Without Principal, Maine School Lets Teachers Lead

Jun 24, 2016

Earlier this week, all staff members at Athens Elementary School gathered together to discuss their yearlong experiment in school governance. To save money and reclaim local control, the school decided in September to get rid of its principal and appoint teachers to serve as both instructors and administrators. The approach is still new, but it could lead to changes across Maine’s small, rural school districts.

On a Tuesday morning near the end of the school year, nearly a dozen first-graders dawdle into Beverly Foss’ small classroom at Athens Elementary School. Many kids are still waking up, but Foss is wide awake. She has already been at school for nearly three hours.

“I just come real, real early. Because by after school, I’m too tired. So I come early in the morning,” she says. “I’ve found if you get here at 6, you’ll have an hour before anyone gets here.”

The reason Foss works these crazy hours? Well, she’s not just a first-grade teacher. She’s one of three “lead teachers” in Athens.

She and her two counterparts effectively serve as the school’s co-principals. Foss covers the elementary students. Seventh-grade teacher Ed Ellis covers the upper levels. And Title I teacher Marian Spaulding covers the budget and administration.

That’s all on top of their normal job — you know, teaching kids.

“The workload is more than I could imagine in my deepest thoughts,” Spaulding says.

So how did Athens end up with this new model of teachers like Foss pulling double-duty? Well, it starts back in 2013, when Athens was still a part of Regional School Unit 59 in Madison. There were whispers around the district that Athens’ seventh- and eight-graders could be moved away from their school and into Madison.

Foss says a lot of teachers saw this as the beginning of a process that could eventually lead to Athens shutting down.

“Probably 7th and 8th first. Then fifth and sixth. Then we would have had numbers down so low that everything probably would have closed,” she says.

The Athens community didn’t like that idea. It voted to withdraw from RSU 59, allowing the school to stay open and serve a little more than 100 elementary and middle schoolers.

But the new structure didn’t solve everything. Teacher Ed Ellis says a new part-time principal arrived, but he never felt like her priority was Athens.

“So we didn’t really want to become that kind of stepping-stone school,” he says. “We wanted to become more than that. We wanted to be a school where we can continue to do the great things we’ve done. And because of that, we sort of moved towards that teacher model.”

A steering committee made up of Athens teachers and community members began studying that teacher model, even visiting similar schools close by. Eventually, they developed a system: Three “lead teachers” would share all the responsibilities of a full-time principal.

The school would also have four committees focused on issues such as educational development and curriculum. Every staff member, from teachers to janitors and lunch ladies, would be on a committee. They’d bring up issues, then work with the lead teachers to get them fixed.

“I thought, well, it couldn’t be any worse than what we had,” says Lorraine Post, the school’s librarian. She, along with nearly every other Athens staff member, agreed with the plan. “But it was a sigh of relief to know we weren’t going to have somebody new again, to not have somebody come in and start dictating.”

However, not having any oversight can be scary, Foss says. Suddenly, these teachers had to make decisions about everything: budgets, grants, paint, transportation.

“It could be anything,” she says. “It could be a behavior thing. A bus issue. A leaking roof. A flooded radiator, any of those things you don’t even think about.”

No principal also means there’s no ultimate decider in the school, which can make handling conflicts difficult. Seventh-grader Kaitlyn Pemolow says she ran into that earlier this year when she was bullied. She eventually found a teacher to fix the problem, but for a while, she says, she didn’t know where to turn.

“They don’t really say, ‘OK, you have this problem, you should talk to me. If you have another, you should talk to someone else,’” Kaitlyn says.

Even with these challenges, the Athens school board and superintendent say they want the new model to continue. And nationally, more and more schools are switching to teacher-led models, too. The latest count has more than 90 schools using the new approach.

In fact, Portland’s Reiche Elementary School went to its own teacher-led model five years ago, when teachers like Lori Bobinsky wanted to preserve the work of an old principal that helped to turn the school around.

“So that we could hold on to the values, all the work we had done,” she says. “Not have someone come in and change everything up, because we’d really worked hard as a staff together to get the school where it was.”

Kim Farris-Berg, a consultant who focuses on teacher-led schools, says this kind of educational change is often the driving force. Teachers want a model where they can shape the learning from within instead of getting mandates from above.

“It’s this whole thing that they’re trying to get out of and really try to tilt that, flip that, so the pressure is coming from the students and the teachers,” she says.

Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley says creating that pressure and leadership within a school is vital, particularly in an area like Portland, where schools are struggling to find qualified leaders from within.

“That opportunity then falls back on the classroom teachers, where they have a chance to take on committee chairs, or whatever, and to have their voices heard,” she says.

If the model works in Athens, it could have big implications for rural Maine, too, where more and more local schools are withdrawing from larger school districts.

Kilby-Chesley says many of those schools want as much local control as possible, and a teacher-led approach can make that happen.