This guest post comes from Demetria R. Giles, a teacher at Teaching Firms of America—Professional Prep Charter School (TFOA), the only charter school in New York with teacher-run governance written into its charter. Giles came to TFOA, located in Brooklyn, after nearly seven years as a teacher, grant writer, and vice principal in a charter school in Washington, D.C. Halley Potter’s “Inside a Teacher-Led Charter School” explores TFOA’s law-firm model of teacher-run governance.

It was the beginning of a new school year. I walked into my schoolhouse (as we call our classrooms) more appreciative than ever of the choice I made to journey to Brooklyn to teach at Teaching Firms of America–Professional Prep Charter School. I was seeking a different way to teach…to lead…to be.

What I found there was the privilege of autonomy.  Autonomy gave me the peace of mind that innovation would be not only a welcomed addition but also a vital aspect of school culture. Autonomy allowed me to be a teacher and simultaneously a leader. Autonomy showed I could be trusted to make choices about curriculum, policies, family communication, and routines (just to name a few things) that were in the best interest of my students rather than following “one size fits all” rules.

As I sorted books during self-managed prep time, I was filled with gratitude. I remembered when past administrators dictated this precious time in the hopes of seeing the homogeneous results of endless classroom checklists, costly curriculum trainings, and “shared” long-term plans. But this year was different. I decided what posters were hung on the walls. I decided how to welcome my families back to school. I could follow my own lesson plan instead of one created by someone else.

The options for learning were limitless, as long as I stayed true to the organization’s essential beliefs—inquiry, culture, mindfulness, and innovation. However, as much as I appreciated this newfound freedom, it also made me uncomfortable. For a long time, I had been used to receiving clearly defined responsibilities, meticulously detailed memos, and frequent observations and feedback. But now, I and my new colleagues were not being told what to do or how to do it.

Some might ask, “Are teachers at this school set up to succeed?” The answer is: yes. However, the road to success might be rocky if teachers plan to teach subjects in isolation, see themselves as “only” teachers, or are content with every academic quarter looking exactly the same. But while the level of responsibility and autonomy can be challenging, our law-firm-modeled environment gives teachers tools and incentives to succeed.

Teachers at our school have the support of one another, as well as our lead teachers (“partners”). Whereas teachers in schools with traditional administrative structures may feel reluctant to reveal where they struggle, for fear of judgment or losing their jobs, we feel encouraged to seek help from our community of peers.

This charter school is also unique in that each teacher (“associate”) stays with the same class of students for five years consecutively. This aspect of the school model allows teachers to invest in their students and teach to the needs of real life instead of teaching to a test.

Our teaching is rooted in the Leadership Index, a framework drawn from African diasporic traditions, which highlights inherent attributes in students like Sankofa (reflection), Tama (confidence), and Heremakhet (inquisitiveness). By cultivating these attributes (and others), we are providing students with the life skills to be the self-motivated problem-solvers needed in the twenty-first century.

Furthermore, while teachers receive a base salary, we are also compensated based on volition, results, and innovation. TFOA has a thorough professional rubric that helps teachers to self-evaluate their performance in the areas of stakeholder management, entrepreneurship, and student outcomes. This same rubric is used by the partners to make decisions about bonuses and advancement within the teaching firm.

So here, it pays for me to take risks and come up with new ideas to respond to the needs of students and their families. This also means that some of my risks and bright ideas might fail, but I am reassured by knowing that the learning and reflection process is encouraged and valued. Taking risks is the only way that we will make educational discoveries.

So far, the innovative approach is paying off. Teachers are empowered to make situational decisions based on the needs of specific students and families. For example, I have seen a positive impact on students in my schoolhouse from including reflection and meditation time as part of our instruction.

For these reasons, I will continue to approach each day at this charter school with the fire of autonomy in my heart—willing to take risks in search of better teaching and better results for students.

About the Smarter Charter Series

This series highlights ideas for promoting effective charter schools that empower teachers, integrate students, and share lessons with other schools. For more on these ideas, check out A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter.