate, to develop an educational setting on the site.   We visited some of the schools and learned about their various approaches to teaching, learning and school culture including their social justice focus. In subsequent conversations back at the conference, we learned that some of the schools use their pilot status to enhance the teaching and learning environment for all, while others are still struggling to ensure that the increased autonomies, granted through Election to Work Agreements, support a significant role for teacher voice and improved student outcomes- not always a given. 

There is much more to report including the experience of Minneapolis Federation of Teachers as they crafted their Memorandum of Agreement regarding what they are calling Community Partnership Schools, the efforts of Florida’s United Teachers of Dade as they work to launch a teacher powered schools initiative and the inspiring self actualization work Social Justice Humanitas Academy, another LA pilot school, is doing with their high school students.

The biggest takeaway from the conference, however, is that the teacher powered schools initiative is gaining momentum across the country. Lots of groups of teachers, schools and districts are taking a closer look to see if indeed it may be key to strengthening schools by both better supporting student growth, but also by empowering teachers and subsequently deepening their level of job satisfaction. I think we all know instinctually and also from experience, that the deeper teacher investment and commitment is to their schools, the better the outcomes for children. Surely, increasing teacher voice and ownership of the institutions we work in is an obvious strategy to pursue.  It is likely the next Teacher Powered Schools Conference will be in Boston in the fall of 2018.  Plan on being there!